Study Guide

Mrs Dalloway Themes

By Virginia Woolf

  • Society and Class

    Post-World War I British society was very conservative and hierarchical (that means that social class was super important). Throughout <em>Mrs Dalloway</em>, we see how deeply aware characters are of their social standing. Those in the upper class cherish their family history and often come from royalty or aristocracy; for those in the lower class, it is very difficult to move up in the world. As Woolf clearly indicates, British people were meant to admire the upper class and be very aware of their place in the social ladder. Notice that most of Clarissa’s friends are of the same social status or higher –the prime minister even comes to her party! On the other hand, people like Ellie Henderson and Miss Kilman are loathsome to Clarissa in part because they’re beneath her socially. And it’s not just Clarissa: almost all of the characters are concerned with social status and class – either increasing it, holding onto it, or feeling inferior from it.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Where does Peter fit into the social scheme? Does he have any aspirations?
    2. Why did Virginia Woolf choose to have Sally Seton become Lady Rosseter? What does this change say about the social class system?
    3. Is Clarissa a snob, as Peter and Sally believe? What evidence does the novel offer in either direction?
    4. What’s the purpose of Miss Kilman's character in regards to social class?

    Chew on This

    Miss Kilman is angry that she’s poor and struggling. Secretly, she may even want to be rich.

    Woolf’s attitude toward snobs is pretty ambivalent: she mocks them but also identifies with them.

  • Time

    One of the amazing things about <em>Mrs Dalloway</em> is the creative use of time. The novel starts in an early morning in June 1923 and ends the next day at 3am; that means fewer than twenty-four hours pass during the course of the story. This compact use of time means that you have to read closely because <em>every</em> moment counts. Because of this, a lot happens in the course of just a few minutes (usually in thoughts more than in actions). For example, characters will flash back to the past at Bourton, and recall elaborate stories, while in present time only a few minutes have passed. We (and the characters) are constantly reminded of time by Big Ben, London’s giant clock tower, which is sounding off the hours through the entire novel. This is particularly poignant for Clarissa whose preoccupation with time relates to her fear of death. She’s deeply aware that as time passes, she gets closer to death, and she feels odd that life will go on just the same without her. Just as she knows that time existed long before her, she’s aware that it will go on long after her bones have turned to dust.

    Questions About Time

    1. How does the novel’s short time span affect the way we read the story? What would be different if we were reading about an entire year of these characters' lives?
    2. Why does Woolf allow Big Ben to interrupt the story so many times?
    3. Does Clarissa live in the moment or does she dwell on the future and past? What about Septimus? Peter?

    Chew on This

    Time is a terrible thing, at least as Clarissa sees it.

    The story would have been more complete if we saw more than one day of the characters' lives: then we could get to know them all better.

  • Isolation

    Just about every character in Mrs Dalloway feels isolated in some way. Although many of them are bound by tradition, class, history, love of empire, or survival of trauma, they still feel very alone in the world. Woolf uses metaphors of thread and fish swimming in water to indicate how loose the connections between people are. People see each other as objects, not as subjects; they think about others but don’t necessarily communicate with them – even though they’re desperate to. Characters seem to lack the right language to have meaningful exchanges. Clarissa's husband, who loves her very much, finds himself incapable of even saying "I love you," and must use flowers to send the message. Clarissa’s parties aim to bring people together but really become gatherings of a bunch of isolated individuals. The isolation that people feel throughout Mrs Dalloway brings with it deep feelings of fear – that the entire world is against them. In the end, Clarissa feels more of a connection to Septimus and the old lady across the way than to anyone else.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Are any of <em>Mrs Dalloway</em>’s characters not isolated? Richard Dalloway? Hugh Whitbread? Why or why not?
    2. Is Clarissa comforted by the feeling of connection she has to Septimus?
    3. Does Woolf create different categories of isolation? Is Clarissa’s the same as, say, Lady Bradshaw’s?
    4. Does Woolf suggest a connection between isolation and British society in general?

    Chew on This

    Many of the characters in the novel are isolated, but it’s not always clear what they’re isolated from.

    Clarissa's isolation is nothing compared to the isolation felt by Septimus.

  • Warfare

    An important point about this "war" novel is that no actual warfare takes place. All we see is the aftermath – the trauma and the shell-shock, the ripples of damage to those who survived. The war had been over for five years when <em>Mrs Dalloway </em>takes place, and yet everyone is still deeply impacted by it. Many people had championed the war as a way to uphold the ideals of the British Empire and a way to make men out of boys. But with all of the life wasted, the feeling that the war was fought for all of the ideals of England becomes somewhat absurd. Septimus is the most damaged, since he fought in the trenches and lost his good friend and officer, Evans. He represents what happened to these young men who fought for the queen and for abstract ideas of duty. Septimus’ shell-shock is a shameful expression of how soldiers can become damaged from warfare and return as madmen instead of heroes.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How is Clarissa affected by the war?
    2. Does Virginia Woolf seem to believe that post-traumatic stress disorder is treatable?
    3. Is Septimus a hero? How would each of the other characters in the novel answer this question?
    4. Could this novel have been written any other time than right after World War I?

