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How do the lives of a London socialite, a World War I veteran, someone’s long-lost lover, and a self-important psychiatrist intersect? At a dinner party, of course. Delving far deeper into the characters' consciousness than she does the plot, Virginia Woolf weaves a story about disillusionment, isolation, and authenticity in her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway.
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) demonstrates her mastery of the stream of consciousness narration approach in her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. The novel tells the story of one day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway, a London socialite, as she prepares for a dinner party she is throwing that evening.
The setting of the story is 1923, five years after the official end of World War I. The central focus of the novel is not the plot; rather, it's the characters' thoughts that create the story as they ruminate and reflect on the world around them and sometimes connect with one another. Mrs. Dalloway chronicles the characters' thoughts, one flowing freely to the next.
Sometimes one character's thoughts intersect with another and they can communicate, but most of the time the character is left isolated from the outside world as they work through their own internal dialogue. Woolf wanted to present dynamic characters in a state of flux instead of static characters to represent how complex and nonlinear postwar life was.
Stream of consciousness: a narrative mode that tries to replicate a character’s thoughts and feelings as they happen in their brain without organizing or filtering them.
Can you think of any other authors or poets who wrote poetry either about or directly following any major wars? How does their work compare to the ideas presented in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway?
Born to an affluent family in London and raised on a steady diet of literature and art, Woolf was deeply perplexed by the traditional Victorian novel's tendency towards neat, linear plot lines. Life, she argued, is complicated and messy, and literature should reflect that accurately to be a more adequate form of expression.
Woolf's opinions only grew stronger after World War I when she watched as England sent young boys off to fight in brutal warfare, women stepped into the workforce to take men's places, and the entire social climate in England changed. Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway as an attempt to depict the violent clash between postwar trauma and prewar lifestyles in the British social climate.
Britain itself was in a state of flux when Woolf was writing Mrs. Dalloway, as reflected in the dynamic characters in the novel. Young men had experienced unspeakable horrors in the war. The British empire was in decline as countries that were once colonized were gaining their freedom and breaking away from British control. Women were demanding equal rights as they had taken over much of the workforce during the war. Politics were changing as the Labour Party challenged the Conservative Party for economic reform.
As we already mentioned, the novel tells the story of a day in the life of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, a London socialite and politician's wife, who is getting ready for one of her many dinner parties. She goes about London getting supplies for the party but constantly reflects on the state of her life, dipping in and out between the present moment and the past.
She thinks about her status as a politician's wife and regrets that she doesn't have any identity of her own. She also thinks about her old romantic flame, Peter Walsh, who she refused to marry because she wanted a life filled with dinner parties and important people. She wonders if she actually achieved any of her dreams and how she would live life if she could do it over.
The story then flashes over to Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of World War I, who suffers from shell shock and PTSD. He is sitting with his wife in Regent’s Park and thinks about his dead friend Evans, who was killed fighting in the war. Septimus fears that the world might burst into flames. His wife is frightened and embarrassed by him, especially since his doctor said there was nothing wrong with him. They get ready to see his new psychiatrist.
At home, Clarissa Dalloway continues thinking about her own mortality as she gets things ready for the party. She thinks of her wild, rebellious childhood friend Sally Seton, to who she was attracted. The two once kissed and planned to change the world together, but now Sally is married with children.
Peter Walsh unexpectedly visits Clarissa. She feels frivolous around him and he says he must seem like a failure to her. He asks her if she is happy and before she can answer her daughter enters. As he leaves, she tells him to remember her party.
Peter walks to the park and tries to convince himself that he doesn't love Clarissa and that he is happy with his life. He sees Septimus and his wife in the park and thinks they're in a lover's quarrel.
