Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Light but Dark, Critical but Caring
What makes Mrs Dalloway so tricky in terms of tone is that Virginia Woolf has to wear two hats. First, she has to capture a general tone of post-war life. A great example comes at the beginning of the novel when Woolf writes: "For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin […]" (1.6). Woolf sets up the sentence with a tone of lightness and joy, relief and new possibility, but then immediately turns it back to the horror of war. Just this one sentence contains two totally different tones and suggests that the war (though over) cannot be easily forgotten: it is still haunting peoples’ daily lives years later.
Second, Woolf has to capture the tone of each character that takes a turn telling the story. Without over-complicating her descriptions, she manages to move from Clarissa’s delight with beauty to Peter’s feelings of nostalgia and regret; from Miss Kilman’s murderous hatred to Septimus’ deep anxiety and visions of the walking dead.
While juggling these tones, Woolf manages to strike a delicate balance between damning critique and undeniable admiration. Woolf was a Londoner at heart and we’re pretty sure she enjoyed walking around that city in much the same way as Clarissa. Yet she still manages to negatively characterize some of the less appealing qualities of British life. She is very careful with irony. She does not tell us what to think, but she subtly mocks some of the pretensions of British life through her careful play with tone.