Mrs. Dalloway

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Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, was a bestseller both in Britain and the United States despite its departure from typical novelistic style. Mrs. Dalloway and Woolf's subsequent book, To the Lighthouse, have generated the most critical attention and are the most widely studied of Woolf's novels.

The action of Mrs. Dalloway takes place during a single day in June 1923 in London, England. This unusual organizational strategy creates a special problem for the novelist: how to craft characters deep enough to be realistic while treating only one day in their lives. Woolf solved this problem with what she called a "tunneling" technique, referring to the way her characters remember their pasts. In experiencing these characters' recollections, readers derive for themselves a sense of background and history to characters that, otherwise, a narrator would have had to provide.

In a sense, Mrs. Dalloway is a novel without a plot. Instead of creating major situations between characters to push the story forward, Woolf moved her narrative by following the passing hours of a day. The book is composed of movements from one character to another, or of movements from the internal thoughts of one character to the internal thoughts of another.

Mrs. Dalloway has been called a flâneur novel, which means it depicts people walking about a city. (Flâneur is the French word for a person who enjoys walking around a city often with no other purpose than to see the sights.) The book, as is typi-cal of the flâneur novel, makes the city, its parks, and its streets as interesting as the characters who inhabit them.

Clarissa Dalloway's party, which is the culminating event of the book, ties the narrative together by gathering the group of friends Clarissa thinks about throughout her day. It also concludes the secondary story of the book, the story of Septimus Warren Smith, by having Dr. Bradshaw arrive at the party and mention that one of his patients committed suicide that day.

The book's major competing themes are isolation and community, or the possibilities and limits of communicativeness, as evidenced by Clarissa's abiding sense of being alone and by her social skills, which bring people together at her parties.

Author Biography

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 in London, England. She was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, an eminent man of letters, and Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth. The Stephen-Duckworth household had many children and was financially secure. Woolf had free rein of her father's extensive library, and was able to educate herself thoroughly.

Woolf was brought up in a scholarly and creative environment. Following her father's death in 1904, Woolf and three of her siblings moved to a house in Bloomsbury (a neighborhood of London) where they cultivated a similar atmosphere. Woolf began writing and publishing at this time, mostly literary criticism, and not yet fiction. In 1907, when her sister Vanessa (a painter) married art critic Clive Bell, Woolf and a brother moved to another house. The writers, intellectuals, and artists who met at this house played central and pivotal roles in British early twentieth-century intellectual and cultural history. They were known as the Bloomsbury group, and they espoused a number of common views; for example, most were pacifists. To Woolf, questions of gender, gender difference, and sexuality became extremely important. She was interested in the commonalties of men and women as well as their differences, and she argued that artists had androgynous minds.

Woolf began publishing fiction in 1915, and it was with her third novel (Jacob's Room, 1922) that she began to show maturity as a writer. Mrs. Dalloway, her fourth novel, is evidence of the consol-idation of a major and rare fictional talent. Woolf went on to publish more novels, and these, together with her extensive non-fiction publications, amount to one of the most distinguished bodies of literature in the English language.

Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) married Leonard Woolf, a politician and writer, in 1912. Despite the success of her marriage and publishing career, she suffered bouts of mental disequilibrium throughout her life, periods of madness or nearmadness that terrified her. After each recovery she was haunted by the thought that the next time she might not return to sanity. This fear, along with the depressing events of WWII, finally proved too much for her to bear. Convinced that Hitler's forces would prevail, and mired in a period of depression, Woolf committed suicide by drowning in Lewes, Sussex, England on March 28, 1941.

Plot Summary

Section 1

Mrs. Dalloway begins with a sentence that is also its first paragraph: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." The second para-graph mentions that "doors would be taken off their hinges," so it is possible to determine that there will be an event at Mrs. Dalloway's house that day, and that Clarissa is going out to buy flowers for the affair.

Setting out for her purchases reminds Clarissa of how she used to "burst open the French doors" at Bourton, the country house of her youth. She also remembers, in connection with Bourton, a close friend of her youth, Peter Walsh. On the way to the flower shop, Clarissa runs into another old friend, Hugh Whitbread. Section 1 ends when, from within the flower shop, Clarissa hears the loud sound of a car backfiring.

Section 2

The sound of the car backfiring facilitates a shift in which character's point of view dominates the narrative. Septimus Warren Smith, a major character, is introduced in this way. Septimus and his wife, Lucrezia, are walking along the street where the flower shop and back-firing car are located, on their way to Regent's Park. Septimus is mentally disturbed, a young man who has come back from the First World War (WWI) suffering from shell shock. The public sounds of the car backfiring and an "aeroplane" roaring overhead allowed Woolf to register, besides the points of view of Septimus and Lucrezia, the points of view of a number of passersby who are not major characters in the book.

Section 3

Clarissa arrives home, having ordered the flowers. She finds that her husband has been invited to lunch at Lady Bruton's. She decides to mend the dress that she will be wearing that evening at her party. Once again, she thinks about various people, things, and her past, and so the novel builds a sense of her character and what issues are pertinent to her. One significant person she thinks about is Sally Seton, a close friend of her youth, with whom she had been in love.

Peter Walsh drops by unexpectedly; Clarissa is not aware that he has returned to London from India. With this visit, the past enters the present forcibly, as the man who preoccupied Clarissa's thoughts that morning appears in person. She invites him to her party.

Section 4

Section 4 follows Peter Walsh on an amble about town after he leaves Clarissa's house. He also thinks about their past, how he loved Clarissa, and how he found fault with her. He thinks about her party that evening and her parties in general. He ends up in Regent's Park (where the book left Septimus and Lucrezia), where he falls into a slumber on a bench.

Section 5

This section is very brief and appears to record Peter's sleeping dream in which a figure referred to as the "solitary traveller" is the principal protagonist.

Section 6

Peter awakes and ruminates over Clarissa, Bourton, Sally Seton and Richard Dalloway: how he loved Clarissa, had been jealous of Richard, had been close to Sally, and had criticized Clarissa.

Section 7

Section 7 is the lengthiest of the eight sections of the U.S. edition of the novel (the first published British edition had twelve sections). The location of Regent's Park, where Peter has been snoozing, and where Septimus and his wife have been sitting on a bench, facilitates a shift from Peter Walsh back to the troubled young couple. They are waiting for their noon appointment with Dr. Bradshaw. Much of this section is Septimus' point of view, and so the reader gets a glimpse into the workings of his distressed and strained mind. Lucrezia agonizes about her husband's condition and how people must see that all is not well with them.

Moving back to Peter, the reader finds that he is still musing about the past, how Clarissa is a snob who loves high society, and how her snobbery and love of comfort led her to choose Richard Dalloway over himself for a husband.

As Peter leaves the park, he walks by an old vagrant woman singing a song; Septimus and Lucrezia pass the same woman at the same time, and so the narrative shifts to the couple again. At this point, Septimus's history is presented: how he came to London showing great promise, but returned from the war traumatized. From Lucrezia's thoughts, the reader learns that Septimus has threatened to kill himself.

At noon, Big Ben strikes. Clarissa hears it at home while she is mending her dress, and Septimus and his wife arrive for their appointment at the establishment of Sir William Bradshaw. Bradshaw promises to arrange for Septimus to go to a rest home because he sees that the young man's condition is grave and advanced. The narrative then dis-cusses doctors such as Bradshaw, questioning the methods and assumptions by which they diagnose and practice.

The scene now shifts to Richard Dalloway, at his lunch with Lady Bruton. Hugh Whitbread has also been invited. Lady Bruton wants their help revising a letter she has composed to the Times about the need for emigration; Hugh quickly edits it after lunch.