    Chew on This

    If Evans had survived, Septimus would not have been as jaded about war.

    The only characters who don’t seem touched by madness are the ones we don’t get to know well, which suggests that maybe we just don’t know them well enough to see it.

  • Suffering

    Suffering takes many forms in <em>Mrs Dalloway</em>. People may be physically ill with vague but debilitating problems, or be deeply, emotionally damaged, or somewhere between. Although almost everyone in the novel is suffering, everyone feels that they're in it on their own. Miss Kilman suffers partly by choice and as a political expression, making martyrdom part of her personality. Rezia’s suffering comes from empathy for her husband and a deep sense of isolation. Peter suffers above all from the past, from the fact that Clarissa never loved him and the reality that he has made bad choices with women and in his career. Septimus ultimately kills himself to end his mad suffering. Does this mean that suffering is universal and unavoidable? What do you think?

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What exactly is the cause of Clarissa’s suffering? Does she suffer as much as Septimus?
    2. Does either Dr Bradshaw or Dr Holmes offer any relief from the suffering of their patients?
    3. Does Virginia Woolf suggest any connections between suffering and British society? Why might all of these characters be suffering?

    Chew on This

    If Rezia had been more open about her suffering, it might have helped Septimus know that he wasn't alone.

    Richard has no idea that Clarissa is suffering.

  • Repression

    Mrs Dalloway is filled with repression. Our title character, Clarissa, is constantly holding in emotion so she can conform to English social standards. What she feels on the inside and what she projects to the outside world are very different. Inside, she has deep feelings of anxiety and a big fear of death. Woolf suggests that British society expects and almost demands that people repress emotion, so that someone like Septimus must hold in his madness because it wouldn’t reflect well upon society to have a soldier act in an unmanly way; British society places great pressure on the soldiers to behave like heroes. Sexual repression is also a huge issue in this novel; Clarissa must repress her sexual feelings toward Sally, and we get the idea that Septimus was hiding a sexual interest in Evans before his death. Talking about these kinds of sexual issues was new in Woolf's time, and she treats the subject beautifully.

    Questions About Repression

    1. What is Clarissa holding inside? Is there something she wants to express but cannot?
    2. In what ways does British society promote repression in its citizens?
    3. Are any of the characters in <em>Mrs Dalloway</em> not repressing some emotion?
    4. Is the war to blame for this repression or was this an issue before the war as well? What clues does Virginia Woolf give us to help answer this question?

    Chew on This

    Men like Dr Bradshaw are the cause of the emotional repression felt by so many British citizens.

    Now that Sally has become Lady Rosseter, she must repress much more of herself than before.

  • Memory and the Past

    Clarissa’s party stirs up memories for many of the characters, and memories are constantly woven into the present-day thoughts of the characters. The past affects each character differently in <em>Mrs Dalloway. </em>Certain memories are very keen (and much happier) for Clarissa, such as getting a kiss from Sally Seton. She cherishes these moments as the best of her life. For Peter, the past is mostly just painful: he still can’t get over his love for Clarissa and so he constantly returns to the summers at Bourton in order to make sense of what happened. For Septimus, memories are haunting and painful. He continues to hallucinate that he’s seeing Evans get killed, and memories of the war dominate his mind. Though he struggles to see beauty, the present is constantly interrupted by gruesome visions of the past.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Are memories a good or a bad thing for the characters in Mrs Dalloway?
    2. To Clarissa, was the past better, happier? What about to Peter?
    3. What associations do characters have with Bourton? Do they all remember it the same way, or do they have different memories of that time?
    4. How do you think Clarissa is affected by the death of her sister? Why doesn't she think about her sister more?

    Chew on This

    Clarissa lives more in the future than in the past.

    Peter dwells on the past because he is ashamed of what he has become in the present.

  • Madness

    In <em>Mrs Dalloway, </em>we are given the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a man who has gone mad because of the war. Though we can all certainly see that Septimus has been driven mad by the violence and death of combat, many characters deny the very possibility of madness. Dr Holmes in particular thinks that Septimus is just "in a funk," and that gaining some weight and distracting himself will be the perfect cure. Septimus’ visions are also a source of anxiety for his wife, who feels like she has to hide him from the prying eyes of the public. She dreads what people must think of her husband (and of her) for the way that he behaves. By presenting Septimus as she does, Woolf suggests that war can cause profound psychological effects – something society at her time was not prepared to accept because shell-shock didn’t conform with "right" British behavior. In Woolf’s day, people were still trying to understand the psychological effects of World War I. Septimus (and presumably many others) has to reconcile what it means to be a man who suffers, when he’s back in proper, post-war society.

    Questions About Madness

    1. What does Septimus’ madness reveal about the effects of war?
    2. How is madness perceived by the various characters in the novel? More particularly, how does Rezia view her husband's madness?
    3. What different forms of madness does Woolf present in <em>Mrs Dalloway</em>?

    Chew on This

    Woolf suggests that there are many different kinds of madness, but their source is common: "madness" is a label given to people who have lost their faith in the government.

    Dr Bradshaw understands Septimus' madness, he just refuses to help him heal.