…Thus, we start to follow Clarissa Dalloway for a warm day of July as she walks through the streets of London, getting ready for one of her celebrated dinner parties. The city of London is almost presented as a character with large breadth and movement, hourly marked by the bell. It changes within the hours, so does its people. There are 12 spaces between various narrative sections therefore 12 hours; the reader lives through the day with Mrs Dalloway. She is the wife of Richard Dalloway, an MP who is kind and respectable, more of a country gentleman than a politician, has a “second-class brain”. Indeed, the title of the novel stands as a proof of her identity submerged and shaped by marriage. English literature is not foreign to the use of protagonist’s name as the title, most famously Jane Eyre, but the use of “Mrs” immediately communicates a vital theme of the book: life of a woman before and after marriage.
Virginia Woolf was born in 1882. Growing up in an upper-class family during the late Victorian England, spending her youth in the Edwardian era, going through the horrors of war and its drastic impacts on a conservative country nurtured the author as an experimental modernist who always experienced and kept up with change. She was a part of the Bloomsbury group, an adamant advocate of the Feminist Movement and a modernist. She married Leonard Woolf in 1912 and had a very happy marriage. She suffered from mental illness for decades until her death by suicide in 1941.
Virginia Woolf in 1902.
Woolf was not a Freudian but she was very familiar with Sigmund Freud’s work as she and her husband published translations of his books in the early 20s at their publishing company Hogarth Press. Through Mrs Dalloway’s fathomless personality, we see evidence of his influence; namely layered and complex personality composed of memories, dreams, fantasies and desires, mainly formed in early childhood.
A Day in Life of Mrs Dalloway
We explore the life of Mrs Dalloway in a single day, like Ulysses by James Joyce which also takes place on a July day (Woolf read the book shortly before writing Mrs Dalloway). As she travels back and forth in time, we witness her life choices, especially the ones she never made and the vague but not too acute regret she silently feels.
Virginia Woolf and the Stream of Consciousness
Woolf self-published most of her work which gave her an unparalleled freedom to experiment. The book is written in a style called “stream of consciousness” (which makes it not for everyone’s taste. However, if your own rhythm of thoughts match Woolf’s, Mrs Dalloway is a gemstone). This style aims to mimic the flow of human thought and is a bit like the dramatic device of soliloquy or the poetic dramatic monologue but with very little structure and a lack of deliberate coherence as the narrator jumps from a topic to another without an apparent reason or coming back to a seemingly insignificant one. The term “stream of consciousness” is often interchangeably used with “interior monologue” but most consider the former to be a genre and the latter as a technique widely used within the genre.
A reason why Woolf was a pioneer of this style was her reaction to the Edwardian literature (and the Victorian literature before that) which wrote about characters in material terms i.e. how much they make, where they live, who their parents are… in short, what their social status is. Woolf did not like this factual approach to human experience. She thought it shallow and superficial as well as materialistic. Her generation of authors (most notably Joyce, Hemingway, Kafka) aimed for consciousness, internal and psychological reality as oppose to the external. This led her to explore the flow of thoughts and experience of emotions of a woman on a normal, non-remarkable day without an extraordinary event or major disruption in the form of Mrs Dalloway. However, this approach should not be taken for realism; Woolf never aims to be logical or even coherent, rather close-to-real-life and natural.
Expanded Eye, “Stream of Consciousness”
The style is also popular amongst contemporary artists.
Woolf preferred this style because it allowed her to mirror the universal human experience of seeing but as importantly, to be seen. Woolf uses a limited third person narrator; as it is not omniscient, our view of Mrs Dalloway is literally and figuratively “limited” to a single person at a time. The narration moves from a character to the next; the reader jumps to the next coach of this train of thoughts. As Mrs Dalloway comes across individuals from her past, present and arguably future we see her through the eyes of her husband, daughter, ex love interests, friends (or both), relations, servants and mere strangers on the streets or the ones infinitely closer. This adds to the complexity of her character which is immune to any basic description. Like any of us, she treats people differently, changing according to their level of intimacy, emotional bond or the lack of it. Consequently, she means different things to different people. All these outsiders from different points of her life are correct in their perception of Clarissa Dalloway but are also equally mistaken when compared with someone else’s experience of her. And this difference of perspectives applies to us all: we have disparate, sometimes opposite meanings to people around us and that is quite natural.
Modernism in Mrs Dalloway
Woolf’s modernist identity is not only seen through the style of Mrs Dalloway but an emphasis on a changing world with technology and more importantly a post-war society that has a different understanding of life than the previous generations. The city of London is the medium that exhibits the technological changes; the book is filled with imagery of cars carrying well-off mysterious individuals (the queen, the Prince of Wales, the PM?), planes hover around in the sky advertising “toffees” and allusions to the newly-emerging cinemas. These technological advances deeply fascinated Woolf; she was especially overwhelmed by cinema’s power to represent the urban society. Cinema created a new sense of relationships between people and the city and Woolf realised early on its potential to do more: changing the relationships between the people meant changing the society as a whole; providing an opportunity for a society that demanded change more than ever before. She even adapted film techniques such as montage, close-ups and tracking shots into Mrs Dalloway.
