By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
One of the most celebrated and important modernist novels in English, Mrs Dalloway (1925) is perhaps Virginia Woolf’s best novel. Originally titled ‘The Hours’, a title that Michael Cunningham would retrieve and use for his 1998 novel based on Mrs Dalloway and Woolf’s own life (a book that would in turn be adapted for the 2002 film starring Nicole Kidman in a prosthetic nose), Mrs Dalloway is at once a powerful response to the First World War and a lyrical exploration of the role of memory itself.
Before we offer an analysis of Mrs Dalloway, it might be worth briefly summarising the plot.
Mrs Dalloway: plot summary
There are two interwoven narratives in Woolf’s novel. One concerns a day in the life of a middle-aged upper-class woman, Clarissa Dalloway, as she prepares to throw a party that evening. During the course of the day she is visited by Peter Walsh, her old flame from the days before she married Richard Dalloway, an MP.
Throughout the course of her day, Clarissa reflects upon her choice of husband and remembers her friendship with Peter as well as with a woman, Sally Seton, towards whom she may have had stronger feelings than friendship.
The other narrative concerns Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of the First World War, who is suffering from shell-shock or PTSD. He and his wife Lucrezia attend several appointments with London doctors and pass some time in a London park, before Septimus is taken to a psychiatric hospital. He takes his own life by throwing himself out of the window of his room and onto the railings below.
That evening, Clarissa throws her party, at which one of the guests mentions the news of Septimus’ death. Although she didn’t know him, Mrs Dalloway goes to a room by herself and thinks about him. She appears to admire his act of defiance in ending his life.
Mrs Dalloway: analysis
Woolf’s novel was inspired by her reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was published in book form in 1922 but had been appearing in the Little Review since 1918. Woolf was drawn to the idea of writing a novel set over the course of just one day. Like Joyce, she chose a day in June. But she had her reservations about Joyce’s obsession with what she saw as the more squalid side of life – sex and bodily functions – and went as far as to describe Ulysses as ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. Her approach would be different.
If you were to ask ‘What is Mrs Dalloway about?’ you would have to make do with some pretty unsatisfying responses. ‘A woman throwing a party.’ ‘A response to the First World War.’ The first of these is a (very crude) summary of the main ‘plot’ of the book, in so far as it has a plot; the second points up an important context for the novel.
But Mrs Dalloway touches upon a host of themes, from depression (which Woolf had experienced first-hand) to lost love to regret to joy to memory and a whole range of other emotions and mental states. Woolf herself said that the novel was about ‘the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side – something like that.’
But this threatens to draw too firm a line between the ‘sane’ (Mrs Dalloway) and the ‘insane’ (Septimus Smith). Are they both mad? Or are they both sane? What does ‘sane’ mean here?
‘Subjectivity’ is the watchword for Mrs Dalloway, given that it follows a number of characters through the course of their day. This is perhaps most neatly exemplified by the sky-writing scene, in which an aeroplane soars over the London skyline, inscribing mysterious and transitory letters on the heavens. Woolf was inspired to write this scene after the Daily Mail first used sky-writing to advertise their newspaper in 1922.
But what this aeroplane is advertising – if it is advertising something – remains a mystery to those observers down on the ground. It could be toffee, muses one character. But the meaningless sequence of letters – A C E L K E Y – don’t provide much help. Different characters draw different conclusions as to what the odd message represents.
Septimus Smith, the war veteran who is afflicted by shell-shock and depression (his marriage, too, is falling down around him), interprets the sky-writing as a quasi-divine message from the heavens, somehow meant for him and him alone. In a memorable passage, Septimus experiences a feeling of ecstasy as he gazes up at the letters:
So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks.
Note how ‘language’ slips into ‘languishing’, the sounds of those two words mirroring the breaking up of the smoke letters in the air but also the dissolution of any clear, objective perspective.
And if we were to attempt a comprehensive answer to the question, ‘What is Mrs Dalloway about?’, one could do worse than to answer, ‘The struggle to stand out as a meaningful individual in a world of fast-moving, faceless, and crowded modernity.’ Mrs Dalloway is, like another work of modernism, T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, a text that sets out to depict the modern world: a world of the metropolis (London, as with Eliot’s poem), motorcars, aeroplanes, and other recent phenomena.
This is the world not only of the aeroplane but of the motorcar, which calls up Henry Ford, that pioneer of the production line and the man who (apocryphally) said that you can have his Model-T Ford car in any colour so long as it’s black. Modernity, the novel seems to say, has rendered us like those production-line cars: we have lost our individuality and it has become more difficult to stand out.
Of course, human beings had recently been treated like assembly-line objects in the first mass industrial war: the First World War, in which Septimus Smith had fought, was the war of the Ford motorcar generation: assembly-line slaughter.
And this points to another theme of Mrs Dalloway which is worthy of analysis: the tension or contrast between clock-like regularity and the free-flowing nature of subjective experience. On the one hand, Woolf’s novel is full of reminders of the attempt – especially the Victorian attempt – to render everything regular, orderly, and scientifically knowable.
The two doctors who attempt to treat Septimus for his PTSD are named Holmes and Bradshaw, with their very names summoning the empirical forensic detective of Conan Doyle’s short stories and the name of the ubiquitous railway timetable. Big Ben, too – another Victorian creation, dating from 1859 – is a reminder of the clock-like regularity of everyday life.
But cutting across this is the life of the mind, the emotionally diverse and daydreaming world of the novel’s characters: Peter Walsh’s weird fantasies about the women he sees on the streets; Septimus’ flashbacks to his friendship with (and more than comradely feelings for?) his fellow soldier, Evans; and Clarissa’s own recollections of her youthful flirtation with Peter at Bourton.
Time for these characters cannot be pinned down to the sixty minutes of the ‘hours’ that Big Ben marks: it operates according to what the French philosopher Henri Bergson called ‘duration’, the subjective experience of passing time.
Such an understanding of time and memory is obviously well-served by Virginia Woolf’s free-flowing style in the novel. However, whether this can be labelled ‘stream of consciousness’ is another matter. Like ‘free verse’ and modernist poetry, this term tends to be a catch-all label slapped onto any work of modernist fiction which shows even the slightest departure from conventional narrative modes.
Well, not exactly. Randall Stevenson, in his excellent book Modernist Fiction: An Introduction, suggests that ‘interior monologue’, rather than stream of consciousness, is the best term to describe the style of Woolf’s fiction. Although there is some overlap between these terms, Stevenson helpfully draws attention to what he calls the ‘anarchic fluency’ and ‘syntactic fragmentation’ which we find in more extreme examples of modernist stream of consciousness. We have discussed this distinction in more detail here.
In her 1927 essay ‘Poetry, Fiction and the Future’ – an essay far less famous than it should be – Woolf remarked, ‘Every moment is the centre and meeting-place of an extraordinary number of perceptions which have not yet been expressed.’ Mrs Dalloway marks the true beginning of her attempt to capture these perceptions: her previous novel, Jacob’s Room, had begun to sketch out the terrain, but it was in this novel that she would successfully achieve it.