Mrs Dalloway (published on 14 May 1925) is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway in post-World War I England. Mrs Dalloway continues to be one of Woolf's best-known novels.
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The author, Virginia Woolf, uses a literary structure called "stream of consciousness." Using this technique, the author gives us a glimpse into mostly the thoughts and feelings of the narrator. The typical action-centered way of telling the story is replaced with a style that mimics the way a person's thoughts might flow. Hence, the appropriate naming of this technique-- "stream of consciousness."
Because this story is told using the stream of consciousness technique, you will often need to pay attention "when" the character is in time. Take a moment to think about Clarissa's flashback and who, when, what she is thinking about. The video below will help you understand flashback. (This annotation contains a video)
The narrator's description of her surroundings in London create a ____________ tone as this story begins.
World War I had just ended. The following video takes a very entertaining look at the history of World War I. Pay careful attention to Britain's involvement in this war, because the story you are reading is set here. (This annotation contains a video)
As Clarissa reflects on her past with Peter, what does she hold against him?
St. James's Park is located within the city of London, along the Thames River. It overlooks the London Eye, a large ferris wheel on the banks of the river. (This annotation contains an image)
Remember that the point of view of this story takes place within the head of characters. Although Clarissa's thoughts seem to meander, we get a clear sense that she is thinking deeply about a couple of things--life and death. She thinks back to her life with Peter, thinks about how much she enjoys life now, and thinks about death. Clarissa is thinking like an existentialist in this novel--one who tries to life more fully by grappling with the fear of death. For more information on Existentialism follow this link below. (This annotation contains a link)
These lines come from the Shakespearean play, Cymbeline. The lines were spoken during a funeral in a hymn. They suggest facing death without fear.
How has society taken away Clarrisa's sense of identity? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
The action of this novel takes place slowly. In fact, the plot of the entire novel will happen in the course of one day. Clarissa's first objective in this story is to pick up flowers for her party that she is throwing later that evening.
The entrance of the car and its mysterious passenger is meant to highlight what about this London society?
This signals a shift in point of view. The story will now cover the thoughts and events in Septimus' life.
As with Clarrisa, Septimus also has thoughts about his existence and purpose. Historians speculate that one reason existentialism was such a popular topic during the early 20th century is because of effects World War I had on multiple generations--young men dead, others wounded, countries in fear of dictators and oppressive regimes.
Which of the following words best describes the tone in this highlighted passage?
Virginia Woolf, though not writing a typical dialogue-driven plot, uses a lot of imagery and figurative language. The following video explains how imagery works in fiction. Be prepared to answer questions about these literary elements as you read on. (This annotation contains a video)
What does the author suggest by using the metaphor "a slight ripple" in this highlighted section of the text?
This scene in front of the Queen's residence is meant to draw attention to how the people of England looked reverently, religiously, and maybe even superstitiously towards the Royal Family. It also draws attention to the class system--poor and wealthy--that characterized much of the British empire. What statements do you think the author is trying to make about the British empire and the class system through this section of the story?
What can you infer about Septimus based on his reaction to the clouds and the comments Dr. Holmes has made to his wife?
Flowers to Clarissa. Trees to Septimus. As two stories unfold in parallel plots, it is clear that trees and flowers--both plants--represent life for both of these characters. They bring them life and make them feel alive.
Which line from the text best indicates how Lucrezia does not see "life" in the world around her as Septimus and Clarissa do?
A major theme in this story has to do with communication and its importance in feeling alive. Lucrezia feels completely alone because her husband rarely acknowledges her. Although we don't know the story behind what has strained their marriage, we know that both are struggling with connecting to each other. What are your initial impressions of this couple?
What is the author's purpose of emphasizing how Lucrezia repeatedly says "Look" to her husband?
Maisie represents naivete. She overreacts to a complicated marriage. She is a passer-by in this story, and we just happened to catch glimpse of her thoughts--most likely so the author could make a statement about marriage.
What imagery in this scene illuminates the theme of how important it is to just enjoy life?
The Define feature will help you discover the meaning of words as you read this curriculet. To find the meaning of a single word, simply highlight a word and hold down the mouse key. This will bring up an option for "Define." Click to find a dictionary definition for almost any word. Practice with this highlighted word.
The author just provided several, very short glimpses into the thoughts of a few different individuals in London who are in the park that Clarissa walks through. Each has his or her own ideas of marriage, life, the meaning of honor. Think for a moment about why the author would give you a glimpse into the minds of characters who are not even part of the plot.
