The Idea Of Masculinity In The Unknown Citizen And Mrs. Dalloway

Throughout the ages of literature, a concept that has always been under constant scrutiny is masculinity. Countless novels explore the emphasis stressed on the strong presence of masculinity, or the lack thereof. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a modernist novel, and W. H. Auden’s The Unknown Citizen, a post-modernist poem, masculinity is toyed with from the internal aspect as well as the external. Woolf, through the character Septimus and the war, explores the idea that masculinity isn’t as straightforward as it had been presented in the past: while W. H. Auden does a similar thing through highlighting the obedience to social norms followed by the “unknown citizen”. Both works showcase masculinity as far more complex and fluid than being a headstrong provider for their family, which arguably set the stage for the change in masculinity in literature today.

When Septimius is in the prime of his youth, he’s volunteers to join the army. But it’s not long after he returns when people are starting to notice a very real psychological malady within him. The most powerful line the reader receives from his wife, Lucrezia, is that Septimus would “talk to himself, talk to a dead man”, alongside the notion that “Septimus had fought; he was brave; he was not Septimus now”. While war most certainly takes a psychological toll on a person, it’s important to also note that the concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder didn’t exist in this time period. Therefore, this unexplainable shift in the way that Septimus functions and behaves is referred to as “shell shock”, a less complex diagnosis for soldiers who returned home a bit “off their rocker”. Because of this, soldiers were often labeled as showing signs of femininity, making them less of a man and stripped of the masculinity they once possessed; i.e., the emphasis of Septimus making hats with Lucrezia. For him, masculinity is referred to as a lack thereof: memories of the war have completely taken over him and as a result, he can’t move on with his life. One of the main parts of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway that toys with the concept of masculinity the most is the controversy surrounding Septimus’s mental wellbeing. It’s important to note that the era of the modernists was around World War I, when everything was depressing and desolate. The reaction that surrounds Septimus’s suicide is that of shame, as if suicide was unheard of as it pertains to men. Septimus, through his more raw and emotional state, is used as an obvious assimilation of divergent masculinity into popular culture.

Even though Woolf mentions that Septimus tried to detach himself and heal from the death of a friend during the war, it’s shown throughout a good portion of the novel that he failed to successfully do so. As anyone post-war would be, Septimus is constantly finding himself victim to visions of said friend, which eventually causes his mental instability to reach an entire new high. During one of Septimus’s visions about his deceased friend, Evans, the reader is told about how “the branches parted. A man in grey was actually walking towards them. It was Evans! But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed. I must tell the whole world, Septimus cried, raising his hand (as the dead man in the grey suit came nearer)”. Upon believing his dead friend looking alive and well, Septimus is overjoyed and overcome with the need to tell everyone the wonderful news that his friend lives however, reality quickly comes crashing down on him when Lucrezia tells him that he’s seeing things. Through this change from a more “neurotypical” brain to one that has suffered immense damage from the war, Woolf is reshaping the idea of manhood and manliness through Septimus’s now uncontrollable emotions. To add even more salt to the wound, Woolf gets her point across through Lucrezia’s response to her husband’s “insanity”, posing it as a metaphor for the wide majority of England’s reaction to individuals who had come home from the war both physically and emotionally wounded. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Britain elected to skate past the war’s events and ignored those who dwelled in it. The loss of faith in their country is juxtaposed with Lucrezia’s lack of faith in her husband, therefore toying with the structure of manhood once again. Aside from the more obvious controversy that encircles his eventual suicide, there are subtle hints of the concept of fragile masculinity throughout the novel. Woolf shows through Septimus the change in overall character that occurred within people as a result of the war, choosing to make masculinity the focus because the reality of the times was that masculinity was starting to vary in definition. Woolf also goes on to highlight the obscenity of society and the general public brushing off the very real effect that the war had. In regard to Septimus and his backstory, Mrs. Dalloway mentions that, “Really it was a miracle thinking of the War, and thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shoveled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle” (Woolf, 1115). In this context, Woolf is using the presumed “weakness” of returning soldiers to invite commentary on why men are frame to be so strong all the time in the first place. Society is so eager to forget the war and return to the definition of man that they’re so used to, that they’re willing to completely disregard a clear cry for help. Woolf describing this readiness to move on as baffling truly brings into perspective the horrifying nature of what it meant to be a man, specifically a solider, during this time period. On the flip side, Woolf’s words critique society by pointing out that the young soldiers how had their entire lives ahead of them after returning from the war had been completely forgotten by the general population of Great Britain: they were seen as broken, less than, and even “shells of men” rather than brave and in need of help. Because most of Great Britain framed this buoyancy and ability to bounce back as a good thing, it in turn neglected the people who were personally affected by the war whether they lost someone or they themselves were physically or emotionally altered. Instead of being nurtured by the public and receiving proper care, they were cast aside and shunned, which is a problem in and of itself as it pertains to how people treat men, the gender that’s supposed to fend for themselves and have unhuman-like resiliency.

Unlike the modernist era’s knack for the overloading of emotions to a confusing extent, the post-modernist era was all about the external. It was almost as if deflecting from the internal was used as a way to show how society was neglecting the innerworkings of its citizens. While it’s made known from the start that there’s no identity attached to this individual, the entire poem contains descriptions of his life in a rather dissatisfactory manner. It’s noted that “For in/ everything he did he served the Greater Community./ Except for the War till the day he retired / He worked in a factory and never got fired, / But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc. / Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views, / For his Union reports that he paid his dues…”. This part of the poem is used to build up the unknown citizen’s character in a way that most people would frown upon. As an individualistic society, people are used to being all about oneself and pretending that it’s unacceptable to behave as such; however, in this time period especially, men weren’t allowed to be selfish. A man’s duty was outline in the way he got things done, cared for his family, and carried out various responsibilities: this is why the unknown soldier’s time on Earth is entirely characterized by the external and what obligations he fulfilled. The poem goes on to put even more emphasis on his external abilities, portraying everything about the unknown citizen in a wildly materialistic light. A conscious effort is made to mention nothing about his relationships or connections or of personality as Auden moves on to talk about the “Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured, / And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured. / Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare… And had everything necessary to the Modern Man, / A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.” Again, Auden is characterizing a human being by the things he did and owned, something that men in this era were reduced to. Instead of exploring the very real emotional aspects of his life, his interests and routines outside of work, this unknown citizen is just the basic outline of what it means to be a man. The final two lines of the poem are the most haunting of all “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” Ending the poem on this line was most certainly done on purpose, leaving the reader to think about what happiness really means, or meant in the appropriate time period. The word choice of “had anything been wrong” referring to the external, maybe not fulling responsibilities in his home or workplace, shows a complete disregard for him as a human being.

The essence of masculinity varies wildly from pre-modernism to after post-modernism. These works were used to shape the modern concept of fluidity when it comes to social constructs, masculinity being one of the hotspots. Or, at the very least, point of the wrongdoings of society through turning a blind eye to the complexity of human — namely male — emotional psyche. Through Woolf’s overload of emotions and explore a more complicated version of man than people were used to seeing and accepting, alongside Auden’s monotonous external profiling of a man with no apparent name, it’s clear that the principle of masculinity has been bent between the modernist and post-modernist eras.

Works Cited

  • Woolf, Virginia. “Mrs. Dalloway”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors, Vol. 2, 9th ed. edited by Stephen Greenblat, 2013, pp.1109-1217,
  • Auden, W. H.. “The Unknown Citizen”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors, Vol. 2, 9th ed. edited by Stephen Greenblat, 2013, pp.2431-2432
16 August 2021
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