The two men leave Lady Bruton's. Hugh stops to buy a gift for his wife and Richard decides to buy and deliver flowers to Clarissa. Clarissa is pleased and informs Richard that their daughter, Elizabeth, is with Miss Kilman, her history tutor.

The narrative now shifts to Elizabeth and Miss Kilman. They go to tea in a department store, and Elizabeth sets out on her own for a bus ride and a short walk before she returns home to ready for the party that evening.

Septimus and Lucrezia, by this time, have returned home to pass the afternoon in their apartment. Dr. Holmes, a doctor Septimus dreads, forces his way inside. Septimus's madness and his horror of doctors' control over him leads him to jump from the apartment window to his death.

The sound of Septimus's ambulance is heard by Peter Walsh, who is on his way back to his hotel.

Section 8

Clarissa's party is beginning; guests are arriving. Clarissa is experiencing anxiety, convinced that her party will be a failure. But it seems to be a success, and she makes the rounds of her guests. Sally Seton arrives, surprising Clarissa because Clarissa is not aware that Sally is in London from the country. The Prime Minister shows up, making everybody feel very satisfied that they are such distinguished company. Sally and Peter chat and wait for Clarissa to mingle with others before she can visit with them. Finally, guests begin to leave. Richard goes to join his daughter, and Clarissa goes to talk to her old friends. Upon seeing Clarissa move toward him, Peter feels great pleasure that this event has ended his day.


Dr. Bradshaw

See Sir William Bradshaw

Sir William Bradshaw

While Dr. Bradshaw, unlike Dr. Holmes, immediately grasps the gravity and nature of Septimus's condition, he is still not a likable character. He seems very similar to Dr. Holmes. The book's argument against these doctors is that they are primarily concerned with managing individual cases of social and psychological distress without being interested in the causes of such problems. Thus, these doctors are still a part of the problem. They help to maintain the status quo by smoothing over difficulties instead of approaching psychological disturbance as evidence of deep social problems that must be addressed.

Lady Bruton

Lady Bruton is the character with whom Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread have lunch. She is a woman of strong character and active in public and political life. She always uses her influence in matters about which she feels strongly. Her new interest is in emigration, that is, encouraging young British couples to emigrate to Canada, one of the British Commonwealth countries. She asks Richard and Hugh to revise her letter to the editorial section of the major London newspaper, the Times, the forum in which she plans to air her views.


Daisy is referred to in passing as the woman whom Peter Walsh is to marry. Peter is in London arranging matters for her divorce, among other business, as she is presently married.

Clarissa Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway is the principal character of Mrs. Dalloway, since it is her party that gives definition to the narrative and her point of view dominates the book. She was born Clarissa Parry, and the day the novel takes place, she is approximately fifty years old. Her husband is Richard Dalloway, and they have one child, Elizabeth. The overwhelming impression Clarissa gives is that she is a solitary, even isolated, being, and that she is often consumed with thoughts or feelings of death and mortality. This is not only because her thoughts of friends are for those of her youth and not present ones, but also because she seems to desire isolation. She chooses Richard Dalloway over Peter Walsh as a husband not because she loves him more, but because she believes Richard will not consume all of her personality and time, or all of her emotional and intellectual reserves. Clarissa sleeps in her own room, in a small single bed that is likened to a coffin, and such suggestions and imagery of isolation and death surround her throughout the book.

The reader gains a sense of Clarissa's character both from her own thoughts and from what other characters, especially Peter, think about her. Besides the fact that she has inspired love, which speaks well of her, she is also someone whom others, and herself, think flawed. Peter's notion that she is the "perfect hostess" sums up this suspicion of her weakness. Clarissa is well-off and does not work, putting her in a position to cultivate her preferences, which are the pursuits of beauty and social harmony. While she knows that these are worthy pursuits, she and her friends nevertheless wonder whether this is a wholly ethical way to live. The question she and they ask is whether or not she should be more like her husband or Lady Bruton and take a more obviously practical role in public and political life.

Elizabeth Dalloway

Elizabeth Dalloway is Clarissa's daughter. She is just coming of age, and she is somewhat in the thrall of her history tutor, Doris Kilman. However, Elizabeth is also her own person. When she goes out on a shopping trip with Miss Kilman, she soon parts from her tutor and steals a few hours to be by herself before she must return home to get ready for her mother's party.

Richard Dalloway

Richard Dalloway, despite being Clarissa's husband, does not play a large role in the novel. He was not as close to Clarissa as Peter and Sally were during their youthful days. Rather, in the various characters' memories of their mutual past, Richard is a late arrival on the youthful scene. He arrives around the time Clarissa is thinking about marriage and presents himself as the perfect husband for her, in contrast to Peter. He is a politician and member of Parliament and the Conservative Party, demonstrating Clarissa's and his relative social and political conservatism, especially compared to Peter and Sally.

Ellie Henderson

Ellie is Clarissa's cousin, whom Clarissa invites to her party at the last minute at the request of a mutual acquaintance. Ellie is not well-off and gets out very seldom, so she is grateful to have the opportunity to attend such an exciting affair.

Dr. Holmes

Dr. Holmes is an overbearing and controlling doctor who does not understand Septimus's condition and whose ignorance and arrogance do Septimus more harm than good. His arrival at Septimus's apartment is the last straw for the young man. Rather than fall under Holmes's control, Septimus throws himself out of a window, killing himself.

Miss Doris Kilman

Doris Kilman is a single, educated woman to whom life has not been particularly kind or just. While she possessed employment of some security before the war, her refusal to jump on the war bandwagon and call all Germans enemies made her unpopular and caused her to be dismissed from her post. Left to fend for herself during the lean war years, she scrapes together a living from incidental tutoring and lecturing. She feels great bitterness about her misfortunes and develops a religious fanaticism that makes her extremely unpopular with Clarissa, who fears and resents the woman's influence on Elizabeth.


Lucy is the principal housemaid in the Dalloway home, and she and the cook are primarily responsible for readying the house for the party.

Aunt Parry

See Miss Helena Parry

Media Adaptations

  • Mrs. Dalloway was adapted into a film of the same name in 1997, directed by Marleen Gorris. It stars the venerated British actor Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway.

Miss Helena Parry

Clarissa's aunt is a minor character in the book. She figures early on as the relative at Bourton whom the younger people seem to enjoy shocking. She surprises Peter at the end of the book by still being alive and by being present at the party.

Sylvia Parry

Sylvia, Clarissa's sister, is only mentioned in passing, but is significant nevertheless. She was killed by a falling tree at Bourton. The name "Sylvia" is Latinate, meaning "wild" or "woods." Her death signifies the death of youth and freedom, as Clarissa's freedom and youth ended at Bourton when she decided to marry. That is, her life since Bourton has been one in which she is not so much her own person as Richard's wife.


See Lucrezia Warren Smith

Lady Rosseter

See Sally Seton

Sally Seton

Sally, with Peter and Clarissa, was a member of the close triangle of friends who often spent time together at Bourton. Sally delighted her friends with her vibrant personality and her legendary exploits. Clarissa was so taken by Sally that she fell in love with her, as she realizes years later. Sally, like Clarissa, went on to marry, marrying a self-made man whose success eventually earns him high social distinction, giving Sally the title "Lady Ros-seter."

Lucrezia Warren Smith

Lucrezia, or Rezia, is Septimus's wife. He met her in Italy where he was stationed for part of WWI, as Italy was one of Britain's allies during the war. While she was happy to marry Septimus and set out to a foreign country, now in London she is in despair because Septimus is no longer the same man she married. His war trauma is now deep-seated and advanced and she finds herself alone and confused about what is happening to her husband.

