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.
Mrs Dalloway is the ultimate example of modern literature (meaning it is part of the genre of modernism). After World War I, people felt like their world was shattered, and art and culture went through dramatic change. Writers and artists of all kinds began to question the traditions of the nineteenth century. Thinkers embraced new ideas like cubism (think Picasso’s messed up faces) and surrealism (think of a melting watch). It was a very creative time, and an era in which new media such as photography and cinema arrived and changed the way people saw the world.
Take a moment to compare Mrs Dalloway to, say, any Charles Dickens novel – perhaps Great Expectations. Rather than having a straightforward narrative with a beginning and end and a narrator who knows it all, with Mrs Dalloway we have several narrators, flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness style, and a totally fragmented story. As a modernist, Virginia Woolf rejects the idea of a linear storyline that many writers had used in the past, and she rejects the idea that one being who "knows all" tells the whole story. Part of her point is to demonstrate through the book how life has changed after the war: life is not so neat and tidy anymore.
To oversimplify (and maybe make things more complicated all at once): remember how Clarissa feels about Sir William Bradshaw? That he's oppressive and authoritarian, and only wants things done in the English and traditional way? That’s sort of how Virginia Woolf felt about traditional storytelling.
Okay, we’ll admit it: it’s hard not to be cheeky here. "Why is it called Mrs Dalloway?" Because it’s about someone named Mrs Dalloway, duh.
Not so fast. There’s definitely more to it than that. Think about it: Woolf could have named the novel Clarissa Dalloway or just Clarissa. But, no: the title Mrs Dalloway suggests something different. This title refers to her married name, to the fact that she’s identified with Richard Dalloway. Who Clarissa is has a lot to do with the fact that she is a "Mrs." And don't forget: "Mrs" is quite different from "Miss." Remember Miss Kilman? It’s important that she is single, and the narrator makes it pretty clear that she will remain unmarried: she’s both a lesbian (who couldn't marry back then) and sort of a people-hater.
The title also emphasizes that Clarissa chose Richard over Peter. Marrying Richard Dalloway meant marrying someone who is socially esteemed, rich, and connected. Becoming Mrs Dalloway allowed Clarissa to maintain the status she grew up with and to be the society lady she wanted to be. Plus, Mrs Walsh just doesn't have the same ring to it.
It's pretty clear that Woolf is telling us something by naming the novel Mrs Dalloway and having "Mrs Dalloway" be the first words of the novel. No need to be cheeky about that at all.
The end of the novel is complex: Woolf doesn’t just hand us the meaning on a silver platter (darn). We know that Septimus is dead, and that Clarissa’s party is coming to an end (it’s 3:00AM, for crying out loud!). But other than these facts, the message is not entirely clear.
For a novel so dark, personal, and, well, gloomy, the ending seems kind of uplifting. Well, it starts out with someone announcing Septimus' death in the middle of the party, but then things start to turn around. Clarissa soon sees the beauty of the sacrifice that Septimus has made with his suicide. Rather than feel pity, she’s heartened: Shakespeare's words "Fear no more the heat of the sun" (from Cymbeline), return to her. These words connect Clarissa and Septimus (he had remembered them earlier in the novel), and suggest an end to fearing death, something that has haunted Clarissa throughout the story.
Woolf ends by emphasizing the idea of Clarissa and Septimus as doubles:
"But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away." (6.92)
Septimus' suicide has allowed Clarissa to see the beauty of life; his death means her rebirth. To emphasize this rebirth, Woolf has the woman across the way finally acknowledge Mrs Dalloway, "Oh, but how surprising! – in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her!" (1.92). She has finally made a connection, albeit minor. After these great revelations, Clarissa returns to the party. Quite simply, she delights Peter with her return. He no longer denies the deepness of his feeling for her, and her presence changes the moment. A surprisingly optimistic ending indeed.
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.)
Mrs Dalloway might be about everyday life, but the way the story is told isn't your everyday narration. The narration weaves through the psyches of various characters, with added commentary from an omniscient narrator. Add a bunch of flashbacks in there (the time frame jumps back and forth between London in the 1920s and Bourton in the 1890s) and you've got yourself a complicated story. Even today, the book is considered experimental and can make the reader feel a bit disoriented at times. But don't worry too much, we're all in the same boat, and we enjoy the novel just as much.
