Into the complex world of Mrs Dalloway | A critical analysis of Woolf’s masterpiece
On a searing hot June day, one century ago, Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. So begins Virginia Woolf’s infamous tale, the tale of a respectable lady, an ordinary day spent in London organising a party, yet one which fuses together the lives of so many and so much. What Virginia Woolf created was not so much a novel but a rich canvas of life in post-War London. A London in which over the sounds of ‘carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and singing; brass bands; [and] barrel organs,’ Mrs Clarissa Dalloway felt what she loved: life. ‘The War was over,’ and life had returned to this majestic metropolis, capital of a sprawling Empire (though one in decline) and bastion of the civilised world.
Or so it seemed. For under this great edifice, this monumental work of literature that perfected the internal monologue and which, I felt, truly represents the English language at its best, lies a searing critique of post-World War I Britain. It is not for nothing that the bulk of Mrs Dalloway occurs in Westminster (which for me, being very familiar with the environment in which it is set, could only enrich the experience), for in Westminster lies the aristocracy, the élite who for centuries had ruled and yet whose rule had brought about the most catastrophic war that mankind had known. ‘The war was over’ but its effects were not, and it no longer sufficed to continue living life with the same assumptions and understanding of the world.
In a way, Mrs Dalloway itself is an attempt to break with this past. Its plot is thin (everything happens in the span of 24 hours spent preparing for a party), but not without immense detail, and the lack of chapters emphasises continuity of all that is living and all that is not (the line is often blurred as, contained within Woolf’s generous use of brackets, is a continual personification of nature and animals, and reverse personification in describing human events: ‘And as single spider’s thread after wavering here and there attaches itself to a point of a leaf, so Richard’s mind, recovering from its lethargy, set now on his wife, Clarissa.’). The use of the stream of conscious (though difficult to get through at first — I had first picked up Mrs Dalloway two years back and abandoned it due to the apparent lack of coherence. I certainly recommend pushing through the first twenty pages to get used to Woolf’s style. It’s worth it!) is where Woolf’s genius is really revealed. It serves both to enable the reader to explore the repressed beliefs of all the players involved, whilst breaking with the idea that there is an objective way of knowing the world. Mrs Dalloway would not be the same without its signature style, and it adds so so much to this book. The text flows, like music, bridging together seemingly unrelated events and characters in a way that demonstrates that all is one. Nothing exists in a vacuum, seems to be Woolf’s message.
Embedded in this seminal work is a social commentary on so many things; on changing attitudes towards women and their role in society (Woolf herself being a key figure in the feminist movement); on repression, with the use of internal monologue adding a rich dimension to how we understand the characters and their struggles, and of mental illness in the character of Septimus Warren-Smith and his wife Lucrezia. I truly think that Woolf’s creative use of language allows the reader to comprehend these themes far more deeply than in other comparable works, such as Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (great as that story was). But it touches on so much more: on the nature of womanhood, on bisexuality, on the essence of language, paving the way for later Modernist and Post-Modern works like Joyce’s Ulysses and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Woolf was certainly not the first to comment on these trends, and in this way, Mrs Dalloway brilliantly complements other key works of the time, notably Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, another satirical critique of post-World War I Britain.
Her critique of English Society only became very evident to me later in the book (‘Some Committee?’ she asks her husband Richard, an MP in the House of Commons, only to receive a response of ‘Armenians… or perhaps it was Albanians,’ was one line that particularly stood out — Clarissa indifferently referring to the Armenian genocide of 1915), though no character is without reprisal. In this way, it is extremely democratic. Clarissa, for her insistence on making a show of oneself; Lucrezia (often referred to as Rezia) for her insensitivity; Richard, for his resistance to change; even Miss Kilman, an impoverished girl of Germanic origin who tutors the Dalloways’ daughter, Elizabeth, and who despite her Christian faith remains jealous of Mrs Dalloway (then represses these feelings rather than dealing with them). Woolf’s criticism omits no-one, but at the same everyone is given a voice. From the passers-by in Regent’s Park, Lady Bruton’s maid, Elizabeth, Peter Walsh (Clarissa’s former, and to some extent current, lover with reformist tendencies who has just returned from a spell in India) and Mrs Dalloway herself, everybody has a voice.
Despite Woolf’s critiques of the society in which she lived, Mrs Dalloway offers a message of hope. The Novel depicts a city in flux, yet one that is intensely beautiful. We find in it streets with ‘life struck through them’ like ‘the pulse of a perfect heart,’ the ‘habitation of God’ in the form of Westminster Cathedral. Elizabeth describes how the streets and crowds of people have the power to ‘stimulate what lay slumberous, clumsy, and shy on the mind’s sandy floor, to break surface.’ London may be flawed, may be broken, but in it lies the remedy to its own problems.
Woolf’s classic is a social critique, a dynamic portrait of a society recovering from War but failing to interpret and adapt from the lessons of war. It is also far more than that. In Mrs Dalloway, we find a journey, an intellectual rollercoaster that brings us from one place to the next before we know it. Mrs Dalloway is the English Language at its best, a true work of art and poetry. Woolf deserves her place in the canon of literature.