Setting is one of the most innovative aspects of Mrs Dalloway. The events of the story take place on a Wednesday in June 1923 (most importantly, in post-World War I London), all in one day. This choice to talk about just one day is very modernist (check out our "In a Nutshell" for more on this) and very novel – pun intended. But because the characters are so haunted by the past, the reader is taken away from London several times, and travels back in time to Bourton, to the country home owned by Clarissa’s family.
Perhaps the most important setting in the novel is its historical setting. Taking place just after World War I, we see that the effects of the war are still around, whether or not men like Richard Dalloway acknowledge the scars left behind. Septimus went off to war believing it would make him a hero; instead, he ends up a shadow of a man, traumatized to the point of committing suicide. Even Clarissa, who lives a rather privileged life, has always abided by the strict patriarchal social standards of British culture and thus misses out on the freedom she craves. Throughout Mrs Dalloway, we see a self-destructive faith in the greatness of nation and tradition at the expense of the individual.
Virginia Woolf does not use London in any passive way; instead, the backdrop serves the important purpose of creating context. Woolf mentions many important sites throughout the course of the story: Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey all define the British way of life.
It's not just a matter of reminding the reader where these characters are located. Each of the landmarks represent a particular aspect of the novel. For example, the statues of famous generals and leaders in Trafalgar Square suggest the importance of patriotism to the British way of life, and Big Ben’s hourly chiming serves as a constant reminder of life’s passage.
We know from the beginning of the novel that Clarissa lives in Westminster, an upscale neighborhood in London. On her stroll to the flower shop, Clarissa passes gentlemen’s clubs (the British kind, not the Vegas kind), bookstores, shoemakers, and tailors, all of which support the needs of the upper middle class to which she belongs. Clarissa has lived a fairly secluded and privileged life: she’s really only friends with the people she sees at the shops and at the parties she hosts in her home. For this reason, when Elizabeth (Clarissa’s daughter) takes the omnibus along the Strand (it's no Westminster, let's put it that way), she has broken with tradition and acted as a bit of an outlaw. Unlike her mother, Elizabeth doesn’t really care about playing it safe.
Though Septimus is also in London, and in fact comes very close to Clarissa in the scene with the royal car, he finds himself in more public places. In an effort to distract him (doctor’s orders), Lucrezia takes Septimus to Regent’s Park. Though they’re out among plenty of other people, both Septimus and Lucrezia feel very isolated. This contrast between the openness of the outdoors and the isolation that the couple feels is particularly poignant.
After publishing Mrs Dalloway, Woolf did some major writing about a woman's role in society. Things were a-changin' for women when Woolf was writing. Pre-Industrial Revolution, most of the world lived on farms and worried about Pinky making it to the State Fair fat enough to win and then become dinner. Families were separated by many acres and a mule and the role of women was clear: pump out kids and cook dinner.
But Virginia Woolf had a question: what did smart women do? (Reasonable enough to ask, we'd say). In some of her other writings, she talked about the pain that those women likely felt. (Were Shakespeare a woman, could she have possibly produced more than a play or two?) As cities developed with more than Pinky the Pig for interruptions, it was hard for women to focus on any of their Deep Thoughts (yes, from the old Saturday Night Live). That is, as a creative woman began an artistic endeavor – a painting, a poem, a pas de deux – she was increasingly interrupted by husband, neighbor, children, newspaper boy, milkman and a hundred other disturbances on what used to be a quiet life.
Ever tried to write a paper with your little brother nearby? You can't even get out one complete thought before he asks you why the sky is blue, right? This is what was happening to women in the period – no more momentum. Momentum is what Woolf needed to write Mrs Dalloway and it was becoming less and less attainable.
The frustration of the interrupted moments killed her idea flow and separated her inner passion from the reality of her role in a patriarchal society. If you put yourself in Woolf's narrow shoes, you'll feel defined by your art – that is, your prose is you; it's not just something you produce like a widget. So when your momentum to write is killed, you are killed. And if you are fragile by nature – maybe not comfy with your own lesbian self as was likely the case for Woolf – then, well, you start thinking a lot about death. (Like Clarissa Dalloway! Exactly.)