Clarissa's thoughts indicated that she is a character who has an elaborate inner-life. Not only is she deeply introspective, but she also has the capacity to feel deeply and passionately about things. So far, though, she keeps most of these thoughts private and interacts very little with the outside world. I wonder if this will change?
What seems to bother Clarissa most when she returns home?
Clarissa is not only confused about her life, death, and her marriage, but also about her sexuality. She implies that at times she feels attracted to other women. The imagery she uses in her mind express her confusion and pain over not understanding the strong emotions she has towards some women. In 20th century England, homosexuality was taboo. Men and women were ostracized for having these feelings and/or acting upon them. Her conflict is having to keep these feelings private.
What about Susan is probably most appealing to Clarissa?
Watch the following video below on motifs. Shakespeare will appear as a motif often throughout this text. Here, Clarissa understands her emotions best within the context of Othello's distraughtness--he wishes himself dead because he has so much remorse. Death would make him happy. Clarissa has remorse because she never acted upon her feelings for Sally. (This annotation contains a video)
Explain why Clarissa feels so violated by Peter's question. Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Clarissa's reflection on herself is actually quite common. She is thinking about her identity. The party is a catalyst that is making her question how she feels and thinks inside from how she has learned to act as a sophisticated upper-class wife. Have you ever been conflicted inside where you felt one way but knew you should act another way?
This sudden intrusion on Clarissa in her room while she thinks away, highlights the theme of
Did you notice the knife that Peter holds? It is symbolic in the context of this story. Clarissa feels judged, analyzed, dissected, per se, by Peter. As he wields his knife through the air, it becomes a symbol of oppression and harshness. Notice, too, that Clarissa holds an instrument that is opposite in meaning--a needle and thread, which typically are used to repair and mend.
Why does Peter feel like a failure?
The "egotism" that drives Clarissa "on, on, on..." is a passion that a person might feel when they see an ex-significant other. One wants to show the other person how well he or she has done; but also, sometimes hopes the other person is doing just as well. Have you ever been around an ex and had this awkward experience?
What literary element in the text does the author use to convey the theme of regret and remorse?
Take a moment and reflect upon the beautiful imagery Woolf uses to describe how Peter feels. Clarissa's physical movements evoke a sense of grace--"...as she came tinkling, rustling..." Her presence creates an atmosphere of magic in how she seemed "to make the moon...rise...in the summer sky." How might you see someone you're enamored with?
Big Ben (shown below) is a large clock that rests in a tower on the corner of the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament and the Royal Family hold important appointments. The clock is symbolic of two things in this novel--the passage of time and the overarching presence of the British empire. Both impose on all on the characters in this novel and have thematic effects on the plot. On an interesting note, Woolf almost named her novel "The Hours" because of the importance of time in this story. (This annotation contains an image)
What effects does the fleeting passage of time have upon the characters so far in this novel? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Yes, it appears as if Peter is stalking this woman. A bit creepy, but one must ask why he is doing this. His pursuit of this woman brings another theme into focus for the reader. Authors often make themes emerge like this. Watch the following video on emerging themes and be prepared to answer more questions about themes in the coming pages. (This annotation contains a video)
Peter's impulsive pursuit of this woman touches upon an important theme in this novel. What theme emerges through his actions?
Regent's Park, shown below, lies within the heart of London. Similar to the other parks in this story, this one draws out sentimental feelings from a main character and becomes a place of isolation and refuge--a private place. (This annotation contains an image)
This idea reflects the existential world view that the physical world is all there is. No supernatural. No divine beings. Reality, then, is what we believe it is in our thoughts. Many people held to this philosophy, especially after WWI, because it was hard to believe that God would allow so many men, women, and children to die.
Why does Peter awake and shout this phrase? Use textual evidence to support your response.
If you've seen or read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, you will remember how flashbacks served as an integral part of the narrative. They had a specific purpose. Think carefully about the purpose of this highlighted passage and then answer the question that follows.
Why does the author most likely include this flashback?
What imagery in this scene best represents the unchangeable nature of Peter and Clarissa's relationship?
Part I Quiz
The fear and misunderstanding of mental illness is a very common theme in many early 20th century texts. People who exhibited behaviors and symptoms of mental illness were often alienated, treated harshly, and sometimes separated from society. With a lack of medical understanding, many individuals were overdosed, physically and mentally impaired (by lobotomies), and practically imprisoned.
