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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: A Modernist Masterpiece
Introduction: Mrs Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that was published in 1925. It is one of the most celebrated works of modernist literature, a genre that experimented with new forms and techniques to capture the complexity and diversity of human experience in the 20th century. The novel follows the lives of several characters on a single day in London in June 1923, focusing mainly on Clarissa Dalloway, a wealthy socialite who is preparing to host a party in the evening. Through the use of stream-of-consciousness narration, symbolism, and imagery, Woolf explores themes such as time and memory, life and death, society and individuality. In this article, we will summarize the plot, style, themes, reception, and legacy of this masterpiece.
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The Plot of Mrs Dalloway
Summary: Mrs Dalloway is essentially plotless; what action there is takes place mainly in the characters consciousness. The novel covers one day from morning to night in one womans life. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife, walks through her London neighborhood to prepare for the party she will host that evening. When she returns from flower shopping, an old suitor and friend, Peter Walsh, drops by her house unexpectedly. The two have always judged each other harshly, and their meeting in the present intertwines with their thoughts of the past. Years earlier, Clarissa refused Peters marriage proposal, and Peter has never quite gotten over it. Peter asks Clarissa if she is happy with her husband, Richard, but before she can answer, her daughter, Elizabeth, enters the room. Peter leaves and goes to Regents Park. He thinks about Clarissas refusal, which still obsesses him.
The point of view then shifts to Septimus, a veteran of World War I who was injured in trench warfare and now suffers from shell shock. Septimus and his Italian wife, Lucrezia, pass time in Regents Park. They are waiting for Septimuss appointment with Sir William Bradshaw, a celebrated psychiatrist. Before the war, Septimus was a budding young poet and lover of Shakespeare; when the war broke out, he enlisted immediately for romantic patriotic reasons. He became numb to the horrors of war and its aftermath: when his friend Evans died, he felt little sadness. Now Septimus sees nothing of worth in the England he fought for, and he has lost the desire to preserve either his society or himself. Suicidal, he believes his lack of feeling is a crime. Clearly Septimuss experiences in the war have permanently scarred him, and he has serious mental problems. However, Sir William does not listen to what Septimus says and diagnoses a lack of proportion. Sir William plans to separate Septimus from Lucrezia and send him to a mental institution in the country.
Richard Dalloway eats lunch with Hugh Whitbread and Lady Bruton, members of high society. The men help Lady Bruton write a letter to the Times, London's largest newspaper. After lunch, Richard returns home to Clarissa with a large bunch of roses. He intends to tell her that he loves her but finds that he cannot, because it has been so long since he last said it. Clarissa considers the void that exists between people, even between husband and wife. Even though she values the privacy she is able to maintain in her marriage, considering it vital to the success of the relationship, at the same time she finds slightly disturbing the fact that Richard doesnt know everything about her. Clarissa sees off Elizabeth and her history teacher, Miss Kilman, who are going shopping. The two older women despise one another passionately, each believing the other to be an oppressive force over Elizabeth.
Peter Walsh visits an old friend, Sally Seton, whom he has not seen since Clarissas rejection of him. Sally is now Lady Rosseter, married to a self-made millionaire and mother of five boys. She tells Peter about all of their mutual friends from the old days at Bourton, Clarissas family home in the country where Peter first met her. Peter tells Sally about his recent affair with a married woman in India, where he has been living as a colonial administrator. He admits that he still loves Clarissa.
Septimus and Lucrezia return home after Septimuss appointment. Septimus is terrified by Sir Williams plan to send him away from his wife. He hears voices and sees visions of Evans. He decides to kill himself to escape his fate and to protect Lucrezia from his madness. He throws himself out of the window just as Clarissas party is about to begin.
Clarissas party is attended by most of the characters in the novel, including people from her past and present. She entertains her guests, but feels empty and unhappy. She hears about Septimuss suicide from Sir William and Lady Bradshaw, who are among her guests. She feels a sudden connection with the dead stranger, whom she sees as a fellow sufferer and rebel against the oppressive society. She withdraws to her room and ponders the meaning of life and death. She decides that she must accept both joy and pain as part of life. She rejoins her guests with a renewed sense of gratitude and hope. She meets Peter again, who is impressed by her charm and success. The novel ends with Peters question: What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? . . . What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.
The Style of Mrs Dalloway
Summary: Mrs Dalloway is a novel that showcases Woolf's mastery of style as a modernist writer. She employs various techniques such as stream of consciousness, symbolism, and imagery to create a novel that is rich in psychological depth, poetic beauty, and thematic resonance.
