This essay will be investigating to what extent Woolf used her novel Mrs Dalloway to criticise the social system. To do this I will be taking into account the year the novel was written, and examining the social situations which the reader could have perceived to be critical. Also, it will be important to acknowledge that some of the socially critical situations Woolf uses had not been encountered before, and to reason that perhaps Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway to try and draw public attentions to the reaction to events that the general public, politicians and all the social classes had no idea how to deal with.
At the same time the essay will use these points to connect the novel and Woolf to its modernist roots. Woolf began writing what would become Mrs Dalloway in the summer of 1922 shortly after World War 1 had ended. Public suffering from the war was still inflicting its massive after effects, and Woolf wanted to write an expression of what she felt was happening. On my initial forays into researching Virginia Woolf my opinion was very closed, I felt she was very insular. Commenting on the outside world from the safety of her own well educated and wealthy life.
But now I feel I passed judgment too quickly. Woolf came from a challenging background, loosing her mother at a young age and coping with depression at different stages of her life. She was an imperative aspect of a groundbreaking generation of people who were trying to shake off their Victorian roots and reach for something new, something different. Which is what we now know as the modernist era, where all absolute truths were questioned and life was about asking the where, why and who, of what they were.
It must have been a very unsettling time, and society itself was still trying to come to terms with new learning curves concerning religion, science and Darwinism. But with the events of The War merely surviving had taken immediate precedence. Many young men had gone to fight, and the women had stepped into multi-functioning roles of being care giver, provider, and both mother and father. Despite the difficulty put upon those left behind, it also brought a feminine freedom and individuality.
Soldiers returning from battle were firstly faced with the fact that their wives, mothers and sisters had evolved into far more independent creatures in their absence, but they were also facing the tasks of re-socialisation, battle fatigue and post war stress, these are words which we commonly know and understand today. But this was not the case in 1922. The Victorian pre-war years were about solid truths; religion, royalty, family and the eventuality that everything would ‘come good’ in the end, and for Woolf shaking off these preconceived notions that were widely taught and understood during her childhood must have been very confusing.
But to concentrate on Woolf from a literary angle she was one of the new style of writers of the modernist era, where the ‘old fashioned’ bildungsroman was cast aside. The bildungsroman novels with their epic tales that spanned the life of their hero and reached a satisfying end of ‘doing the right thing’ no longer fit into society. Food rationing, war, death and struggling against all odds, had somehow lifted the veil of innocence that novels such as ‘Great expectations’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ wrote about.
Woolf was a part of a society that wandered why? Why did so many young men go to die, and why was society not willing to admit that there was something desperately wrong with the war torn young men returning home from the field? Being part of the modernist generation meant to strive for change, and to question everything, even the existence of an all powerful and righteous God. But if there is no God, then what to believe?
For all the generations before Woolf had believed in the divine right of the monarchy to rule, and that living a just life before God allowed entry to heaven. These solid truths were suddenly ripped away, and the belief in government and political structure were to be thrown out with them. Woolf and her fellows were creating a whole new way of life, of education, art and science. With thanks to authors like Woolf and the Bloomsbury group of which she was a part, literary works were written in many narratives, and timelines were fluid.
Woolf wanted fiction to get at something abstract, to use the mundane events of life to somehow create the bigger picture, there were no massive and life changing events in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf didn’t use conventional methods to build tension and drama, even Septimus’s eventual suicide was played down, the plot was purposely based around a party. Something that would be perceived as frivolous and unimportant. Woolf searched for her writing form, moving her narrative and stopping the plot from becoming chronological. Her design involves moving the characters through the streets of London while also timing their movements in a way that will create the impression of disparate events occurring simultaneously. ‘1 Novels were not expected or even preferred in an orderly or familiar style anymore. It was not until 1934 when Ezra Pound murmured what would be the long-lasting ‘Make it new’2, but it would seem that this was the sentiment long before he announced it. Woolf perfected her now famous ‘tunneling technique’ where she built her characters personalities and backgrounds (and then interlinked them where required) in Mrs Dalloway.
The reader could be forgiven for thinking that Woolf wrote the book as a winding tale allowing the characters to be her guide, but Woolf agonized over every little aspect. Despite the timeline being fluid, Woolf had it planned out meticulously (as her diary shows) and each character played their part. One of the most important social aspects of the tale is how Woolf handles the character of Septimus. His story runs parallel with Mrs Dalloway, despite the fact that they never meet, only possibly being in the park at the same time – but their paths never cross.
Septimus becomes the epitome of the result of war. ‘Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had the look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world had raised its whip; where will it descend?… Septimus thought, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought.
Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose? ‘3 On first reading Mrs Dalloway I felt that his plight had been trivialized, but it was in overlooking the fact that the book was written over eighty years ago that exemplifies the longevity of what and how Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway. The story becomes almost ageless as the same social inadequacies continue to raise their heads even today. It is only now with the experience of many Wars behind us that we are learning from our mistakes of the past.