Lucrezia's complaints are ironic. Although she might be suffering from not having a fully functional and mentally stable husband, her husband is suffering, too. Do you think her response to his illness is warranted?
Which of the following is not a symptom that Septimus suffers?
Pay attention to the motifs that appear in Septimus' thoughts--water, trees, and flowers. His comments here about going "under the sea" have deep significance on his psychological state. Water is a dark, force that overwhelms the soul and makes a person feel drowned. Flowers, on the other hand, could be considered life-giving. This mixture of feelings in Septimus is a portrait of a mind plagued by mental illness. Watch the following video from Shutter Island, based on the novel of the same name which also discusses mental illness. Consider how similar motifs are used in this scene. (This annotation contains a video)
What does Evan symbolize in Septimus' mind?
Twelve o'clock, or noon, represents a midpoint of the day. The lives of these characters are unfolded, unpacked, and being made visible by the author in one short day. Think about a time when in just one day, your whole world might have changed. Perhaps you experienced something like the birth of a new sibling. A lot can change in just one day.
Women were not always allowed to apply makeup in public. Rogue is another word for lipstick.
What attitude does Peter carry towards Richard Dalloway?
Recall that Shakespeare is a motif used in this novel to represent the freedom of creative thought and expression that run rich in the history of the English people. The fact that Richard dislikes Shakespeare tells us about his attitude towards this aspect of his culture--one of censorship and elitism.
What does this statement about Richard mean to imply?
Because the narration of this story is told from the minds of the characters in this story, internal conflicts become magnified. The issues that each character grapples with form an important part of character development. As readers we wonder why a character might feel a certain way, or what a character might do next. The insider view of the conflicts characters face is what makes this type of narrative feel so messy and so human. It captures real experiences, thoughts, and emotions that many other authors might be afraid to breach. Watch the following video on internal conflict to learn more about its role in literature. (This annotation contains a video)
In analyzing and scrutinizing Clarissa, Peter expresses his own dissatisfaction with life. Although she might be duplicitous (but who isn't at some point), he only further demonstrates why she chose not to stay with him--he picks her apart. The reader might wonder if this is Peter's healthy and natural way of getting over her, or if it's an obsession that will consume him. What do you think will become of Peter and his conflict?
What does the old woman's song symbolize? What is Peter's reaction to her song? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Characters in this story pivot precariously between inspiration and despair. Reiza was in despair because of the condition of her marriage and the enigmatic state of her husband, but hearing the old woman's song, she finds inspiration and hope. She realizes how foolish it is to be unhappy all the time. Think about other characters in this story and which side of the line they stand on.
Septimus is recollecting his past accomplishments and who he was before the war. He was a passionate and talented poet.
Personification is used here to create vivid imagery in the mind of the reader. Take a moment to imagine the "insidious...fingers of the European War" taking young men away to die.
What brought on Septimus' instability?
Septimus is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder--PTSD. It is a psychological illness that occurs to people who witness or personally experience brutal crimes or severe tragedies. Many soldiers suffer from PTSD after witnessing so much death and destruction in war. The following page provides a description of this disorder: (This annotation contains a link)
How does Septimus' perception about Shakespeare change?
Objects the characters' surroundings are often associated with the motifs in this novel. This one, for example, shows how Septimus looks at his wife as an oppressive force lacking life-giving qualities.
What kind of character does Dr. Holmes come across as?
As mentioned earlier in the text, an important theme in this story has to do with how difficult it is for people to communicate in a society that is pridefully private. Septimus just wants someone to listen to him, to understand him, yet he fears talking about what really bothers him.
Septimus repeats the word "war" as a question to show us that he doubts what that word really means. He questions everything and philosophizes about everything. A side-effect of PTSD is that people go into life feeling confident they know most things, only to come out of an event believing they know nothing anymore.
Why does Septimus have such a negative opinion of human nature? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Sir William's approach to psychological healing requires that Septimus leave his home. This is offensive to both Rezia and Septimus. Sir William's solution is to isolate individuals, and to give them a sense of "proportion". What do you think of his approach?
This long passage expresses the author's perspective on Sir William's treatment of the mentally ill. What is the main idea of the critique that Woolf offers about this treatment?
The plot of this narrative seems to flow smoothly like a river. One character's thoughts (almost imperceptibly at times) end and another's begins. Take the the transition that occurs here, for example. This structural effect of a flowing point of view only adds more meaning to the themes in this text. Watch the following video below to learn more about structure and other ways it affects the story. (This annotation contains a video)
What initial impression does the author intend to create about Hugh?