The narration then switches over to the couple. They go to see the psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, who says Septimus needs bed rest. He resolves to send Septimus out to the country, away from his wife, where he can recover alone. When Septimus attempts to argue, Sir William tells him he needs to stop thinking of himself.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dalloway has lunch with Lady Bruton and Hugh Whitbread. She says that Peter Walsh is in town and Richard Dalloway decides to go tell his wife he loves her. Mr. Dalloway runs home to tell her, but when he sees her he can't get the words out. Mrs. Dalloway is both comforted and sad that there is such a gulf between her and her husband because it gives her space and freedom but isolates them from one another.
After returning home from his appointment with the doctor, Septimus examines his life. When the men come to take him away for his treatment, he jumps out the window and kills himself.
At her party, Mrs. Dalloway wonders how many of her friends are actually happy with their lives. When she hears word of Septimus' suicide, she steps away to reflect. She admires him for choosing death over compromising his happiness, integrity, and soul. At the same time, she feels partly responsible for his death since she carries on with life as usual while he is forced to contend with the horrors of war. She returns to the party.
Let’s explore the characters of the novel in more detail.
Mrs. Dalloway is the main character in the novel. She is deeply reflective about the state of her life and its meaning as she prepares for a dinner party. She thinks that she regrets many of the decisions she made when she was young, marrying for prestige instead of love and living her life for other people instead of for herself.
She hosts elaborate dinner parties but feels frivolous for doing so when others have to constantly live with the direct horrors of war. She is disillusioned by the glamor of life as a London aristocrat and feels she has wasted her life.
Septimus is a World War I veteran who suffers from shell shock and PTSD. He joined the war with a youthful sense of patriotism, but his optimism was stripped away by the atrocities of the war. He constantly sees his dead friend Evans and thinks that the world is going to end. His doctors say he's fine and will not listen to him.
He views human nature as evil and thinks that he himself is guilty as he can no longer feel things. He kills himself so he doesn't have to succumb to being part of the English society he hates.
Peter Walsh is deeply in love with Clarissa but tries to convince himself that he is not. He proposed to her when they were young, and after her rejection, he fled to India. Peter struggles to hold a job and considers himself a failure. He is critical of others, especially Clarissa.
One of Clarissa's closest friends and biggest influences when they were younger, Sally Seton was a wild young lady who smoked cigarettes and argued politics with her male friends. Sally and Clarissa once kissed, but now Sally is a housewife.
Richard Dalloway is Clarissa's kind but dull husband. Clarissa wonders if she should have married Peter over him. The Dalloways are not sexually intimate and have a hard time talking to each other.
Lucrezia is Septimus' Italian-born wife. She used to make a living making hats with her sisters until she met Septimus. She doesn't understand his mental issues and wonders if she made a mistake marrying him.
Septimus's new psychiatrist and one of Mrs. Dalloway's party guests, Sir William Bradshaw is described as a vampire who sucks away at his victims' sense of self. He tells Septimus that all he needs is bed rest and to stop thinking of himself to cure his PTSD.
Mrs. Dalloway is set in post-World War I London. The setting depicts how the trauma of the war was ongoing, deeply impacting the lives of all the characters in different ways, five years after the end of the war. We can see the biggest, clearest effect in Septimus. Before the war, he was young and optimistic with dreams of becoming a poet and honorably serving his country. Those dreams died in the war, where he saw several of his friends, specifically Evans, die gruesome, painful deaths.
When Septimus returns home, he is a shell of his previous vibrant self. He sees things that aren't there, blames himself for everything happening in the world around him, and thinks the world is going to end at any moment. He is completely disillusioned with the British empire and comes to hate society: he can see how everyone continues with their mundane everyday lives as he struggles through the trauma of his past. Septimus ultimately commits suicide because he cannot assimilate back into modern society, refusing to lose his sense of self and freedom.
The war also presents itself in other ways. For example, when a plane goes overhead advertising toffee, Londoners are reminded of the air raids that the Germans launched for the first time using the new technology of the airplane. The citizens are on edge until they realize that the plane isn't a threat to them, it's just a reminder of everyday capitalism.