Septimus Warren Smith

After Clarissa, Septimus is the character of most importance. His story parallels Clarissa's to a certain extent, as both characters are radically isolated and seem at odds with prevailing forces in the world. Septimus came to London as a young man in search of a career, and he showed early promise. He was an excellent worker interested in furthering his education, but then he went off to war. He returned from the war having fought bravely, but also with shell shock, a condition little understood at the time. He and his wife first seek help from a general practitioner, instead of immediately consulting the psychological specialist, Dr. Bradshaw, demonstrating people's unfamiliarity with mental disease and how to manage it at the time. Septimus is a portrait of a distressed mind, going through the hours of his last day, entertaining delusional thoughts and experiencing hallucinations, and ultimately, killing himself.

Peter Walsh

Peter Walsh is an Anglo-Indian, that is, a British citizen who worked in India during Britain's administrative colonial control of that country. At the time of the book's events, he is visiting London. Peter is defined mostly by his having been deeply in love with Clarissa Dalloway and by his intention, during his youth, to marrying her. In fact, he still seems to be in love with her, despite having married after she rejected him, and despite the fact that he is planning to marry for a second time. Of the group of close, youthful friends, Sally, Clarissa and himself, he seems more like Sally than like Clarissa. Sally and Peter were very lively; they took chances and espoused forward-looking political and social views.

Hugh Whitbread

Hugh Whitbread is deemed by most characters in the book (Peter, Sally, Richard) to be dull and uninteresting. There is the sense that he is a little ridiculous and quite conventional. Clarissa has the most sympathy for him as she appreciates his good qualities. Foremost amongst his good points are his loyalty and obedience. He always tried to please his mother and he looks after his ailing and fragile wife, Evelyn, dutifully.



Although it is difficult to imagine, the novel is a relatively new literary form. Poetry and drama (plays), for example, have a much longer history. The novel, however, did not arise as a unique genre until the late eighteenth century. According to literary historians, it arose along with, or partly because of, the rise of the individual.

It is said that Woolf's style, and that of other early-twentieth-century novelists, represents a culmination of this connection between the novel and the individual. Before there were "individuals," so to speak, a person lived his or her life according to what was determined from the outside or according to what society decreed was correct. A person did not go through life assuming that he or she could make personal, or individual, decisions and choices. The literary historians argue, then, that when this new type of person, this "individual," began to exist, it needed new literary forms to express itself. The novel was one of these forms.

What comes with being an individual is a sense of separateness and uniqueness, a sense of being apart. One way this sense of being separate is cultivated is by each person focusing on, or developing a sense of, his or her own mind or consciousness. The novel is a literary form of the individual, literary historians argue, because novelists present and explore characters who have significant interior lives.

In novels such as Mrs. Dalloway, consciousness and an internal life are central preoccupations. Mrs. Dalloway is largely made up of the internal thoughts of its various characters. It is for this reason that novels like Mrs. Dalloway represent a culmination of an historical process of individuation. Preceding novels had not so intensively focused on the interior life of characters, or on what characters thought to themselves. That is, the characters in Mrs. Dalloway and similar novels are featured as individual thinkers even more than they are presented as persons interacting socially with others. It is the characters' individual qualities that are highlighted.

In a sense, the character of Clarissa Dalloway is a representation of extreme, problematic individualism, in that she recognizes her absolute isolation. She is distant from her husband, she appears to have few current friends, and she secludes herself in her own small room as if she were a quiet nun in a convent or a solitary prisoner in a cell. The reader derives this sense of an absolutely isolated consciousness when, for instance, Clarissa watches the old woman across the way. Unseen, looking out from the window of her solitary chamber, separated from the woman by walls and distance, Clarissa seems trapped within the confines of her own consciousness.

The novel seems to ask if people can truly communicate and connect if each is enclosed within his or her own consciousness. Whether the novel resolves this issue, or merely explores it, is for each reader to decide. Is Clarissa's party evidence of true communion between people despite separateness? Does the imagery of waves and connecting threads and webs complicate the imagery of isolation? Do the depictions of shared public sights and sounds indicate fully shared experience, or simply common experience differently understood?

Social Change

Some critics believe that Mrs. Dalloway is an apolitical and an asocial novel about individual internal life as opposed to social life. Others insist that the political and social context of the time is included in the book and important to its events. Critics who believe the novel is concerned with social and political events and developments of the time, consider it a novel of suggestion, not argumentation. Woolf dropped hints and touched lightly on social and political developments, they say, and a discerning reader is able to make out intended meanings from the author's allusions.

For example, WWI is obviously important to the sense of the novel. It is what ruins Septimus's life and career and what hounds him to his death.

Additionally, the histories of Septimus and Dr. Bradshaw indicate that classism is on the wane in the Britain of Mrs. Dalloway. Whereas a person's social class determined his or her possibilities in earlier days, now Bradshaw has risen from humble circumstances to greatness, having earned a title (he is Sir William Bradshaw). Similarly, the lower-middle-class Septimus, before the war, was on his way to a brilliant career and upward social mobility.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research shell shock in relation to WWI. How do treatments for war trauma today differ from those used then?
  • What was the role of women during WWI? How did women contribute to the war effort in Britain?

The reader also learns that the political and social scene of Britain is changing significantly, as details of the rise of the Labour Party and of unrest in India are revealed. These details indicate the shifting of political power to the party that represents the interests of the broadest population, instead of remaining faithful to the interests of the old, aristocratic ruling classes. It also shows non-European nations beginning to agitate for freedom from foreign intervention and control.

Also significantly, Elizabeth Dalloway's rumination over a career indicates how the education of young women and their social positions are changing. As opposed to only having indirect influence through their husbands, like Lady Bruton, young women like Elizabeth can have public careers in their own right. Thus, Mrs. Dalloway stays true to Woolf's assertion, expressed in her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," that, around 1910, human character and society changed: "All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature." In short, those persons and classes traditionally without social or cultural power appear in Mrs. Dalloway as coming into a position to exercise their rights, to have appreciable social influence, and to achieve upward social mobility.


Narration and Point of View

From the very first sentence, Mrs. Dalloway shows the secure meshing of a third person (external) narrator's point of view with a first person, character's point of view, such that it is not possible to separate or distinguish the two: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." If the two had been clearly separated the sentence would read: "Mrs. Dalloway said, 'I will buy the flowers myself'," or would have included the word "that": "Mrs. Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself." In this second case, the reader would assume that the words following the word "that" were not necessarily faithful to Mrs. Dalloway's thought or speech, but rather that they are a narrator's interpretation or summary. Instead, what Woolf perfected in this novel is a style of narration that literary critics have called "represented thought and speech," capturing the motions of a mind thinking in the past tense, third person. A narrator presents character thought and speech, but the narrator's words are wholly and immediately imbued by the voice and style of the particular character in question; there is no way to separate narrator and character. Woolf invented an elegant and efficient way of moving between and representing multiple characters' speech and thought; the clumsiness of excessive dialogue or of switching between sequences of different characters' thoughts presented in the first person is avoided. Related terms in literary criticism are re-ported thought and speech, free indirect discourse, and stream-of-consciousness.


Mrs. Dalloway is striking for the way that its events occur within a single day. This unusual strategy announces the novel's complication of time in general. For example, while most people tend to think of time in terms of the regular clicking away of the clock—of seconds, minutes, hours, and days—this book shows how people can relive, through the operations of memory, whole years within the space of minutes. Peter and Clarissa walk a few paces in London and remember major periods of their youth, how these years affected them, and how they shaped their lives.