The tone of this passage that describes food magically appearing and being paid for is meant to convey a _____ tone.
Lady Bruton represents the traditional aristocracy of England. The painting of her ancestor represents her faith in the old system. Both Hugh and Richard partially are here because they believe in this system, too.
Lady Bruton and Clarissa have at least one thing in common--they both thrive on having parties. As part of the upper-class, English women would often host soirees to socialize, charm, and have fun.
What does Lady Bruton, Richard, and Hugh's conclusion about not being able to help Peter reveal about them?
Peter's affair with a married Indian woman was taboo in his culture, especially to the upper-class.
Even though the people around her think that emigrating is not a solution for her contemporaries, Lady Bruton continues to believe in her way of reform. Just like Sir William, older people in this story have a harder time letting go of their traditions, customs, and philosophies on how to make the world a better place. In a time when people already feel that their lives are fragmented, is this approach towards life good for oneself and others?
The "thin thread" that keeps getting thinner represents the disconnect that is pervading English society's interests and needs. Explain this statement using evidence from the text.
Richard is beginning to think that upper-class attempts to change the world are misplaced and irrelevant. In company with Septimus and other characters in the text, many people question what their purpose is and how to redefine their social role. Some have the courage to change; others do not. Some will sink with the changing world; others will survive. Who do you think will rise above the waves of change?
What does Richard's sense of urgency imply about him and Clarissa?
Is this a good reason for not telling your wife you love her? This is the justification Richard thinks in his head. It makes his love appear rather shallow.
Contrast Richard's use of flowers with that of Clarissa, who views them as life-giving objects of beauty and color.
The characters in this novel strive to find happiness in different ideal circumstances. Richard finds happiness with living in what he perceives as a golden age of the British royalty and having a wife. Septimus is trying to find happiness by noting beauty in things around him. Think for a moment about how fragile happiness really is, then, if we attach it to things that don't last. Could this be a major point of the author?
Why does the author repeat the phrase "Happiness is this" after every time Richard fails to tell his wife he loves her?
Both Peter and her husband criticize her for having parties. Clarissa's happiness is having parties.
Part II Quiz
A hyacinth is a type of flower (shown below). Elizabeth's thoughts about this flower follow the motifs that Woolf has been using. For Elizabeth to consider herself a flower, she is beginning to realize that she feels alive. Her mother possesses the same sentimentality. (This annotation contains an image)
Miss Killman is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, she is a German living in England right after Germany caused a major world war. Second, she converted Christianity and is very pious (seemingly to the point of being oppressive). Lastly, think about her name for a moment. It is a compound word composed of two words that have a deeper meaning in this story.
What seems to be Miss Killman's foremost priority in the Dalloway house?
Clarissa can sense the hostility that Miss Killman has for her and the upper-class way of life. She feels judged. However, it appears as if Miss Killman's spite fades when she actually stands in the presence of Clarissa. Maybe Miss Killman is more cowardly than convicted about her hateful beliefs.
One can sense the author's perspective about religion and human nature being spoken through Clarissa's thoughts. Religion is regarded in terms of rules, judgments, and a stifling institution of privacy and individuality. Love, on the other hand, is seen as an accepting way of life that lets one simply be himself or herself without judgment. Clarissa thinks the woman across the street epitomizes this life of freedom in love.
What effect does the tolling of the clock have on characters in this story and the readers?
Miss Killman is unhappy because no man is interested in her. She is not physically attractive.
What theme is conveyed through the tea-time conversation that Elizabeth has with Miss Kilman? Use evidence to support your response.
Elizabeth does not like to be treated as an object. Men are beginning to see her as a young woman who is coming of age, ready to prepare for marriage. She is navigating the waters of her early adulthood.
What do Elizabeth's thoughts about this middle-class part of town reveal about her character?
Notice the imagery that the author uses in Septimus' thoughts. He is keenly aware of his surroundings. He personifies the trees and compares the sounds the wind makes through them to the sound of someone pulling a net through water. His whole presence is aware of this water around him, the birds around him. He is trying to live through his soul to make meaning of the world around him. Do you think he is succeeding?
In what way does Septimus behave that makes him seem so distant from the world?
What causes Reiza to have this flashback of her first impression of Septimus?
Privacy is an important theme in this novel. People are entitled to privacy, but Holmes and Bradshaw have no respect for Septimus'. They tear through his belongings. For people to heal, they have to be the ones who are willing to make the private life public.
