Exploring consciousness and the modern: an introduction to Mrs Dalloway
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.
Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) is a novel set on a single day in a city in the middle of June. Woolf, who was re-reading Ulysses when she began to write her own book, chose 13 June 1923, in London; Joyce had selected 16 June 1904, in Dublin. But in making her central figure an upper-class middle-aged woman, married to a Conservative MP, Woolf staked out her own fictional ground. Unlike Joyce’s characters, Clarissa Dalloway is not mythologised, and the stages of her day are not compared to a classical epic. Indeed, by emphasising her heroine’s marital status in the title, Woolf draws our attention to the way Mrs Dalloway is an ordinary woman of her time, defined in terms of her husband, her identity submerged in his, even her first name erased by her social signature. Clarissa begins her day shopping for flowers for her party that evening, and thinking ‘What a lark!’ It’s easy to see her as superficial and slight. Yet following her thoughts, memories, anxieties and epiphanies from morning to night on the day when she is preparing to give a large party, and entering the minds of the people she passes or meets, we see a broad and deep cross section of London, five years after the Armistice.
Capturing the impact of cultural change
Woolf used Clarissa to explore the personal impact of cultural change, from the new technologies of automobiles, airplanes and movies, to the new openness of marital and sexual relationships and the beginnings of political upheaval. In planning the novel, Woolf had wished ‘to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense’.  Five years have passed since the Armistice, and Peter Walsh, returning for the first time since the war, is struck by the changes: ‘People looked different. Newspapers seemed different.’ There are major changes in English society as well. Alex Zwerdling has argued that indeed Mrs Dalloway is a ‘sharply critical’ examination of the ‘governing class’ at the turning-point of its power. In 1923, there were two Conservative prime ministers – Bonar Law, who resigned because of ill health, and Stanley Baldwin, who succeeded him in May – but in January 1924 the party was voted out, and Ramsay MacDonald would become the first Labour prime minister. Clarissa’s class ‘is living on borrowed time. Its values … are under attack … the empire was crumbling fast’. Woolf also wanted to connect the class system and the gender system, linking the subordination of the working class to the subordination of women. In a famous essay called ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), she argued that since 1920, ‘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.’  Neither character nor these relationships, she maintained, could be sufficiently represented by the literary conventions of the Edwardians, such as reliance on material evidence and external fact. ‘For us,’ she dramatically asserts, ‘those conventions are ruin, those tools are death’.
Stream of consciousness
The method she used, the representation of the stream of consciousness, reflected her need to go beyond the clumsiness of the factual realism in the novels of her Edwardian precursors, such as Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy, and find a more sensitive, artistic and profound way to represent character, an effort shared with her contemporaries D H Lawrence, Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield and Marcel Proust. In the 1920s, psychoanalysis was uncovering a multi-layered self in which dreams, memories and fantasies were as important as actions and thought. (The Hogarth Press, run by Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf, began to publish an English translation of Freud in 1921.) Philosophers were describing the self as the receiver of a tumult of sensations. Cubist artists combined multiple perspectives on their subjects to add an extra dimension to each of their paintings. Woolf believed that the omniscient narrator of the 19th-century novel had to be replaced by a narration from multiple perspectives as well; many points of view and many voices should be included. She was intrigued by the new medium of film, and her narrative technique is very cinematic, including flashbacks, montage, rapid cuts and panning between various characters as they respond to an external event, such as the aeroplane overhead. (The novel is historically accurate in its references; the first skywriter appeared in London in August 1922.) Woolf tunnelled into the memories and associations of each character to give them depth, and to bring the past into a single-day novel.
We know a lot about the composition of Mrs Dalloway between 1922 and 1924. Woolf’s holograph draft, called ‘The Hours’, is in the British Library, and her working notes are in the New York Public Library. She also treated the themes of the novel in an early group of short stories, collected as Mrs Dalloway’s Party, and discussed her writing process in her journal and letters. One central problem she faced was how to organise the flow of perceptions and memories; she did not want to have chapters with titles interrupting the illusion of a spontaneous stream of consciousness. She considered having a Greek chorus speak at intervals to sum everything up; she thought about dividing the text like the acts of a play. Finally, she decided to mark off sections with a double space; in the British edition published by the Hogarth Press, there are 12 spaces, like the hours on a clock. The striking of Big Ben further serves to punctuate the narrative. A central motif of the book is the analogy between the hours of the day and the female life cycle – what we would now call the biological clock. Woolf places Mrs Dalloway in the middle, and surrounds her with female characters ranging from 18 to over 80. As she was working on the various drafts, Woolf grew confident in her techniques and goals: ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice.’ 