In Mrs Dalloway, style works closely with both tone and genre. The style of Mrs Dalloway is complex, psychological, intricate, and dense. (Yeah, you should be sitting down for this.) Even in one sentence, we can encounter multiple ideas and multiple tones: this is all thanks to the style. And of course, the style changes throughout the story. First of all, we're in the minds of several different characters, so we hear various styles of speaking and thinking. Woolf was very concerned with subjective reality, that is, what reality looks like from any one person’s point of view; so what (and how) each character thinks is very different. And of course, we also have present-day observations and stream of consciousness mixed in with memories and visions. All of this makes for one big style mash-up.
Additionally, Woolf wanted to convey what people said and what they didn’t say. For this reason, she includes a few different types of speech for us. First, we have direct speech, in which people actually talk to each other, as in Clarissa’s exchange with Hugh, asking about Evelyn. This is also known as dialogue or, you know, talking. Second, we get indirect speech, in which the narrator lets us know that a character is thinking of something. (That would be like this: "he asked himself why on earth Shmoop was still talking about writing style.")
Finally, and most notably, Woolf gives us free indirect speech (a.k.a. free indirect discourse). In this style, the narrator doesn’t set up that the person is thinking something, but instead just puts it out there. Here's an example: "But Lucrezia herself could not help looking at the motor car and the tree pattern on the blinds. Was it the Queen in there – the Queen going shopping?" (1.35). Instead of saying "She wondered if the queen was in there shopping," Woolf just makes the announcement and shows that she has special access to the characters’ minds. Fancy.
We know this is all tricky (and we didn't even go into the whole super-long sentences thing), but hang in there. It's worth it.
The car and the airplane (ahem, aeroplane) that Mrs Dalloway sees toward the beginning of the novel seem to be kind of a big deal. Why is that? Well, in a country so obsessed with tradition and the past, machines still seem like an amazing innovation.
The car – much more than the plane – is an impressive ride, all blinged out with royal associations. The "dove-grey" upholstery, the male hand, and a vague symbol all suggest that the car might be giving a ride to the prime minister. What’s interesting is that at the end of the scene, the car gets trumped by the airplane, whose skywriting ultimately seems cooler to the people than the car does. Woolf writes:
Suddenly Mrs Coates looked up into the sky. The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. There it was coming over the trees, letting out white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted, actually writing something! making letters in the sky! Every one looked up. (1.50)
These days, airplanes aren't anything exciting, but back then, they were a total spectacle. To the many bystanders, the plane (and especially the skywriting) is an exciting piece of technology and a wonderful sight. Woolf suggests its associations with modern travel and the rise of the advertising age – after all, the plane is advertising a product. What does Woolf suggest by having the commercial plane distract from the royal car? Talk amongst yourselves.
The car and plane also serve as a reference to the recently ended war. The backfiring of the car sounds like a pistol being fired and frightens everyone around. The plane is also a reminder of the war: World War I was the first time that planes played a big role in modern warfare. Basically, in Mrs Dalloway, the war is always around – even in the form of a car driving down the street.
Big Ben is a major London monument, but its role in the novel is complex. It not only suggests tradition, but it also (with its constant gonging) doesn’t let anyone forget about the passage of time. With Big Ben, Woolf signals to the reader how important punctuality, schedules, and daily rhythms are to the tradition of English life.
You can’t help but notice the important role that time plays in the lives of all these characters. This is particularly true when we hear their memories – both beautiful and haunting. Peter can’t forget the days of Bourton and his love for Clarissa; Clarissa fears the passage of time and the inevitability of death; Septimus suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which prevents him from forgetting what he experienced and, in a sense, robs him of his future.
Big Ben is a big physical and aural (sound) reminder of all of these issues surrounding time. Clarissa has lived so long with the clock that she anticipates its "leaden circles dissolv[ing] in the air" (1.5). Big Ben is almost like a character with a personality: "The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour struck out between them with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that" (2.92). And like a character, Big Ben seems almost to interrupt the people of London intentionally. Meanie.
Several references to Shakespeare are scattered throughout the novel (check out "Shout-Outs" for more on this). Both Clarissa and Septimus love Shakespeare, and words from Cymbeline haunt them both: "Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages" (1.15). Love of Shakespeare is part of what compelled Septimus to enlist in the war in the first place; he became so proud of being English that he grew to see England as truly worthy of being defended.
