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.
- Article by:
- Elaine Showalter
- Literature 1900–1950, Exploring identity, Capturing and creating the modern
Elaine Showalter describes how, in Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses stream of consciousness to enter the minds of her characters and portray cultural and individual change in the period following the First World War.
- Article by:
- Matthew Taunton
- European influence, Capturing and creating the modern
Matthew Taunton explains how the work of a French novelist and a French philosopher influenced the way many modernist writers, including Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot, depict consciousness and time.
- Article by:
- David Bradshaw
- Literature 1900–1950, Capturing and creating the modern, Power and conflict
Mrs Dalloway, which takes place on one day in June 1923, shows how the First World War continued to affect those who had lived through it, five years after it ended. David Bradshaw explores the novel's commemoration of the dead and evocations of trauma and mourning.
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Professor Elaine Showalter explores modernity, consciousness, gender and time in Virginia Woolf’s ground-breaking work, Mrs Dalloway. The film is shot around the streets of London, as well as at the British Library and at Gordon Square in Bloomsbury where Virginia and her siblings lived in the early 20th century. The film offers rare glimpses into the manuscript draft of the novel. - video