On a related theme, the novel multiplies time by presenting the thoughts of myriad characters, each of whom remember and experience time, the past and the present, in different ways. In this novel, chronological time is only one sense of time, as the characters bring the past into the present, allow the meaning and remembrance of the present to be shaped by the past, and shape memories of and feelings about the past with experience in the present.

Character Double

Septimus Warren Smith can be seen as Clarissa's double in the novel. As a character double, he is a character whose attributes and story fill out the character and story of Clarissa. According to the literary critic Alex Page, in "A Dangerous Day: Mrs. Dalloway and Her Double," "Septimus's character is in all essentials Clarissa's, but taken to a deadly extreme." Where Clarissa is isolated, Septimus is disassociated from reality; where Clarissa manages the disappointments and strictures society imposes upon her, Septimus buckles under greater pressures. The close connections of these characters is made clear by Clarissa's deep upset when Dr. Bradshaw informs her, at her party, that one of his patients committed suicide that day. She retreats from her guests in shock when Bradshaw mentions Septimus's death, as if she herself were susceptible to the same degree of despair that destroys the young man.

Historical Context

The New Modern Era

The nineteenth century ushered in developments that profoundly changed European society. Mercantilism and industrialism created a powerful new class. The cultural, political and economic might of this new class, the bourgeoisie or middle-class, soon overtook that of the aristocratic classes that had controlled nations and empires before. The spread of democracy and workers' rights movements also characterized the nineteenth century. It was not until after World War I (1914–1918), however, that a deep sense of how extremely and permanently European society had changed prevailed.

Mrs. Dalloway registers this sense of the end of an era. Clarissa's Aunt Parry, the aged relic who makes an appearance at Clarissa's party, represents this decline and this ending of an old way of life. The old woman likes to remember her days in Burma, a time and place suggestive of the height of British imperialism and colonialism. But, as Lady Bruton's distressed comment about the situation in India makes clear, the old days of paternalistic European colonialism are over. India and other colonies that used to be comfortable homes for colonials like Clarissa's aunt are now uncomfortable places where the beginnings of serious battles for independence are occurring.

Lady Bruton also mentions the Labour Party's ascendancy. (This new party gained a parliamentary majority in England in 1924, the year before Mrs. Dalloway was published.) This detail indicates how the England of this time had become radically modern in its move to a fuller social democracy, the political system that still characterizes most modern nations today, including the United States. The Labour Party's name indicates its representation of rule by the people, for the people, as opposed to rule by an aristocracy or an oligarchic class.

Elizabeth Dalloway, a young woman considering a career, is also an indicator of change, as entering the working world was a social possibility not available to women before this time.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1920s: In Britain, the Labour Party rises to power, women get the right to vote, and the first major wave of communication and travel tech nologies are incipient or, in some cases, widely established (radio, telephone, telegraph commu nications; automobile and airplane travel).

    Today: International communications and connections have progressed to such an extent, due to computer technology and the Internet, that the term "globalization" is in common use. The modern world foreseen in the 1920s has definitively arrived.
  • 1920s: Modernism, the set of artistic move ments that try to express, through form and style, the cultural and social changes of a brand new century, is flourishing. The modernists profess internationalism.

    Today: Art at the close of the twentieth century is defined by postmodernism. The name of this new set of movements suggests how its forms are both tied to modernism (postmodernism), and in some ways defined against modernism (postmodernism). Postmodernists examine and question globalization and transnationalism.
  • 1920s: While the American colonies of Europe (i.e., the United States and the nations of South and Central America) have long since established themselves as independent nations, the twentieth century is characterized by nationalist and independence movements in Europe's remaining colonies (in Asia and Africa). These movements are not brought to a close until the 1960s.

    Today: Colonies no longer exist; rather, a group of independent nations cover the globe.


WWI bears comparison with the Vietnam War. Like this more recent war, it is remembered as a war that many thought should have been avoided and that traumatized its soldiers. It was an imperial war in two senses. First, it was an attempt to limit the European encroachments of Prussian imperial rule and power. Second, it was partially provoked by border skirmishes among European nations on the African continent (European nations had begun colonizing African territories in the late nineteenth century). It was a power struggle pertaining to traditional European ruling classes and had very little to do with the everyday concerns and struggles of most European citizens.

What was shocking about the war was how long it dragged on and how many casualties it produced. (It lasted four years and millions of young men died or were terribly wounded.) The style of fighting developed in this war was trench warfare. In trench warfare, soldiers dig deep ditches from which they shoot at the enemy. When given the order to charge, they climb out of these trenches and meet the enemy head-on. These cramped, claustrophobic trenches were breeding grounds for disease, as they were muddy and wet from frequent rainfall. Soldiers felt that the trenches were as much ready-made earthly graves as they were protection from enemy fire. Also, poison gas (mustard gas) was used during WWI, and soldiers caught by the fumes without gas masks died or suffered horribly.

Enemy soldiers often formed friendships during cease-fire periods in the space of no man's land between opposing trench lines. Soldiers on both sides felt strongly that their real enemies were not each other, but the officers, politicians and generals who were running the war. The carnage, mutilation, and terror of this badly managed war resulted in a host of traumatized war veterans. This trauma was given the name "shell shock" in the years following the war. Septimus Warren Smith, who was a brave soldier, but who ends up a suicidal, ruined man, indicates Woolf's condemnation of this unfortunate war.

Critical Overview

All of Woolf's publications, fictional and non-fictional alike, have received a great deal of critical attention. A bibliography of criticism on Woolf would be a very hefty book in its own right, as her work has been the subject of intense study since she began writing, and it is still a major topic today. Considered equal to the likes of Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf is indisputably one of the English language's greatest literary voices.

Major topics in the criticism on Mrs. Dalloway are the significance of Clarissa's party as the culminating event of the book, and Peter Walsh's and others' criticism of her parties. At one point in the novel, Clarissa is plagued by a bad feeling. With some thought, she arrives at the source of her anxiety: "Her parties! That was it! Her parties! Both of them [Peter and Richard] criticised her very unfairly, laughed at her unjustly for her parties. That was it! That was it!" She goes on to think: "Well, how was she going to defend herself?"

Critics have defended Clarissa amply by theorizing the significance of the opposition of Richard, parliamentarian and politician, and the seemingly apolitical, spoilt Clarissa, giver of parties and lover of beauty. For Suzette A. Henke, in "Mrs. Dalloway: the Communion of Saints," Clarissa's party is akin to a sacred mass, "a ritual culminating in sacred communion." In the opinion of Jeremy Hawthorn, in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway": A Study in Alienation, the party "is not just Clarissa's gift, it is the occasion for communal giving … which will recharge the participants' social sense and … allow them temporarily to escape from their alienated selves."

Other critics, along these lines, suggest Woolf's book argues that politicians like Richard would not be so busy cleaning up the messes of the world if people were brought up to love harmony, communication, community, and beauty before all other things. It is not, then, that Mrs. Dalloway is an apolitical or anti-political novel, these critics argue, but rather that its politics are radically different from the norm—the book advances a politic of beauty and community, as it were.

Many feminist critics suggest that this opposition of political styles is a gender issue. To these critics, it seems that Woolf understands that traditional women's work (mothering children, maintaining family bonds) emphasizes social bonding over competition. Women, therefore, and books like Mrs. Dalloway, have important lessons for society at large, and suggest how it might function more smoothly.

Related to considerations about the significance of Clarissa's parties are estimations about the novel's connection to contemporaneous social and political events. Until perhaps the last twenty years of Woolf criticism, a prevailing view was that Woolf was not at all interested in the "real world." The novelist E. M. Forster, Woolf's famous contemporary, stated in his book Virginia Woolf that "improving the world she [Woolf] would not consider" was not her intention. Yet, as other critics point out, such an opinion does not hold up when the author's own diary records that the novel's purpose was "to criticise the social system, & show it at work, at its most intense." (This entry concerning Mrs. Dalloway can be found in Vol. II of The Diary of Virginia Woolf.)