It is maybe stranger that Clarissa loves Shakespeare so much, given that she's not known as a big reader. Still, the lines from Cymbeline – which she (appropriately) reads in a shop window – resonate with her fear of death. Like Septimus’ death at the end, these lines communicate the possibility of not fearing death. Strangely, Clarissa also identifies with Othello’s feelings when she thinks about Sally:
"If it were now to die 'twere now to be most happy." That was her feeling – Othello's feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton! (1.16).
Hmmm, Othello doesn't make us think of Sally Seton, but clearly Shakespeare is an important symbol that amps up the Britishness of the whole novel.
Clarissa’s first action in the story is to buy flowers; as she enters the flower shop, "There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations […]" (1.25). After this moment, flowers continue to appear throughout the entire novel. Most importantly, they are an enormous source of joy for Clarissa, who cherishes the beauty of everyday life. Flowers are also important as symbols of love (surprise surprise): Clarissa's daughter, Elizabeth, is often compared to a flower and Richard brings roses to Clarissa, a gesture that replaces saying "I love you." The beauty of the roses seems to get the point across.
Flowers are also a crucial aspect of Clarissa's memories:
Sally went out, picked hollyhocks, dahlias – all sorts of flowers that had never been seen together – cut their heads off, and made them swim on the top of water in bowls. The effect was extraordinary – coming in to dinner in the sunset. (Of course Aunt Helena thought it wicked to treat flowers like that). (2.14)
Woolf was surely aware of the feminine association with flowers: flowers, women, and beauty have long gone together. According to the older generation (Aunt Helena), treating flowers in the way that Sally does implies some corruption of femininity. Perhaps this is a comment on the conservative views toward female homosexuality; as we know, Sally planted a nice kiss on Clarissa (a kiss which Clarissa thinks about to this day).
There are more flowers scattered throughout the novel: what do you think they symbolize?
Virginia Woolf sadly committed suicide by drowning herself. For this reason, it's hard to see the images of water in the novel as anything but grim. But as with Septimus' suicide, bad things don’t always mean, well, bad things. Woolf seems to purposely leave the water imagery ambiguous. At times, water suggests a lack of boundaries or control; throughout the story, Woolf uses language of diving and plunging, as though she’s bravely entering water. And Septimus once discussed committing suicide as he stood near a river.
At the other times, water seems to indicate clarity and serenity. Clarissa’s party dress is like a mermaid’s, which suggests a certain attraction to water, or the idea that she feels natural in it. And as Peter sits in the park, he thinks of "sirens lolloping away on the green sea waves" (2.4). What other examples can you find?
Waves can also be like memories – coming and going, never staying completely still, and impossible to contain. Sometimes memories wash over Clarissa like water, like in the opening scene:
How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen. (1.2)
Do you read these words differently knowing that Virginia took her own life in water?
Strictly defined, the point of view in Mrs Dalloway is third person omniscient; that means there’s an overarching narrator who knows everything and who has access to everyone’s thoughts. (Shmoop is working on becoming omniscient, too. Sounds kind of awesome to us.)
The point of view changes many times during the course of the novel, as we weave in and out of the minds of Clarissa, Septimus, Lucrezia, Peter, Richard, Elizabeth, and Miss Kilman. We have access to their thoughts and memories, which among the literary set is called "free indirect discourse." (See our section on "Writing Style" for a little more on this.)
The omniscient narrator, on the other hand, remains anonymous – we’re not talking Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. At times the omniscient narrator can be quite prominent and critical – as in discussions of Sir William Bradshaw and even Miss Kilman – but other times will simply relate the thoughts of the characters themselves. Suffice it to say we have a lot of opinions coming our way in this story.
This narrative technique is perfect for Mrs Dalloway. It allows us to focus on the little things that people think about, things that might seem silly for a narrator to comment on (like the major people-watching that all the characters do). At the same time, it can get a little confusing. Sometimes the shift between characters – and between the present and the past – are so subtle that we don’t even notice. So be warned: read carefully!