Septimus was returning from the first major War of our modern time, and no-one understood the ravages that the bloodshed and horror would cause to the human mind. Woolf having been a sufferer herself of a form of depression used Septimus as a vehicle to raise awareness, also managing to highlight the plight of soldiers returning from battle and how the medical profession had failed them, as discussed in the introduction to Mrs Dalloway. ‘Septimus’s case highlights the fashion in which society expected the war veteran to return to normalcy immediately, showing little patience with and even marginalizing those who could not instantly conform.
But even more importantly, Septimus’s case allows Woolf to launch a sustained attack on the medical community of her time. ‘4 Woolf used her novel very cleverly; it would seem that Woolf made Mrs Dalloway a mirror that she turned on society, not to ridicule or judge but to question. To question how Septimus could be treated like a child and that the prescription for his ailment was bed rest, and to say that quiet would make him feel better, (a treatment that she herself loathed) being left to rest with nothing more than the silence of ones mind must have seemed like a form of torture.
But by using her idea to pen a story in the abstract, she managed to create such a depth of emotion when writing about Septimus, even though she still wrote without the drama. Woolf wrote about families left without son’s and father’s as an everyday event, and it is so easy to forget that Woolf wasn’t trying to illicit anger or trivialize these events, but she was writing about life, exactly as it happened. Mrs Dalloway is an everyday notion of an upper class women holding a party and fretting about its success. It is also an everyday notion of a woman in her early fifties feeling her age and looking back to her past.
Woolf’s genius is that buy tying these insignificant things together she very quietly paints a seemingly ugly picture of what society has become, but whether it was the success of her ‘tunneling’ strategy with her characters or her immense skill as a writer, she still manages to leave the reader with a sadness for Septimus, and despite Clarrisa’s apathy she is still a sad character herself that touches the reader. Clarrisa Dalloway stays the central point to the story, despite the shifting narrative and addition of figures from her past and present. Woolf uses Clarrisa to dissect what a socially acceptable woman has become.
Clarrisa is effected and melancholy, she doesn’t feel satisfied with her life, but she doesn’t blame anyone for that either. Clarrisa becomes a somewhat empty vessel, any fire or passion she might have once possessed as a younger women has been snuffed out, strangled by the restraint that women had placed upon them in that era. She almost drifts through the story. Woolf wrote Clarrisa to be the double to Septimus, and for all intents Woolf was going to kill her off at the end, until she decided to grant Septimus this blessed relief. Woolf wrote Clarrisa as she perceived a socialite’s life to be, and what she perceived it to represent.
Mrs Dalloway paints a very empty picture, Clarrisa although having been moulded by her mollycoddled lifestyle, still manages to illicit the sympathy of the reader. She has nothing left, nothing to live for and nothing to loose. It is almost as if her life has passed her by without her noticing. I can’t help but wonder if Woolf felt this way about herself, she didn’t fit into the Victorian ethic she was raised with because of her own absolute beliefs in her right to question and learn, but was she then left feeling lost and isolated in her own life?
Was Mrs Dalloway a way to exercise her own ghosts? In this I feel that Virginia Woolf did set about making a statement about society, about war and medical practice. But also about feminism, she uses her views of Richard and how if Clarrisa were to have married him he would have stifled her. How he wanted everything to be done together and how he expected her to behave and think in a certain way. Clarrisa thinks back to her time with Sally Seaton, recalling that she loved her.
By questioning what love is in a time when society was considerably more homophobic than it is now, emphasizes how very brave Woolf was prepared to be in her quest for answers and honest literary content. To conclude, did Woolf manage to use abstract fiction to lead the reader down a path that uncovers painful truths along the way? Truths such as the struggle of returning soldiers from war, the failure of the medical society to treat them, and even how society itself pressured them to return to normalcy as quickly as possible.
Did she in fact manage to use Mrs Dalloway to show how dissatisfied many women were with their lives; how they found them nothing more than a hopeless repetition uncover these failings? I think the answer is a resounding yes. Instead of writing an essay or journalistic piece that passed judgment and could have been seen as inflammatory, (especially coming from a woman writer) Woolf wrote a piece of fiction that was put before the masses, yet still enabled her to get her point across, and to be heard.
She didn’t jeopardize her position in society, nor her position lecturing to students, and by maintaining her stance she no doubt was able to plant the seed of change in many of the young minds she came into contact with. Having researched much about her personal life it also becomes clear that Woolf blamed herself as well. She wasn’t stood on a pedestal assuming that she was innocent of society’s crimes as I had initially thought, but she counted herself as one amongst its numbers. She felt equally responsible and used the discourse of Mrs Dalloway as a treatise of her time.