Critics who examine this aspect of the novel discuss Woolf's subtle, if not wholesale, indictment of the outdated and overly conservative attitudes of Richard, Lady Bruton, and Hugh, and argue that the suffering of Septimus is to be understood as the result of such problematic views and policies. The prevailing attitude today concerning the book's politics, and Woolf's social views in general, is expressed succinctly by Suzette A. Henke (in the article previously cited): "All of Virginia Woolf's major novels suggest an intellectual commitment to feminist, pacifist, and socialist principles."

Another topic in the criticism of Mrs. Dalloway is an examination of Septimus and Clarissa as problems in psychology and mental health. Knowing that Woolf herself suffered bouts of mental disease, they find these characters' portraits a wealth of information. Another significant body of criticism focuses on questions of sexuality in the novel, considering, for example, Clarissa's love for Sally Seton. Some critics suggest that Clarissa's extreme feelings of isolation are to be understood partly as the result of a deleteriously suppressed homosexuality. In "Clarissa Dalloway's Respectable Suicide," Emily Jensen expresses this view: "No simple girlhood crush, Clarissa's love for Sally Se-ton is a profound reality that permeates her adult life." This critic goes on to say that Clarissa's suppression of this love is a sort of suicide, a death in life, "on a par with Septimus Smith's more obvious suicide." Jensen approaches Septimus as Clarissa's double, that is, as a character who aids the reader in arriving at a fuller understanding of Clarissa. Jensen's essay, in this way, intersects with yet another significant set of inquiries into the novel, which considers the book's clusters of characters, especially the clustering or doubling of Septimus and Clarissa.


Carol Dell'Amico

Dell'Amico teaches English at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. In this essay, she examines the question of plot in Virginia Woolf's novel.

Mrs. Dalloway is a work of literature that can be classified as narrative fiction. That is, it tells a story, or a narrative, that is fictional, or made-up. Novels and short stories are narrative fictions usually structured by a plot. But Mrs. Dalloway is a novel without a plot. This essay examines what this means and why the author might have chosen to eschew this typical narrative convention.

In Aspects of the Novel, Woolf's contemporary, E. M. Forster, explains the difference between story and plot in the following way:

A plot [like a story] is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king dies and then the queen died," is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

A plot, then, establishes causal relationships between characters, or between characters and events. Moreover, for a novel to be said to have a plot, this series of interconnected events must unify the entire story or determine most of its major happenings. To relate the story of a novel is simply to relate events and situations as they happen, page by page, in a book; to relate the plot involves capturing the reasons why the things that happen happen. While Mrs. Dalloway certainly establishes causal relationships between characters and events, the novel cannot be said to have a plot because a network of causality does not unify the entire book.

On the contrary, the book takes great trouble to establish how it is different, in this respect, from most novels. Chance and coincidence, instead of purposeful interconnection, structure the book. Peter Walsh, a very important character, arrives by chance at Clarissa's on the day of her party. Sally Seton, another important character, arrives at Clarissa's party unexpectedly and also by chance. Septimus Warren Smith is also a major character in the book who is only tangentially related to the other major characters. The connection of Septimus to the other characters is determined by chance and locale, not by any social connections these characters have in common. Septimus and Clarissa pass each other by chance, as both are on Bond Street at the same time. Septimus and Peter Walsh also pass each other by chance, just outside Regent's Park, neither knowing that the other exists. Indeed, it is the single day, the Wednesday in June 1923, that unifies the book, and nothing else.

Plots make what happen in a novel seem natural and inevitable. But plots are really just constructed by authors, and so the events depicted in novels are not inevitable at all. Woolf's plotless book of chance and coincidence plays on the way that plot is a series of "coincidences" made to look like naturally or casually connected events by the careful work of a controlling author.

Most stories that are written and read have plots. The writer makes certain decisions about characters (their personalities and qualities), and about characters' relations to other characters or to social forces and events. The author then comes up with a plot built upon the likely responses and actions of character types in relation to other character types or in relation to social happenings. The author, in this way, feels that it is possible and desirable to predict how certain types of people will think and behave. The author also feels that certain social forces are describable and likely to have certain predictable effects on certain types of persons. The author who settles on a plot, then, is confident that he or she knows a great deal about human nature and about how the world works.

This confidence about personality type, social type, and how the world works was never more developed than in the novels of the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. Typical to these novels is a narrator who tells the reader all about the particular character—his or her thoughts and desires, his or weaknesses and strengths. These narrators also explain why a character acts the way he or she does. Authors, through their narrators, showed themselves to be experts—experts in psychology and sociology. In fact, it is no surprise that the academic sciences of sociology and psychology arose around the turn of the century; people and their lives were, quite literally, becoming sciences. Woolf discusses this science of writing, or this nov-elistic science of psychological and social knowledge in her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown."

"Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" introduces a fictional character, a Mrs. Brown (who is riding in a railway carriage), and then shows how the various well-known and popular writers who immediately preceded Woolf would have presented her in their fiction. These major novelists she terms Edwardians, as King Edward was then the king of England. The writers in question are H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy.

Since Mrs. Brown is a character who appears to be in straightened circumstances and is most likely not particularly well-educated, Woolf parodies Wells' style in the following way:

Seizing upon … the unsatisfactory condition of our primary schools with a rapidity to which I can do no justice, Mr. Wells would instantly project … a vision of a better, breezier, jollier, happier, more adventurous and gallant world where . . . these fusty old women do not exist.

Her criticism of Wells, then, is that he is a utopian, a writer not so much interested in presenting the intricacies and mysteries of character and personality, but rather more interested in expounding his theories and views about how society can be perfected. Galsworthy, Woolf asserts, would no sooner introduce such a character than launch into an authorial tirade "[b]urning with indignation, stuffed with information, [and] arraigning civilization." Again, the intricacies and instabilities of individual characters are left behind, and the author's views about the world and about certain typical character types are expounded at length instead. What Bennett would do, says Woolf, is bury this character under a mountain of descriptive details—what she is wearing, where she comes from, what the railway carriage she is riding in looks like, and so forth. Once again, left behind would be any understanding of the character's complexities.

Only the new Georgian writers such as herself, says Woolf, or such as James Joyce or D. H. Lawrence, have returned literature to its proper domain, where inquiry and delicacy are as important as the author's views about what can and should be done to ameliorate the condition of society. (She terms herself and her contemporaries Georgians because King George succeeded King Edward in 1910.)

Given Woolf's sense of the overweening confidence and all-knowing attitude of the writers that preceded her, her decision to write a novel without a plot can be understood. To eschew or avoid plot, within this historical and intellectual context, means to suggest that an all-knowing stance is not always productive. Since deciding on a plot means having definitive views about social types and social forces, writing a plotless novel suggests that perhaps it is better, at times, to be a person who approaches the world as a questioner, as one seeking knowledge and enlightenment, as opposed to one who already knows everything or who has answers to solve every social problem.

What Do I Read Next?