What does the tree symbolize in this vision that Septimus has?
What caused Septimus to take his own life? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Peter analyzes himself and does not like that he is susceptible. He has a tendency, like other characters, to hide emotions, to not act when needed, to feel unhappy over regrets. The interesting thing is that once one acknowledges this he or she can choose to change this behavior. Some might call it courageous to do so.
What do Peter's musings about Clarissa's letter reveal about their relationship?
Daisy, Peter's mistress, must decide if she is willing to marry a man twice as old as she. Ironically, Peter's recent rekindling of his flame for Clarissa is making him think about Daisy. It seems he is confused about his loyalties, but can't help thinking about how women like him for being such a man.
An interesting approach to take as you read this novel is to think about each character's conception of the soul. The characters refer to the soul usually in metaphorical terms, often becoming motifs throughout the story. Here, for example, Peter compares the soul to a fish that inhabits the sea. His concept of the soul is grotesque and chilly. Septimus and Clarissa, on the other hand associated the soul with trees and flowers. It is airy, looks for beauty, seeks personal connection. This contrast in viewpoints is a major message the author sends the readers.
Although Peter is capable of admiring beauty, he has not changed much from the critical, egotistical person he once was. Which line from this section of the story supports this idea?
The tone of this passage is meant to convey a sense of excitement, hurriedness, and a bit of frustration. The people who threw parties wanted everything to go perfectly to impress those who attended.
In other words, "Why try to make good things happen if you know they will end in bad results?" What do you think drives Clarissa to ask Peter to her party, then, if she knows it won't turn out well?
What theme is apparent through Ellie Henderson's fears?
The irony of this situation is that Clarissa throws parties so she can connect with others, communicate, and bond. Yet at these parties she realizes how introspective and private she is.
Which of the following best summarizes how the party scene has been structured so far?
Although Peter is quite harsh towards Hugh, his comments reflect the author's sentiments in some way, too. English aristocracy and those who sought to be in that sub-culture were known for being pretentious, snobbish, and duplicitous.
What do Peter's thoughts about Clarissa being a mermaid suggest about her?
Clarissa's party has finally begun, and her goal--that of having many people under a roof to socialize--is finally happening. Pay attention to how she interacts with others, what she thinks, and what this says about her character.
As Clarissa reflects on her aunt, Miss Parry, what impression best summarizes her?
What subtle criticism does the author slip in about Lady Bruton?
Many people tend to create idealistic futures for themselves and others during their formative years (teenage and twenties). People don't always turn out the way you expect them to. They say that most people undergo major changes every seven years. To some people, things not being what they thought they would be could be disillusioning. To others, it's reality.
What do the crowded rooms represent?
Clarissa can also sense how oppressive Sir Willliam is. If you recall, both Septimus and Reiza disliked this man. He is the kind of person who is narrow-minded, and tries to control people to see things as he does.
How does Septimus' death change Clarissa's ambitions?
In what ways is Clarissa from The Hours similar to the Clarissa from this novel? Use evidence from both the text and the movie clip to support your response.
The clip below is from The Hours--an early 21st century film that depicts the lives of three women who are mysteriously united by the book Mrs. Dalloway. One character is Viriginia Woolf, the author. The other character is a woman named Laura who leaves her children because she is suicidal. The other character is Clarissa, who is throwing a party for her friend who is dying of AIDS. In this scene, Laura visits Clarissa to talk about her son (Richard, the one who the party was for). As you watch this clip, think about the similarities between this text and the characters in this clip. (This annotation contains a video)
Clarissa's connection to nature--the sky here--and to flowers earlier, is similar to Septimus' connection to the natural world. When a person feels unable to communicate with other people, it might be natural to connect with something more available, like nature. A person can have private thoughts in moments of solitude. Unlike Septimus, though, it seems as if Clarissa realizes the importance of balancing privacy with meaningful communication.
As the main subject of this novel, Clarissa is scrutinized by many close friends and acquaintances. We have the privilege of hearing what they think about her. In essence, everyone asks, "What has Clarissa done with her hours?" Perhaps, though, the author's message isn't about us analyzing others, but our own life. What have we done with our hours?
As one grows older, so do his or her regrets (if one allows them to). Elizabeth stands out because she hasn't lived so many "hours" yet, has fewer regrets, and appears untainted and beautiful to Peter and Sally. Both of these characters boast about what they have done with their lives, yet, it seems, underneath it all is a tinge of remorse, dissatisfaction, and regret.
Part III Quiz