by Virginia Woolf
Names are important in Mrs Dalloway not only for the symbolic meaning they hold but also in the social sense of making a name for one’s self. Don’t forget: at Clarissa’s party, the butler announces the names of guests as they enter, and many people at the party take notice of the these names (especially Clarissa’s dull and dowdy cousin Ellie Henderson). It's all about giving each person a status through their name. Notably, the prime minister's name is never revealed, perhaps because he doesn't need to make a name for himself. (Incidentally, David Lloyd George was PM under King George V at the time of this story).
But the names themselves are also obviously carefully selected, and are often rather loaded. The title of the book itself is a name, after all. (For our thoughts on that, see "What’s Up With the Title?") When we see the words Mrs Dalloway, we immediately know that the character is a woman who’s married to some guy named Dalloway. In fact, Mr Dalloway's name was a big deal when Clarissa first met him:
And Clarissa called him "Wickham"; that was the beginning of it all. Somebody had brought him over; and Clarissa got his name wrong. She introduced him to everybody as Wickham. At last he said "My name is Dalloway!" – that was his first view of Richard – a fair young man, rather awkward, sitting on a deck-chair, and blurting out "My name is Dalloway!" (4.18)
(Wickham, by the way, is a rather disagreeable character from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice – what, oh what, could this mean?)
From the beginning of the novel, Woolf lets the reader know that names will be important: "She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown […] this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs Richard Dalloway" (1.18). Being Mrs Dalloway is very different from being Clarissa Parry (her maiden name).
Other names have important meaning as well; consider, for instance, Septimus Warren Smith, a stately name if there ever was one – very British and poetic. Even better is Doris Kilman, a woman who, well, doesn’t exactly like men (Kilman – get it?). Also significant is that Sally Seton, the carefree, politically incorrect rebel, later becomes Lady Rosseter. That change is very dramatic, since it implies a huge shift from a girly, fun name to one of clear social stature.
You may not have known this, but Virginia Woolf was a pretty snazzy dresser – not fancy, but definitely hip. It’s not surprising, then, that clothes play a big role in her novels.
In Mrs Dalloway, clothing is a very powerful reflection of social status and state of mind. The examples abound: the photograph of Lady Bruton in Court dress, making sure to reflect her high social status; Hugh Whitbread dressed in silk stockings and knee-breeches serving as a guard at Buckingham Palace (he thinks a lot of his appearance and is a bit of a dandy); Peter is, according to Clarissa, "very well dressed" (1.44); and our narrator tells us that Miss. Kilman does not "dress to please," and we’re well aware that she wears her green mackintosh because she is poor.
Even Septimus' clothes are telling: he looks as beaten down as he is partially because he’s "wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat" (1.32). And don’t forget – Sally Seton was caught running through the halls of Bourton not wearing anything at all!
Social status is huge in Mrs Dalloway, and Woolf constantly gives little and big signs of a character’s status. This is no secret: when writing the novel, Woolf recorded in her diary, "I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense" (Source, p. 57). She certainly manages to do this in the book, as she features characters who are poor (Miss Kilman), poorer (the old woman singing and begging on the street), privileged (Lady Bruton), ambitious (Hugh Whitbread), and well-off (the Dalloways).
Peter is one of the most prominent voices to criticize the "governing class," as he calls it. Through Peter and the third person omniscient narrator, Woolf suggests that the higher up the social ladder you go, the more repressed you actually become. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so shocking that wild Sally becomes well-to-do Lady Rosseter at the end – though she doesn’t seem to have lost much of her spark (heck, she probably needs that to raise five boys).
Simply put, Woolf has her characters on a continuum, with rebels such as Sally (not Lady Rosseter), Peter Walsh, Doris Kilman, and Septimus Smith at one end, and social conformers such as Lady Bruton, Hugh Whitbread, and Richard Dalloway at the other. Clarissa herself floats along the spectrum. Where would you most likely place her?