In a sense, the entire country of England has fallen under a dark power after World War I, and Clarissa and Septimus are just two examples of this. Through Clarissa and Septimus, whom Woolf often referred to as doubles, we see the impact of British values on the souls and minds of its citizens. Septimus went off to war believing it would make him a man, and Clarissa has always abided by the strict patriarchal social standards of British culture. In this case, the dark power is a self-destructive faith in the greatness of nation and tradition at the expense of the individual. Deep stuff.
Neither Clarissa nor Septimus is wholly unable to see the beauty of life. Clarissa enjoys the flowers and Septimus likes trees. They both have spouses who love and support them. There is some hope that they enjoy everyday life, though this is certainly less true for Septimus than Clarissa.
Clarissa clearly lives with a deep sense of isolation, depression, and keen anxiety. She feels that daily living and even crossing the street can be very dangerous. Septimus' madness is much closer to the surface. He has visions of dead people, decapitated heads talking, and birds communicating cryptic messages to him in Greek. Not good signs.
Sir William Bradshaw, undoubtedly the greatest villain in the story, comes to claim Septimus. Whatever goes on in Bradshaw’s home for the mentally ill, Septimus wants nothing to do with it. Though Bradshaw at least recognizes that there’s a problem (unlike Dr Holmes), his belief in Proportion and Conversion is menacing, to say the least.
Woolf allows Septimus’ suicide to act as redemption for Clarissa. Clarissa feels a private joy that Septimus didn’t allow Bradshaw to steal his soul. She sees his death as life-affirming – a way of showing her the beauty of existence.
The novel begins as Clarissa prepares for the party she’ll give that evening. First stop: a trip to the florist. It’s a big deal that Clarissa is doing some of the work of putting the party together rather than just planning it. Her parties mean a lot to her and she puts her heart and soul into making them perfect.
Clarissa’s old suitor, Peter Walsh, drops in on Clarissa unannounced. They have a short visit in which it becomes clear that he’s nowhere near being over his love for her. After a humiliating sob fest (on Peter's part), Clarissa invites him to her party as he races out the door. Now that Peter's back, will Clarissa start to doubt her relationship with her husband? Will she pine for the past? All we know is that ex-boyfriends are never good news.
We now meet Septimus, who’s waiting for an appointment with the eminent psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw. Septimus' presence isn't a complication to the main conflict (yet): he doesn't really even cross paths with any of the other main characters. That said, his trauma-induced anxiety complicates the simple view that the English people want to have about the war. War is not all about heroism, and Septimus is a strong reminder of the scars that it has left on society. This isn't your regular plot-driving complication, but a deeper, more meaningful one.
After a moment of joy with his wife, Lucrezia, Septimus decides that he won't go with the doctors to a mental institution. Instead, he throws himself out a window and is impaled on the railings below. The contrast between the joy of the couple's conversation and Septimus' suicide makes this scene even more climactic.
Woolf leaves the reader in the dark about the relevance of Septimus and his suicide to the rest of the story. What could a shell-shocked World War I soldier have to do with a fifty-two-year-old society lady? The narrative jump back to Peter's thoughts and Clarissa's party forces us to wait even longer for an answer.
Dr Bradshaw and his wife arrive late to the party and Lady Bradshaw excuses them by explaining that one of her husband's patients had committed suicide. Clarissa is outraged that anyone would mention death at her festive gathering, and she retreats to her bedroom to collect herself. (We're starting to see how it's all connected now.)
After a few moments of reflection, Clarissa is no longer offended by Septimus' suicide, but rather identifies with it. She feels that he’s made a beautiful and sublime sacrifice that allows her to see life with fresh eyes. She returns to the party a somewhat different person, and her joy spreads immediately to Peter Walsh.
Going about the events of her day, Clarissa reflects on the quality of her life in London and her marriage to Richard Dalloway. Her old suitor shows up unannounced and stirs up more feelings of the past, including memories of her erotic encounter with Sally Seton and of first meeting Richard. Meanwhile, Septimus and Lucrezia sit in the park. Lucrezia tries to remain calm as her husband demonstrates the disturbing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Septimus is unable to face the possibility of living in one of Sir William Bradshaw’s psychiatric homes, so he commits suicide.
Clarissa’s party is underway and we learn that Sir William Bradshaw was once her doctor, too. She found him repulsive and thus feels deep empathy for Septimus, though she never knew him. The story ends with Clarissa feeling uplifted by Septimus’ great sacrifice, which she feels was made, in a sense, so she could once again see the beauty of life.