‘A Single Man’s’ Progressive Reinvention of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’s’ Gay Male Self-Dissension
Christopher Isherwood’s unabashed portrayal of an openly gay male in his 1964 novel A Single Man contextualizes and pragmatically expresses what is incommunicable in Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway.
In “Writing the Unspeakable in A Single Man and Mrs. Dalloway,” Jamie Carr notes how Isherwood “forwards…a truth about [the] silencing of same-sex mourning,” (57) but a more significant aspect of his novel is how he repositions male homosexuality in a new and refreshing light by deliberately removing fear and doubt as symptomatic to the process of self-actualized awareness and acceptance.
Carr’s comparison of George and Septimus’s grief for a same-sex love interest sheds further light on the distinctions between Isherwood and Woolf’s respective portrayals of gay male literary representatives which contrasts George’s openly self-affirming sexuality with Septimus’s incomprehensible and destructive inability to understand and adequately identify with his.
Although there are some similarities between their respective portrayals of isolated “middle-aged character[s] reflecting on life and death, love and loss” (Carr 4), Isherwood’s novel remains distinct from its predecessor by taking readers on a day’s journey through the lens of a solitary openly gay male protagonist.
Because A Single Man maintains its focus on George throughout rather than jump from one consciousness to another, as Woolf does in Mrs. Dalloway, readers become intimately involved with this single character and his feelings. The continuous focus on George prompts readers to recognize how his “experience of loss” (Carr 50) and isolated sense of self “portrays an experience…that is common to all” (Carr 57).
In his piece “A Single Man, Then and Now,” David Garnes declares George’s relatable depiction “a real revelation,” (198) since he comes through as an “Everyman, a character whose closely observed life reflects the human condition,” (198). Indeed, Isherwood does not sensationalize or dramatize the fact that “George is gay” (Garnes 198) which prompts a new understanding toward “a desire that cannot be uttered by Septimus in 1920s England and can only publicly be named, ironically, as the ‘unspeakable’ by George in 1960s America” (Carr 50).
In the “modernist stream-of-consciousness narration, interior monologue, and free indirect discourse” (Carr 4) used to convey the innermost thoughts of his male protagonist, Isherwood does not employ Woolf’s “exclusionary tactics” (Carr 50) of silencing gay male self-awareness. In this respect, Isherwood explicitly voices what Virginia Woolf only subtly implies in Mrs. Dalloway about same-sex love between two males while initiating a new image and standard in the depiction of gay males in literature.
Isherwood’s “matter-of-fact, positive presentation of the main character’s homosexuality” (Garnes 196) allows readers to relate and identify with George while engaging in the performance of acceptance with their inattentiveness to the fact that he is indeed gay.
Since George’s sexuality is not a topic up for debate, Isherwood is able better able to articulate how societal divisions based on insignificant and immutable differences are arbitrary and misguided. By treating George’s current state of mind as a central topic, Isherwood draws attention away from his sexuality while advancing Woolf’s criticism against the dominant views which form an everlasting impression on the collective human unconscious.
In Woolf’s novel, Clarissa’s conscious thoughts that voice a welcoming acknowledgment of her same-sex desire exclusively connects gay self-awareness with the female sex. However, when Woolf describes Clarissa and Sally’s interactions in their younger days, it echoes the intimate closeness that Septimus and Evans, as well as George and Jim, share. So, while Clarissa can confess her homoerotic desires, Woolf’s traumatized soldier Septimus is not granted the privilege of being able to disclose what his affection toward Evans means.
Even though Clarissa’s admission only occurs in her thoughts and is never externally uttered, in Septimus’s moment of “the great revelation” (2385) when Evans speaks to him “from behind a screen” (Carr 55), his “utterances in the midst of his truth-telling” (Carr 55) cut off before the text can disclose what he has realized. Carr refers to “Woolf’s use of aposiopesis” (55) as performative of “his silencing” (55) in society for “he knows what it is he cannot speak” (55).
Therefore, Woolf appears to suggest that despite society’s unwillingness to acknowledge and accept homosexuality in post-World War I London, it is only possible for a woman to admit to having feelings for someone of the same sex, even if just to herself. Moreover, Woolf’s depiction renders the potentially gay male identity as a silent and unhinged presence.
In A Single Man, Isherwood takes Clarissa’s homoerotic self-awareness and the tumultuous dynamics of Septimus’s and Evans loving relationship and as a result institutes a positive model for male homoerotic self-awareness through the fragments which make up George and Jim’s domestic life. From the purchasing of a home together to their domestic disputes, to quiet time at the breakfast table, and talks about life and death, George and Jim’s private life becomes more substantial and tangible than any of the heterosexual couplings depicted in Woolf’s novel. George’s sexuality is thereby able to take a backseat and allow for the relationship between reader and protagonist to demonstrate the absurdities of homophobia.
Societal gendered expectations deem the “grief Septimus might feel over the loss of another man” (Carr 53) as unacceptable. As a result, these “proscriptions” (Carr 56) on acceptable grief insists on the complete and irrevocable repression of same-sex affection among males and the muting of anxious ambitions seeking to articulate a narrative that fits the gendered roles society demands.
The fear that arises from treading too carefully near the path which dominant society regards as reprehensible and the unresolved grief that it causes producing further grief seems to suggest that in Mrs. Dalloway sexuality is only tolerant to the self when it fits with the societal mold. Woolf’s depiction is therefore negative and problematic toward any effort to normalize self-awareness in gay male sexuality as an immutable reality devoid of shame.
Carr notes how both novels are “permeated by mourning” (Carr 50) and with both George and Septimus grieving the death of a same-sex relation they serve as proof of the possibility for positive progression by shifting from sexually repressed mania to sexually liberated rationality in the characterization of male homosexuality amidst an intolerant society.