Stream of Consciousness
Explanation: Symbolism is a technique that uses objects, characters, figures, or colors to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Woolf uses symbolism to convey her themes and to create connections and contrasts between her characters and their situations. Some of the symbols she uses are:
The Prime Minister: The prime minister in Mrs Dalloway embodies Englands old values and hierarchical social system, which are in decline. When Peter Walsh wants to insult Clarissa and suggest she will sell out and become a society hostess, he says she will marry a prime minister. When Lady Bruton, a champion of English tradition, wants to compliment Hugh, she calls him My Prime Minister. The prime minister is a figure from the old establishment, which Clarissa and Septimus are struggling against. Mrs. Dalloway takes place after World War I, a time when the English looked desperately for meaning in the old symbols but found the symbols hollow. When the conservative prime minister finally arrives at Clarissas party, his appearance is unimpressive. The old pyramidal social system that benefited the very rich before the war is now decaying, and the symbols of its greatness have become pathetic.
Peter Walshs Pocketknife and Other Weapons: Peter Walsh plays constantly with his pocketknife, and the opening, closing, and fiddling with the knife suggest his flightiness and inability to make decisions. He cannot decide what he feels and doesnt know whether he abhors English tradition and wants to fight it, or whether he accepts English civilization just as it is. The pocketknife reveals Peters defensiveness. He is armed with the knife, in a sense, when he pays an unexpected visit to Clarissa, while she herself is armed with her sewing scissors. Their weapons make them equal competitors. Knives and weapons are also phallic symbols, hinting at sexuality and power. Peter cannot define his own identity, and his constant fidgeting with the knife suggests how uncomfortable he is with his masculinity. Characters fall into two groups: those who are armed and those who are not. Ellie Henderson, for example, is weaponless, because she is poor and has not been trained for any career. Her ambiguous relationship with her friend Edith also puts her at a disadvantage in society, leaving her even less able to defend herself. Septimus, psychologically crippled by the literal weapons of war, commits suicide by impaling himself on a metal fence, showing the danger lurking behind man-made boundaries.
The Old Woman in the Window: The old woman in the window across from Clarissas house represents the privacy of the soul and the loneliness that goes with it, both of which will increase as Clarissa grows older. Clarissa sees the future in the old woman: She herself will grow old and become more and more alone, since that is the nature of life.
Flowers: Flowers are a traditional symbol of love and beauty, but they also have a darker side: they are fragile, ephemeral, and often used for funerals. Woolf uses flowers to show the contrast between Clarissa's outward appearance and inner feelings. The novel begins with Clarissa saying she will "buy the flowers herself," which shows her independence and desire for beauty. She also loves flowers because they remind her of her past love for Sally Seton, whom she kissed among the roses at Bourton. However, flowers also symbolize death and decay in the novel. Septimus sees human faces in the flowers that Lucrezia buys for him, which terrifies him. He also throws down his wife's bouquet when he decides to kill himself. Richard gives Clarissa roses as a gesture of love, but he cannot say the words aloud. Clarissa feels that flowers are "the only gift" for her party guests, who are like "phantoms" to her.
Big Ben: Big Ben is a famous clock tower and London monument, but it also serves as an interesting symbol of time and tradition in the book. The clock tower is part of the Palace of Westminster, the seat of British government, and represents the stability and authority of England's past. However, Big Ben also marks the passing of time with its chimes, which remind the characters of their mortality and their changing circumstances. Clarissa feels that Big Ben "strikes" her on the chest, as if to warn her of her approaching death. Septimus hears the clock as a voice of judgment, telling him to "kill himself." Peter feels that Big Ben "dominates" him, as if to mock his insignificance. Woolf uses Big Ben to show how time and history affect the lives and choices of her characters.
The Themes of Mrs Dalloway
Summary: Mrs Dalloway is a novel that explores the profound and universal questions of human existence. Woolf addresses themes such as time and memory, life and death, society and individuality, and how they shape the characters' identities and experiences.
Time and Memory
Explanation: Time and memory are central themes in Mrs Dalloway, as Woolf examines how they affect the characters' sense of self and reality. The novel takes place in a single day, but it also spans several decades through the characters' memories and flashbacks. Woolf shows how the past influences the present, and how the present can change the meaning of the past. For example, Clarissa remembers her youth at Bourton, where she was happy and free, but also where she made the crucial decision to marry Richard instead of Peter or Sally. She wonders if she made the right choice, and how her life would have been different otherwise. She also feels that she has lost some of her vitality and passion over the years, and that she is living in a "present without a future." Septimus suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes him unable to forget the horrors of war. He is haunted by the death of his friend Evans, and by the guilt of surviving. He feels disconnected from reality, and from his wife Lucrezia. He believes that he has a special insight into the nature of time, which he sees as a continuous stream that transcends human boundaries. He thinks that death is not an end, but a liberation from the tyranny of time. Woolf uses various techniques to convey the theme of time and memory, such as stream of