  • To the Lighthouse (1927) was Woolf's next novel, after the success of Mrs. Dalloway. It concerns a large family spending a summer at the seaside, much like Woolf's own family did during her childhood.
  • Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce, is a challenging book. The title refers to the famous classical Greek story of a man's epic travels (those of Odysseus, also called Ulysses). The epic journey, it has been said, refers less to the main character's (Ulysses'/Leopold Bloom's) perambulations through Dublin and more to the journey the reader experiences as he or she reads through the extraordinary stylistic shifts that make up this modernist novel. Like Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses takes place within a single day and characterizes a city as well as its characters.
  • The Hours (1998), by Michael Cunningham, is a recently published novel based on Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. It interweaves the lives of three women in three times: Virginia Woolf in 1923, a 1949 Woolf fan in Los Angeles, and a present day Clarissa, planning a party.
  • The Sound and the Fury (1929), by William Faulkner, is a novel whose stylistic beauty and experimentation represent an American modernism contemporaneous to the experiments of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce abroad.

Since the reader of a novel tends to intellectually identify with the stance of the narrator, the reader of one of Bennett's novels, for example, is made into an all-knowing, god-like figure. The reader, like the narrator, is in a position of knowing more than any character and of having full understanding of how the world works. The reader of a novel without a plot, in contrast, is put into the position of one who must explore and question the relationship between things. Not everything is answered for this other reader; not everything is known. The reader of a more experimental, plot-less novel is a reader who is encouraged to question reality, to not assume full knowledge. This other reader is one who is asked to think and explore, as opposed to simply receive knowledge and apply it; this reader is encouraged to ask why things are the way they are and how they might be changed, as opposed to simply having answers and ideas presented to him or her on a platter.

Writers such as Woolf believed that psychological and social knowledge in novels was becoming too pat, that character and plot were becoming predictable, mimicking the latest treatise written by a politician, a sociologist, or a psychologist. There are deeper reasons, however, to turn away from an all-knowing, scientific approach to character and plot. At issue was not simply remembering to be a thinker and explorer, but also the question of whether humankind was in control to the extent it was convinced it was. To know social types and how the world works means to be in control of the world. But was humankind in such full control?

If humankind wasn't in such full control, then the need to think hard about social problems was still a priority, and feelings of over-confidence about the state of knowledge were a danger. For instance, Europeans of the nineteenth century believed in progress: humankind was inventing machines and building institutions and cities that were making life on earth better for all. But, asked writers like Woolf, was humankind really progressing? Was the story or plot of progress true to reality? Was scientific knowledge really explaining and controlling the world in beneficial and predictable ways? Things changed, to be sure, but was humankind progressing morally, in the way that really mattered? Were more people truly better off than before? In fact, the industrial revolution, with all of its machines, may have made work easier and faster, but a new class of impoverished factory workers merely had replaced a propertyless agricultural peasantry. Technology brought airplanes and railroads, but it also made war that much more efficiently destructive.

Not all writers or artists contemporaneous to Woolf who were making interventions into typical artistic forms thought the same way. Many of them celebrated technological advances. What most agreed upon, however, was the need to pause and take stock of science's progress, to make sure that it produced the benefits promised, and not a new type of misery. Thus, to refuse plot is to refuse the typical stories of the time, the typical stories people were telling themselves about the world and progress. Since people make sense of the world by telling stories about the past and the present and about how things work, to refuse plot is to intervene into social narrative and insist that the old stories or the old ways of explaining social life need adjustment or examination.

By not constructing a plot, Woolf offers her readers the opportunity to make up a new story about social life. Readers surprised at such a startling departure from typical novelistic form are invited to ask why there is no plot, what it means when an author decides to be different. If a reader is not told how everything in a novel is tied together, it is up to him or her to do the work. In this way, the reader of Mrs. Dalloway can figure out for him-or herself why things are the way they are, or how things might have been, or could be, different.

Source: Carol Dell'Amico, Critical Essay on Mrs. Dalloway, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Arnold Bennett

In the following early negative review of Mrs. Dalloway, Bennett identifies Woolf as the leader of a new school in writing and criticizes her work for lacking vitality.

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Source: Arnold Bennett, "Another Criticism of the New School," 1925, reprint, in Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage, edited by Robin Majumdar and Allen McLaurin, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 189-90.

Manly Johnson

In the following essay, Johnson offers an overview of Mrs. Dalloway, focusing on its theme of insanity.

In her … novel, Mrs. Dalloway, [Woolf] continues to work out her problems of theme and form along the lines laid out first in the short stories and Jacob's Room. Thus most of the "ideas" in Mrs. Dalloway are carried over from Jacob's Room, though she adds the major theme of insanity. But that is also simply a development of two ideas in the preceding novel: (1) that there must be a positive (loving) connection between the inner and outer life; and (2) that institutional power is the expression of a negative (unloving) connection, Jacob's death being attributed to war, a manifestation of institutional mania for power over individuals.

Millions of Jacobs died in 1914–18, Woolf insists, because of this mania in high places. Now, in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf shows us another victim—Septimus Warren Smith, who is clinically insane as a result of four years in combat. Smith falls into the hands of two medical practitioners whose energies are directed toward dominating their patient instead of healing him.

Clarissa Dalloway, too, is passing through a mental crisis, precipitated partly by a recent severe illness. During the single day in which the events of Mrs. Dalloway take place, the stories of these two—Clarissa and Septimus—are intertwined, though they never meet. Clarissa moves away from isolation toward an acceptance of life in all its puzzling complexity; Septimus moves ever deeper into isolation and finally suicide.

The narrative present of Mrs. Dalloway spans most of a bright, warm June day in London some five years after the war of 1914–18. But the tunneling into the past (Virginia Woolf's expression) goes back for thirty years. Readers familiar with The Voyage Out, in which the Dalloways appear briefly, will find no mention of that part of their past in this novel. All events, both past and present, build toward Clarissa's dinner party, when they are brought together in new relationships. The following summarizes briefly the major characters and action leading up to the party.

Mrs. Dalloway leaves her house in Westminster to buy flowers. On the way, she meets an old acquaintance, Hugh Whitbread, a functionary in the royal household. Later she observes a royal car passing through the streets and an airplane skywriting. Septimus Smith, a man in his early twenties, is seated on a bench in Regent's Park with his Italian wife Lucrezia (Rezia). He has spent four years in the war and is now mentally ill. He sees the skywriting and thinks that "they" are trying to get messages to him from the dead. Dr. Holmes, a general practitioner, has advised Mrs. Smith to get her husband interested in "real" things. But they are now on their way to see a specialist, Sir William Bradshaw.

Peter Walsh, in love with Clarissa thirty years ago, leaves the Dalloway house, where he has talked to Clarissa for the first time in many years, and walks toward Regent's Park. He follows a woman, out of sexual fantasy, until she disappears into a house. In the park, he naps, sitting on a bench. Leaving the park, he passes Septimus and Rezia and outside encounters a street singer, an old woman, singing a love song.

Richard Dalloway, Clarissa's husband, Member of Parliament, is at Lady Bruton's for lunch. She is a prominent society hostess who likes being involved with government affairs and moving masses of people around in various projects of her invention. Hugh Whitbread, Clarissa's old friend, is also a guest. Lady Bruton wants these two men, both involved in government, to help her with one of her projects.

Septimus and Lucrezia keep their appointment with Sir William, who sees that the case is serious and advises Lucrezia to place her husband in a sanatorium. By now, Septimus identifies both doctors as his special persecutors. Both are, in fact, more interested in exercising power than in treating individuals.

Elizabeth Dalloway, Clarissa's daughter, about eighteen, leaves the Dalloway house for an afternoon with Miss Kilman, a woman of extraordinary unattractiveness. She is a religious zealot and has been proselytizing Elizabeth. Clarissa also fears that there is an unhealthy sexual relationship developing between the two. But as they take tea, Miss Kil-man loses her hold on the girl. Elizabeth leaves the tea shop alone, boards a bus, and rides through London on a kind of voyage of independence, from which she returns "calm and competent."