Taking steps towards the grave
Although it is never directly stated in the novel, Clarissa, at the age of 52, has gone through menopause, and she has internalised the medical attitudes which saw the change of life as a hopeless process of decline. Having lost her youthful beauty, and lacking an occupation or an independent social role, she fears that the drama of her life has ended. Climbing the stairs to her room for a midday nap, she feels that she is taking the first steps towards the grave: ‘There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room. Women must put off their rich apparel. At midday they must disrobe… Narrower and narrower her bed would be.’ In midlife, Clarissa thinks she must divest herself of her sexuality, give up her physical self, and adjust to solitude, loneliness and the inevitable shrinking of her social space and opportunities. The attic room and the narrow bed are symbols of death.
Mrs Dalloway deals with people’s ability to cope with change – ageing, class mobility, war and peace, the ‘change of life’. Woolf contrasts Clarissa’s crisis with the despair of Septimus Warren Smith, a young veteran suffering from mental disturbances. His day is juxtaposed to hers, and his paranoid suspicions, vivid hallucinations and distorted perceptions are in sharp contrast to her orderly ones. In her early notes for the novel, Woolf imagined Septimus as a crazed terrorist plotting to avenge the generation of young men slaughtered and damaged in the Great War by assassinating the prime minister. Draft by draft, however, she turned him into a victim of ‘shell shock’, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Emotionally numbed by the war, grieving the death of his dearest friend Evans, angry at the society that seems to collude with destruction, guilt-ridden at his inability to care for his wife, Septimus becomes vulnerable to a psychotic break much worse than the neurotic symptoms caused by the traumas of combat. The extremity of his illness reflects the conditions of his society, one in which the emotional after-effects of the war have been evaded, self-control is worshipped and feelings have been suppressed.
Woolf drew on her own experience of madness to present his delusions, and to condemn the obtuse, even brutal doctors Holmes and Bradshaw, who fail to understand his terror, and attempt to have him committed to a clinic for a rest cure. The war seems to have left the ‘governing classes’ curiously untouched. They continue in their routines of civilised luncheons, letters to The Times, Academy paintings of sunsets and cows, and professional management. To escape them all, Septimus commits suicide by leaping from a window.
A life-affirming pageant
Woolf had intended the party which ends the novel to express ‘life in every variety & and full of anticipation; while S. dies’. For Clarissa, it is a happy occasion. Re-meeting the prosperous mother of five who had long ago been the object of her schoolgirl crush, and talking to Peter Walsh, a restless immature man she might have married, she affirms the choices she has made. The guests who gather in her bright home come from an upper-class London society that includes the pompous, the frivolous, the narrow-minded and the snobbish, as well as some lost souls she has included out of kindness. Yet behind their decorous façades, Woolf shows us their hidden memories and troubled feelings, especially fears of ageing and death; and Clarissa senses the bravery of their performances. At the height of the party, she abruptly learns from Dr Bradshaw that one of his patients, a young soldier, had killed himself that afternoon. Shocked at the news, she retreats to a little room to meditate in solitude on the great unanswerable questions of meaning, mortality and purpose. She emerges with an understanding of the party as a life-affirming communal pageant. The internal changes Clarissa undergoes during her day mirror the transformations in her society. Despite its obsession with loneliness and death, Mrs Dalloway is a compassionate and optimistic novel, ending as it begins, with a tribute to endurance, survival, fellowship and joy.
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume II 1920–1924, ed. by Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeiliee (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), p. 248 (entry for 19 June 1923).
- Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3. 1919–1924, ed. by Andrew McNellie (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), pp. 420–36 (p. 422).
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, p. 186 (entry for 26 July 1922).
Banner illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion.
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Contributor: Elaine Showalter
Elaine Showalter is Professor Emerita of English and Avalon Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. She has published extensively on Victorian and American literature, 20th and 21st century fiction, women’s writing, and Anglo-American culture. Her most recent book is A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.