A Society of “Proportion” and Septimus Smih
The Great War reshaped people’s view of the world, raising up questions on what was moral, important, valuable and possible. Literature is fundamentally an expression of human experience; it had to change too. This change is most clearly illustrated through the character of Septimus Smith as he suffers from PTSD in its most destructive form. He is psychologically destroyed by his experience in the Western Front; in a time when “shell shock” was thought to be a physical phenomenon, literally caused by being too close to an exploding shell. Doctors and people alike thought it to only affect the weakest of men, ones that are “too fragile to be a man” among them. The repression of fear, horror and a constant moral dilemma as well as a lack of communication and expression of these feelings that continued after the war caused many men to be haunted by their experience for many years that followed 1918.
The root to these problems were the conflict with men’s training of masculinity, bravery and suppression of “unmanly” emotions against the brutal reality of war. Septimus is successful at fulfilling these expectations; he shows real courage and absolutely no emotion during the war, most notably when Evans (his superior with whom he has a close relationship with) is torn into pieces in front of his eyes. However, it is the aftermath of the war, the constant remembrance of its destruction, that causes him to go mad. He becomes psychotic, suffers from hallucinations and images of war, talks to his fallen comrades. This (to a certain extent) reflects Woolf’s own experience of madness who also suffered from hallucinations. For Septimus, the veil that separates the past from the present loses its opacity until it finally becomes transparent. Then, he commits suicide.
The interwar society was changing but it was still a society of “proportion”, a term used by one of Septimus’s doctors to refer to the social order, the generally accepted behaviour, morality and, of course, repression of emotions and actions that defy these norms. Septimus tears apart all these expectations, symbolising what was happening to the society at the time. His death is tragic but it is also a sign of positive change, a move towards a future that is more open emotionally, more tolerant socially… a society out of the traditional sense of “proportion”.
As I quoted above, the story starts with Mrs Dalloway going to buy some flowers from a florist. Flowers had always been a symbol for women in literature, and Woolf turns the reader’s eyes towards the diversity of them. Woolf names 24 of kinds of flowers; all beautiful and different. One imagery specifically stands out: the roses coming into bloom. They symbolise Elizabeth: Clarissa’s beautiful, 17-year-old but somewhat passive daughter, at the prime of her life. Their relationship is not an affectionate or close one, indeed, Elizabeth even tries to fill this gap with other maternal figures, namely her religious history teacher Miss Kilman (whom Clarissa inevitably hates).
Elizabeth lacks her mother’s attractive energy and even though shows more social awareness than her mother, she does not share her deep and meandering thoughts, often focusing on the meaning of life and weather the possibility of happiness is truly achievable. Clarissa has contrasting attributes; she takes pleasure from life but also sees death as an “embrace” (as in her reaction to Septimus Smith’s suicide). She takes death as something completely new and somewhat unsettling in its reality at her finely-crafted party. Moreover, she wants to keep her privacy intact even from those who are closest to her but also has a great need for communication, best demonstrated in her lavish and crowded parties. Even her husband does not see the need for these parties whereas Peter Walsh openly criticises them.
Old Friends New
Peter Walsh and Sally Seton are Clarissa’s friends with whom she spent the summer she accepted Richard’s proposal. She always goes back to that summer, questions her choice of marrying the sensible but non-remarkable Richard instead of Peter who is passionate, adventurous and impulsive. She does not regret the choice she made but also cannot help imagining what her life would be like with Peter. He is the embodiment of her youth, or at least what is still left of it, as she faces the experience of growing old. Though he is highly critical of others and is often conflicted with himself, Peter is a romantic who is easily overcome with emotion. He still falls in and out of love, much to the amazement of Clarissa, does not have children or any family he has to care for. He is free. But at what cost?
Sally, on the other hand, amazes Clarissa in a different way: she grows up, she grows old. The wild Sally who used to mock boys and smoke cigars, who used to say anything without ever considering consequences. She marries a nobleman, becomes Lady Rosseter and lives in Manchester with her five sons with whom she is deeply proud of. They hardly ever see each other for decades, despite their former intimacy. Clarissa hardly recognises Sally who comes uninvited just to see her before going to Eton to visit one of her sons. She and Peter sit down near the windowsill waiting for Clarissa to approach them, talking about her and the past.
Her party is a procession of life, a congregation of people different classes and from different stages of her life. Some are her close or distant family like her husband, daughter, her Aunt Helena and poor old-maid cousin Ellie Henderson; others old friends like Peter and Sally; the rest are London acquaintances: politicians (even the Prime Minister!), doctors, poets… They all come to her party to eat, drink, talk and share. They meet and their lives interlock for a few hours regardless of their differences. Some of these people are prisoners of “proportion”; others are more free from the necessities of being socially accepted, with a greater sense of independence. But, in essence, they form a single community… as well as being small or great pieces of Mrs Dalloway’s life.