Septimus and Rezia are in their sitting room. She is making hats, he going through the notes he has made of messages from the dead: "do not cut down trees; Universal love; the meaning of the world." Dr. Holmes chooses this moment to call—Dr. Holmes who "seemed to stand for something horrible to him. 'Human nature' he called him." As Holmes forces his way past Rezia into the room, Septimus leaps to his death. The novel concludes with the long section about the Dalloway party that evening, with the horror of Septimus's death offset by Clarissa's renewed vitality.

As Clarissa goes through the hours before her dinner party, she is besieged by memories of the past—stirring up doubts about her marriage to a man caught up in the endless round of politics; doubts about her daughter; and, most of all, doubts about herself. For she has just recovered from an illness, and to walk out into the bright June day is for her like the beginning of a new life—except for memories and the demands of the future that lie heavy upon her.

What she remembers is "scene after scene at Bourton," the country house where she grew to womanhood. Thirty years ago at Bourton, Clarissa and Peter Walsh had been much together. Clarissa came to feel that Peter's insistence on sharing everything, and his critical assessments, were finally intolerable, and she broke off their relationship. Yet there had been something vital between them, and in the years afterward Clarissa would never be certain she did not still love him.

Clarissa was also drawn to the energetic, attractive Sally Seton, who had shocked old Mrs. Parry at Bourton by running naked down the hall to the bathroom. Clarissa's memories of Sally are still, after thirty years, full and rich'how Sally had given her a flower and kissed her on the mouth just before Peter came upon them at the fountain one evening. The emotionally charged involvements with Peter and Sally were factors in Clarissa's decision to marry the steadier Richard Dalloway. And this decision, too, she believes thirty years later, had been a wise one. Peter would have destroyed her with his constant intrusions and critical remarks; and Sally would have dominated her.

These were Clarissa's memories as she went about preparing for her party that night, not just of events and relationships, but also a recollection of the atmosphere in which they occurred: the excited conversations, the laughter, the intuitive awareness of cross-purposes. These had been signs of life intensely felt, and she remembers how intense they had been.

But memory is inferior to present experience. What Clarissa loves now, she is certain, is before her eyes in the bright June morning: trees, and mothers with babies, the activity in nearby streets, the park itself appearing to lift its leaves "brilliantly, on waves of divine vitality." Clarissa sees this creative energy flowing from nature and shaping the present moment, the vital force of which is frequently symbolized by trees.

But the most attractive aspect of vitality appears in humans going about their business and their play—the "conduct of daily life" described in Jacob's Room as better than "the pageant of armies drawn out in battle array." A vision similar to that observed by Jacob, and identical in meaning, is experienced by Elizabeth when she cuts loose from Miss Kilman and in her excitement sets out to explore the city. She likes the uproar of the streets; she seems to hear the blare of trumpets, as if the crowds are marching to military music. The noise of the people in the streets is a "voice, pouring endlessly." This would carry them along. There is a Dickensian delight in movement and sounds in the description of Elizabeth's recommitment to life on her own, echoed by what Peter Walsh encounters on the warm June evening as he walks toward Clarissa's house—people opening doors, entering motor cars, rushing along the streets.

Despite these manifestations of human energy in masses, Woolf establishes the vital quality of life most strikingly in two solitary old women—one the street singer heard by Peter Walsh, the other the occupant of a room across the way from Clarissa's house. The old street singer's song at first is hardly intelligible; certainly she is no picture of vitality—nearly blind, and in rags. Her song, however, celebrates the invincible power of love, how love had lasted a million years, bubbling up like an ancient spring spouting from the earth, greening things, fertilizing.

Still remembering how once in some primeval May she had walked with her lover, this rusty pump, this battered old woman … would still be there in ten million years … the passing generations—the pavement was crowded with bustling middle class people—vanished like leaves, to be trodden under, to be soaked and steeped and made mould of by that eternal spring.

The whole passage about the street singer is one of those Woolf developed more through the devices of poetry than of prose. Its effect depends on the persuasiveness of the imagery to transform the reader's feeling for the old woman, whether pity or revulsion, into wonder and admiration. A tree without leaves, she is still an instrument from which the wind of creative energy elicits a song: "Cheerfully, almost gaily, the invincible thread of sound wound up into the air, like the smoke from a cottage chimney." It is an evocative piece of writing, persuasive indeed—but not convincing. The metaphors of the rusty pump and the cottage are obtrusive. The reader sees what they are meant to do and feels the poetry of them, but with reservation.

The second incident involving an old woman occurs in the course of the party at Dalloway's house. In developing the significance of this scene, Woolf employs a more successful technique. She does not attempt to move the reader by poetic statement to believe that the old woman represents life without despair. The scene is depicted in a matter-of-fact way. As Clarissa watches an old woman in her room across the street preparing for bed, there are none of the verbal associations with love, as in the street singer's song, to make their frank appeal to the reader"s emotions. Yet the significance of what Clarissa sees, though tentative even in her mind, is sufficient to offset the despair that has been rising in her.

This episode occurs after Clarissa hears at the party about the young man (Septimus) who has killed himself. Thinking about his suicide, Clarissa feels that the disaster, the disgrace of Septimus, is hers. Guilt floods her: "She had schemed; she had pilfered." But, thinking that she doesn't deserve to be happy, nevertheless she is. Now she rejects the triumphs of youth, and has committed herself wholly to the process of living—"creating it every moment afresh."

On a previous occasion, when Clarissa had been sorting out her thoughts about the religious zealot Miss Kilman, she had seen the old woman climb the stairs to her room, alone, as if self-con-tained in her life. To Clarissa there had been something solemn in it. But with Miss Kilman and Peter Walsh on her mind—those two proselytizers of religion and "love"—she had thought of the old woman in connection with that kind of love and religion that can destroy the privacy of the soul the old woman seemed to have. The "supreme mystery" was this: "here was one room; there was another. Did religion solve that, or love?"

Now at the party, as she watches the old woman again, seeing her move around, Clarissa is fascinated. Several things are coming together in Clarissa's mind—the idea of the privacy of the soul, and the mystery of the separation of human lives; these things joining with her awareness of the activities, the laughing and shouting, going on all around her at the party. Suddenly no longer in despair, she no longer pities herself, nor the young man who had killed himself. As the old lady's light goes out, Clarissa thinks of that whole house, dark now, with all this activity going on around it. Putting out the light was like dying. It did not stop the activity of living; the pageant of life went on.

Clarissa takes comfort in this train of thoughts because of her "theory," confided to Peter Walsh in the old days. They had been riding up Shaftesbury Avenue in a bus when she felt herself everywhere—not "here, here, here," she said, tapping the back of the seat, "but everywhere." Her comfort in the relationship that she felt between the old woman across the way and the young man who killed himself derives from that part of her theory about the affinities between people and how one must seek out those who complete one: the "unseen part of us" might survive, "be recovered somehow attached to this person or that."

The line from Shakespeare, "Fear no more the heat of the sun," appearing several times, explains Clarissa's cryptic remark about the young man's suicide: "She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away." One need not fear the disasters of the physical life. Clarissa feels that if the young man had thrown his life away, she has caught it in hers. If the young man could complete his life in hers, then Clarissa could complete her life in others. It was a mystery—"here was one room; there was another"—but no longer a despairing mystery. This quality of excitement bubbling up from new-born vitality is what Peter Walsh recognizes in Clarissa at the book's conclusion: "What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said."