Isherwood maintains the essentials laid forth by Woolf on the reconditioning of habitual bodily acts with similar scenarios which provide the answer to how a well-trained mind can overcome the sinking into madness when trying to identify one’s sexuality without the imaginary barriers constructed by the dominant society. Throughout Isherwood’s narrative, he creates miniature-sized episodic accounts that appear to simulate Septimus’s soldier-like impenetrability with descriptions of unconscious and automatic bodily acts.
However, by moving from a performance of biological necessity (such as waking up and expelling human waste) to self-consciously trained behavior (like reading particular books to stimulate a bowel movement and being able to drive without a conscious awareness), Isherwood emphasizes the mind’s powerful capacity to reinvent the rules and operate almost as if it had a will of its own.
Therefore, Isherwood’s portrayal of George treats his homosexuality as an impenetrable and self-evident reality that can withstand the diminished and problematic prejudices against gay male sexual self-awareness. However, the effects of an intolerant society have indeed left its mark in other ways, as George’s thoughts tend to revolve around the grief for his dead lover and “the attitudes of a society that oppresses homosexuals in midcentury America” (Carr 50).
However, rather than approach George’s sexuality with a veiled self-distrust that associates repressed masculine homoerotic emotion with madness, his experience of grief is only linked to his sexuality by the cause of his mourning, rather than part of its effect.
A Single Man explicitly voices Woolf’s unspoken “subtle exploration of same-sex mourning” (Carr 50) and builds upon her criticism on “the prohibition against publicly mourning the loss of a same-sex love object” (Carr 50) while showing that societal constraints don’t necessarily lead to madness, but to “anger and, ultimately, to empathy” (Carr 57). Isherwood’s “representation of grief in A Single Man advances an understanding that mourning a loved one is without end” (Carr 57) with how Jim permeates George’s thoughts in an unpredictable but anticipated pattern. George is not driven to hysteria as a result of any repressed emotions.
Instead, he is of sound mind but resentful of how society insists on the prohibition of intimate expression among gay males beyond the private domain. Society’s duplicitous bigotry elicits displaced anger within George, but these feelings then incite empathy as the isolated psyche involuntary seeks to align itself with an adequate kindred spirit. Hence, George’s defense of and presumed comradery with minorities — though, interestingly the minorities George claims allegiance with are not part of his intimate interactions.
Throughout A Single Man, Isherwood demonstrates George’s displacement of emotion caused by unresolved grief, and its transmutation into anger, and then, empathy. We can see this at work when upon first meeting George we learn that since Jim’s death he has been playing “with increasing violence” (18) the role of a “monster” (18) for the neighbor children. Though George “is ashamed of his roarings because they aren’t playacting,” (18) since “he does genuinely lose his temper” (18); there is also an admission of immediately feeling “humiliated and sick to his stomach” (19). He further refers to a time when he bought candy and offered it to the children as “his moment of weakness” (19).
It appears Isherwood has included this paradoxical sentiment to demonstrate another layer of displaced emotions since George appears to tell himself it is a “moment of weakness” (19) to shield himself from experiencing this affection since this thought process will undoubtedly lead back to what initially inspired the feelings — which only evokes grief. Since the children are indifferent to George, they do not care if he truly hates them or not; this is only a matter of concern for George. The dynamic between George and the children engages him in an experience that morphs his grief into anger but ultimately concludes in empathy as he acknowledges that he must give in to their will of playing the monster or face erasure and replacement.
Septimus’s fractured mind mimics the form and structure of Woolf’s novel, but Isherwood’s revolutionizes the effects of societal demands by paralleling George’s emotional state with the progression and regression of a city proudly broadcasting its complacency. George’s imagined death thus prompts the consideration that it was perhaps “an attempt to communicate” (Woolf 2432) that while it may not make much sense, there is an inextricable link between humanity and the occurrences of the external world. Isherwood’s emblematic episodes of dissolution illuminate the contradictory and unpredictable nature of the mind and humanity overall, and how it cannot help but be affected by the external environment.
Nevertheless, among the rubble, there remains a semblance of autonomy. The “defiance” (Woolf 2432) in George’s imagined death is the opposite of Septimus’s because what he repressed was not the acknowledgment of his sexual identity, but instead, it is the withholding of this fact among his acquaintances, colleagues, and students. If George does indeed die at the end of the novel, then he did “plung[e] holding his treasure” (Woolf 2432) because he did not allow his neighbors to rejoice in pity over Jim’s death.
Garner’s observation on the “lack of serious attention paid to the frank and affirming depiction of George’s sexuality” (200) can help explain why Woolf’s effort some thirty-odd years prior contains homoerotic themes that “are somewhat veiled or of peripheral importance” (201).
Nevertheless, Isherwood “successfully represent[s] a universal aspect of the human condition” (201) throughout his narrative by presenting George as someone with a relatively “healthy ego” (Garnes 200) and is therefore able to “give an emphatically positive face to the gay experience,” (Garnes 201) for the male sex. By adopting some of Woolf’s techniques while responding to and reinventing her representations, Isherwood demonstrates how each successive generation can rewrite the rules in both literature and life.
Carr, Jamie. “Writing the Unspeakable in A Single Man and Mrs. Dalloway.” The American Isherwood. Edited by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman, U of Wisconsin P, 2015, pp. 49–62.
Garnes, David. “A Single Man: Then and Now.” The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood. Edited by James J. Berg and Chris Freeman, U of Wisconsin P, 2000, pp. 196–202.
Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. 1964. First Bard Printing, 1978.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, vol. 2C, Pearson Education, 2010, pp. 2338–2437.