In her fourth novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925), the English modernist writer Virginia Woolf took on the subject of the English middle classes in the aftermath of the 1914–18 war. She noted in her diary that she wanted ‘to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense’.
The form, as well as the content of the novel is quintessentially ‘modern’. Woolf’s pioneering ‘stream of consciousness’ technique reflected her desire to show the multifaceted nature of consciousness and to capture the impact of the fast-changing modern world on the psyche. A dream-like narrative carries the reader through a crowded city and into the minds of different isolated individuals: we particularly focus on Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged society lady and Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked young demobbed soldier. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), the action is primarily confined to one day; in this case in June 1923.
The novel begins with the line ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ as she spends the day preparing for a party, and ends with the party taking place in the evening, as she hears in passing of Septimus’s suicide. Nevertheless, the book takes us out of any strict temporal frame by incorporating moments of reminiscence from a number of characters.
From Septimus’s past we learn that his social class ruled him out of going to university; he was ‘one of those half-educated, self-educated men whose education is all learnt from books borrowed from public libraries’, and his desire to be a poet ultimately led him to enlist in the army, as if to defend an idealised Shakespearean England. Woolf’s treatment of the psychiatric care he receives – Septimus kills himself when he learns he is being committed to a sanatorium – seems to draw on her own experience of mental illness.
Mrs Dalloway’s more gentle, upper-class regrets and sense of isolation provide a kind of counter-rhythm. Her daughter, Elizabeth, is inescapably symbolic of Clarissa’s own young womanhood, and she is reminded of paths in love and life she didn’t take by her old suitor Peter Walsh, and by Sally Seton, whom she once kissed, but has now married a provincial businessman.
The novel has become one of Woolf’s most famous works and one of the defining texts of literary modernism.