In this article, we will study Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a novel in which she presents characters in a “flux, rather than static and who react to their surroundings in ways that mirrored actual human experience” (Spark Note Editors). The novelist also presents some rapid political and social changes that marked the period between the two world wars and how the changes affected the English people who seem to have lost faith in their country.
The modern period is an age that is known for experimentation in both content and form in English literature. The English novel is no exception and novelists experimented with different techniques to convey their messages. In current action, the novel like in classical tragedy takes place in one day with flashbacks to supply information from past events.
Background of the Author
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is an outstanding English Novelist, critic, and essayist. She grew up in an upper-middle-class, socially active, literary family in Victorian London. Patriarchal, repressive Victorian society did not encourage women to attend universities consequently; she was educated at home and read voraciously, the books in her father’s rich library. She started publishing her first essays and reviews after her father’s death. She joined a group of young artists in the Bloomsbury group who met Thursday evenings to discuss intellectually and share their views about the world which influenced their creative output.
This group disregarded the constricting taboos of the Victorian era and went to the extent of discussing homosexuality which was a subject that shocked many of the group’s contemporaries. Woolf saw the group as having made up for the undergraduate education experience which her society had denied her. Virginia later married Leonard Woolf, a member of the Bloomsbury group and together they strengthened the group and later founded the Hogarth Press which published notable authors like T.S. Elliot.
Her mother’s death in 1895 affected Woolf’s life adversely as she suffered several bouts of mania and severe depression which lasted for the rest of her life before she drowned herself. She is best remembered by her contribution to the feminism in her book A Room of One’s Own (1929). She was a great woman who, “in spite of mental illness still found her true voice as a writer” (Stephen 2000, 310). Her other novels include The Voyage Out (1915), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves.
Mrs. Dalloway presents a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway. The events of the novel cover one day but the writer utilises the flashback technique to supply the activities from the past. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife prepares to host a party. The author takes the reader through her London neighbourhood. She returns from shopping and an old suitor and friend, Peter Walsh, arrives unexpectedly. Their meeting in the present is juxtaposed with their thoughts of the past. Peter wants to know if she is happy with her present husband but before she could answer, her daughter arrives. Peter leaves but it is clear that he is yet to come to terms with Clarissa’s refusal.
The novelist criticises the insensitivity and tactlessness of medical professionals. In Mrs. Dalloway, one of Woolf’s doctors suggested that plenty of rest and rich food would lead to a full recovery, a cure prescribed in the novel, and another removed several of her teeth.
The theme of disillusionment is overtly treated in the novel. Throughout the nineteenth century, the British Empire seemed impregnable but after World War I, the English people became vulnerable on their own land and there was loss of faith in their country. Citizens became less inclined to willingly adhere to the rigid constraints imposed by England’s class system which benefited a small percentage of the society.
The characters in Mrs. Dalloway like Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus, feel the failure of the empire as strongly as they feel their own personal failures. In the novel, the characters who champion the perpetuation of English tradition, like Aunt Helena and Lady Bruton, very old, and represent the old empire that faces an imminent demise since the people are disillusioned by it. Another important theme is oppression which is related to the theme of disillusionment.
The novelist seems to say that the British class system encourages oppression. She uses the characters to reflect this as some of the characters face oppression in one way or the other in the social system. Septimus dies in order to escape what he perceives to be an oppressive social pressure which he was unable to conformwith. Communication as a theme is also treated in the novel as characters like Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, Septimus, Peter, find it difficult to communicate. Clarissa’s party is part of an attempt to bring people together to enhance communication.
The novel is presented in the third person narrative technique which is also known as the omniscient narrator or the eye of God. This technique enables the author to tell the reader everything about the characters. In addition, she adopts the stream of consciousness technique in the novel which enables her lead the reader into the protagonist’s interior thoughts. With the stream of consciousness technique, the narrative structure is somehow fluid as “one character’s thoughts appear, intensify, then fade into another’s, much like waves that collect then fall”(Stephen 2000, 310).
Another feature of the narration is that narrator’s voice appears occasionally among the subjective thoughts of characters and the point of view changes constantly, often shifting from one character’s stream of consciousness (subjective interior thoughts) to another’s within a single paragraph. The effectiveness of this style is also enhanced by the novelist’s use of “free indirect discourse technique to describe the interior thoughts of characters using third-person singular pronouns (he and she)… this ensures that transitions between the thoughts of [many] characters are subtle and smooth”. The novel is divided into parts instead of the conventional chapters but the novel’s “structure highlights the finely interwoven texture of the characters’ thoughts” (Stephen 2000, 311). The novelist captures vivid details of commonplace tasks like shopping, throwing a party, and eating dinner and through that “transformed the novel as an art form” (Stephen 2000, 311) in Mrs. Dalloway.
The physical setting of novel is London, England with greater part of the event taking place in the affluent neighborhood of Westminster, where the Dalloways live. The time setting is a day in mid-June, 1923 with many flashbacks to Bourton in the early 1890s, when Clarissa was eighteen.
Clarissa Dalloway: Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist of the novel is class conscious and ephemeral. She is preoccupied with fashion, parties, and intermingling in high social circles. She oscillates between being an extrovert and an introvert. Though she is concerned with appearances, she still manages to keep to herself not sharing her feelings with anyone but tries to chat with people or other issues but keeps personal affairs to herself and as she moves through the glittering world she probes beneath those surfaces in search of deeper meaning. She yearns for privacy and in the process develops a tendency towards introspection that gives her a profound capacity for emotion, which many other characters lack. She battles constantly with thoughts of aging and death and also about the decisions she made in the past that has shaped her life. One of them is her decision to marry Richard instead of Peter Walsh. She knows that life with Peter would have been difficult, is also easily aware that she sacrificed passion for the security and tranquility which the upper-class life offers. She wishes that she could have an opportunity to live life all over again. However, by the end of the day she comes to terms with the possibility of death and feels the oppressive forces in life but moves along with her will to endure.