The crowd of Londoners is similarly on edge when they hear a car backfiring. At first, they think it's the sound of a pistol, but their apprehension turns into patriotism when they realize it's a car carrying a member of the royal family.
The trauma of war lives on both in the collective subconscious and in the subconscious of the everyday citizens who were not directly on the battlefield, but it is a real threat that continually haunts those who witnessed it firsthand, like Septimus. The setting of Mrs. Dalloway enabled Woolf to capture her own response to the war as well as provide a conflict that lingers in the characters' minds and proves to be just as violent as an external threat.
The most important themes in Mrs. Dalloway are the disillusionment with contemporary society; the complexities of communication and the feeling of isolation that comes from not being able to communicate with others; oppression, and the fear of death. Let’s explore them now.
One of the biggest themes throughout the novel is Clarissa and Septimus' disillusionment with British society. Both of them had big dreams when they were young, but for different reasons, they have become jaded in the lives they live.
Clarissa puts on elaborate dinner parties, keeps servants, and maintains an aristocratic lifestyle, but she doesn't feel challenged or fulfilled by this life. Being the person society has pushed her to become ultimately leads her to feel like she has wasted her life. Clarissa is the picture of an upper-class housewife, but she constantly misses her childhood with Sally Seton and Peter Walsh. She looks back on her past and regrets her "perfect" life, being who society wants her to be.
Septimus' disillusionment with British society and life is even more extreme, as he reflects,
It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning (pg. 99).
He resents British society for pushing him to fight in a war where he was awarded neither prestige nor glory. All of the patriotism that the military invoked to get young men to join the fight was only successful in getting soldiers enchanted with the idea of Britain and being murdered in the name of king and country. Septimus doesn't understand the trivial things that everyone else cares so much about, and he can't make anyone else understand how his time on the battlefield haunts him.
The stream of consciousness narrative technique depicts how characters communicate with each other. It also allows Woolf to show all of the ways they are isolated in their minds. There is more left unsaid in the novel than what the characters actually say to one another. The only time characters can begin to understand one another is through communication, yet their lack of expression leads to feelings of isolation.
Clarissa, for example, feels distant from her husband and everyone else in her "perfect" high society life. Even when she has doubts about her marriage and the state of her life, she is unable to communicate them to others so she keeps them to herself. Her lack of communication leads to her falsely making judgments about other people, for example, believing that Lady Bruton doesn't like her because she can't see into other people's heads.
Clarissa is isolated from everyone else's innermost thoughts and they are isolated from hers. She can't even articulate to herself whether she is happy or not because she doesn't know how to feel outside of her isolation. She revels in sleeping in a separate bed from her husband, saying she wants her freedom, but in reality, she isolates herself as a protective measure against communicating. Mr. Dalloway similarly struggles to tell his wife that he loves her, reflecting,
It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels (pg. 129).
This is a sentiment everyone in the novel seems to feel as they go about their own lives. Septimus feels perhaps the most isolated as his mental disorder prohibits him from communicating with others. His wife begins to fear him because she can't even begin to understand his mental state. When he tries to tell the psychiatrist that he doesn't want to be put on bed rest and that he feels like he's losing control of reality, he is unable to get the words out. At one point all he can say is "I." Sir William Bradshaw is unable to understand Septimus either and mistakes his fear for defiance. He tells Septimus he needs to stop thinking of himself, only making Septimus mistrust him more.
Going hand in hand with the theme of disillusionment is the theme of oppression. British society has let Septimus and Clarissa down with its false promises. Instead, they both experience the oppression of their social status. For Septimus, it's being a soldier. For Clarissa, it's being a housewife.
Because she is a woman, Clarissa depends entirely on her husband. She married a man with status and money because she can't provide for herself and that’s what women of her status are supposed to do. British society in the early twentieth century oppressed women by keeping them firmly in domestic spheres. Clarissa always wanted more out of life, but she knew the most she could achieve was being the wife of a famous politician. She envies Septimus' freedom in death. The novel reflects:
She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble (pg. 207).