Virginia Woolf celebrated this ongoing vitality in many ways in her novels—welling up in love, at parties, and in the ordinary business of everyday life. She placed it in opposition to the mania of those in positions of power to control the course of events. In Jacob's Room, these were the men in clubs and cabinets. In Mrs. Dalloway, signs of power are everywhere: the royal coat of arms emblazoned on Hugh Whitbread's dispatch case; the automobile and a face "of the very greatest importance" glimpsed against its dove-gray interior; the ceremonial marching of troops; and the prime minister himself at the Dalloways' party.

Accompanying these symbols and panoply of institutional power, there is the pervasive sense of the damage done to human lives by the individual wielders of power: the waste of Hugh Whitbread's genuine qualities in the servilities of his position as a court functionary; the persistent meddling of Lady Bruton, utilizing her position in society to move people around as if they were pieces in a little game of her own. When Lady Bruton naps, we are informed, her arm assumes the position of a field marshal's holding his baton.

This malicious observation springs out of Woolf's indignation, but one of the measures of her skill as a novelist is the ability to discipline strong feelings into the lasting instrument of art: for instance, the subtle paralleling of the dove-gray car of Sir William Bradshaw to the royal car. Sir William, the psychiatrist who takes over Septimus Smith from Dr. Holmes, is another manifestation of the established order as malevolent. His sinister compulsion to dominate those who come within his control is linked through the case of Septimus to the political powers in Whitehall: it is "they" who provided the shambles of war in which his sanity was damaged, and it is Sir William who completes the job.

We are never allowed to forget the war: the painful picture of Lady Bexborough opening a bazaar with the message in hand of her son's death in combat; the company of soldiers marching to a cenotaph; and through it all the presence of Septimus Smith, a shambling, broken figure, who signals institutional guilt whenever he appears.

Virginia Woolf exposes relentlessly the mania to dominate of people like Lady Bruton, Sir William, and Dr. Holmes. The clinical madness of Septimus is represented as a consequence in their manipulations—indirectly, as in the case of Lady Bruton's political and social schemes, and directly in the perverted "healing" of Bradshaw and Holmes.

Septimus is the victim of a war-induced neurosis. Having volunteered early in the war of 1914–18, he suffered for four years the frustration of his idealistic impulse to "save England for Shakespeare." Withstanding the successive traumas of combat, he is stricken by the survivor's guilt after his friend Evans is killed. Crippled within, he seeks out Lucrezia to marry her, with the instinctive knowledge that her health is what his sickness needs. She appears to him as the tree of life,

as if all her petals were about her. She was a flowering tree; and through her branches looked out the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a sanctuary where she feared no one.

His instinct was right and she is good for him, but because she is inexperienced and a foreigner, she is not capable of protecting him against the malpractices, condoned by society, of such "healers" as Holmes and Sir William.

Sir William, a large distinguished-looking man, would not appear to be insane in any clinical sense. But he makes everyone profoundly uneasy in his presence. He is a self-made man, we discover, who has permitted himself to be shaped by the materialistic values that reward domination. In treating his patients he invoked all the forces of society to gain their submission. "Naked, defenceless, the exhausted, the friendless received the impress of Sir William's will. He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up." In his compulsion to put people away, Woolf casts Sir William as an agent of death. For insanity, as she describes it, is isolation from people, from things, from all the stuff of life—death, in short.

Sanity she identifies with life—the physical substance of it—women nursing babies, the blare of trumpets, legs moving energetically down the street. Even Richard Dalloway holding Clarissa's hand, though not the passionate moment of the kind he had imagined when he resolved to say I love you, is a moment of shared physical intimacy—it lives.

Peter Walsh, on the contrary, creating lurid fantasies around the woman he follows through the streets, is to a degree insane, to a degree dead, in that what he submits himself to is isolation: "All this one could never share—it smashed to atoms." The emptiness of Walsh's fantasy is like that of Katharine Hilbery's dream in Night and Day—her "magnanimous hero" riding his horse by the sea—a waste of imaginative power.

Walsh is torn between wanting to share and wanting to isolate himself. His life had been a constant vacillation, chasing one woman, then another, interspersed with "work, work, work." So that when in the end he is strongly moved by the vitality of Clarissa, it is not certain that this commitment is anything more than physical attraction or more than momentary. What is certain is that Clarissa has come through her own struggle against self-isolation and confirmed her rebirth into the health of shared existence.

In giving the "world of the sane and the insane side by side" (her primary objective in this novel), Virginia Woolf shows the sane reaching out to life—like Clarissa, recognizing in the old woman across the street someone whose life touches hers. Though her treatment of this idea is lyric, she does not attempt to screen the unpleasant or tragic with lyricism. Death is the dissonance that keeps her song complex and intriguing. In Clarissa, for instance, there is double awareness of mortality—through her recent serious illness and through having witnessed in girlhood the death of her gifted sister, crushed by a falling tree. The tree, so often in Woolf's writing the image of persistent life, by this accident reinforces the ambiguity of existence—like the light of Night and Day, it contains a portion of its opposite.

Many circumstances in Mrs. Dalloway, including the terrifying medical experience of Septimus Smith, were drawn from Virginia Woolf's life. The original intention to have Clarissa kill herself—in the pattern of Woolf's own intermittent, despair—was rejected in favor of a "dark double" who would take that act upon himself. Creating Septimus Smith led directly to Clarissa's mystical theory of vicarious death and shared existence, saving the novel from a damaging imbalance on the side of darkness. Virginia Woolf's success in using her own madness as a subject for fiction, evidently provided the necessary confidence for attempting the equally delicate naterials of her next novel, To the Lighthouse, which concerned her unhappy childhood and the memories, still sensitive, of her parents.

Source: Manly Johnson, "Mrs. Dalloway," in Virginia Woolf, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 52-63.


Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927.

―――――――, Virginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press, 1942.

Hawthorn, Jeremy, Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway": A Study in Alienation, Sussex University Press, 1975.

Henke, Suzette A., "Mrs. Dalloway: the Communion of Saints," in New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Jane Marcus, University of Nebraska Press, 1981, pp. 125-47.

Jensen, Emily, "Clarissa Dalloway's Respectable Suicide," in Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant, edited by Jane Marcus, University of Nebraska Press, 1983, pp. 162-79.

Page, Alex, "A Dangerous Day: Mrs. Dalloway and Her Double," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VII, No. 2, Summer 1961, pp. 115-24.

Woolf, Virginia, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell with Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols., Hogarth Press, 1977–1984.

―――――――, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," in The Gender of Modernism, edited by Bonnie Kime Scott, Indiana University Press, 1990.

For Further Study

Abel, Elizabeth, Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis, University of Chicago Press, 1989.

The brilliant chapter on Mrs. Dalloway from Abel's book examines the way in which Woolf's novel responds to and contests Freud's theories about women.

Daiches, David, Virginia Woolf, James Laughlin, 1942.

Daiches book gives an excellent, highly readable overview of Woolf's art and fictions.

Edwards, Lee R., "War and Roses: The Politics of Mrs. Dalloway," in The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards, University of Massachusetts Press, 1977, pp. 161-77.

This essay provides an important and informative aspect on the politics of Mrs. Dalloway.

Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Fussel's text is a definitive book on WWI—its life in the popular imagination, the way soldiers experienced it, and the poetry of its soldiers.

Lee, Hermione, Virginia Woolf, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.

Lee presents a recent and highly readable biography of the author.

Thomas, Sue, "Virginia Woolf's Septimus Smith and Contemporary Perceptions of Shellshock," in English Language Notes, Vol. 25, No. 2, December 1987, pp. 49-57.

Thomas offers an examination of the literature and attitudes about shell shock in Woolf's time.

Zwerdling, Alex, Virginia Woolf and the Real World, University of California Press, 1986.

Zwerdling's book discusses the social and political contexts and arguments of Woolf's novels.