For Septimus, oppression came in the guise of societal expectations. His wife and doctors acted as if there was something wrong with him because he was unable to reassimilate into everyday life. Instead of acknowledging the trauma that altered him completely and helping him through it, they demanded he simply flip a switch and put it all behind him.
Septimus committed suicide to avoid the oppressive social attitudes that told him that his existence as a traumatized soldier had no place in British society. This resonates with Clarissa because she feels trapped in her place in society as well. Unlike Septimus, she has learned to live with the oppression, and so "she must go back" and be the politician's perfect housewife once more.
Throughout the novel, we see that Clarissa Dalloway is afraid of death. She is 52 years old and has lived through a major war. Her childhood years are long gone and the only thing she has left is the life she was conditioned to want as a child. She thinks about death often and wonders if anyone will remember her when she is gone.
She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day (pg. 10).
Clarissa's reflections of her youth consume as much of the story as the actual plot does. She is afraid to die because she was always afraid to live. Her life was never her own: it was dictated by society's expectations of her. Now, looking back on her life and forward to her death, Clarissa Dalloway is worried that her life has been pointless and her death will be as well.
The homosexual attraction between Mrs. Dalloway and her childhood friend Sally Seton caused Mrs. Dalloway to be banned.
Mrs. Dalloway is about a day in the life of London socialite Mrs. Dalloway and how her internal thoughts about life, oppression, and authenticity intersect with the characters around her.
Mrs. Dalloway is set five years after the end of World War I. It is London, 1923, and the city is still dealing with the trauma of the war.
Mrs. Dalloway essentially states that living life how others want you to will only led you to feeling oppressed and unfulfilled in your own life. Mrs. Dalloway regrets that she married for prestige instead of love, and Septimus regrets that he joined the war with false notions of glory and patriotism.
English author Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway. It is her fifth novel.
Who wrote Mrs. Dalloway?
Mrs. Dalloway was written by English writer Virginia Woolf and published in 1925.
What is Mrs. Dalloway about?
Mrs. Dalloway is about a day in the life of London socialite Clarissa Dalloway. It essentially depicts all of her intimate thoughts as she goes about her day getting ready for her dinner party. She reflects on her life's choices and on death. The story also shifts perspectives to other characters, notably Septimus a WWI veteran.
What is the setting of Mrs. Dalloway?
It is set in London in 1923. The setting is important because it depicts the after effects of World War I, 5 years after it ended.
What effect did WWI have on the characters?
The biggest effect can be seen on Septimus, a veteran who suffers from shell shock and PTSD. All of the characters are more apprehensive though, which can be seen in them getting nervous about a car backfiring (sounding like a pistol) and a plane in the sky (reminding them of air raids)
What is Clarissa Dalloway's biggest conflict?
Clarissa feels isolated from other people and unfulfilled in her life. She misses who she was when she was young and wonders if she made the right choices in becoming a politician's wife. She worries about death and feels trapped and unknown.
What is Septimus's biggest conflict?
Society expects him to be the person he was before he went to war and views who is now as broken and unnatural. He is unable to communicate with his wife or doctors. He is disillusioned by British society, sees his dead friend, and talks of suicide.
What does Clarissa constantly think about?
She wonders if she made the right choice refusing Peter and marrying Robert just because of his status. She feels isolated in her current life and worries she lived her life wrong.
What happens at the end of Mrs. Dalloway?
Septimus commits suicide instead of letting the doctors take away his freedom. Clarissa hears the news and respects him but also feels she was somewhat responsible for his death.
What are the themes in Mrs. Dalloway?
Disillusionment, oppression, communication vs. isolation, death
What is important about the narration style in Mrs. Dalloway?
Woolf uses a stream of consciousness technique where readers are told the story through the characters' thoughts, perceptions, and reactions.
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