Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – Criticism

“Mrs Dalloway” Repetition as Raising of the Dead – J Hillis Miller (1982)

  1. “Though the characters are not always aware of this narrating presence, they are at every moment possessed and known, in a sense violated, by an invisible mind, a mind more powerful than their own. This mind registers with infinite delicacy their every thought and steals their every secret. The indirect discourse of this registration, in which the narrator reports in the past tense thoughts which once occurred in the present moments of the characters’ minds, is the basic form of narration… This disquieting mode of ventriloquism may be found on any page of the novel. Its distinguishing mark is the conventional ‘he thought’ or ‘she thought’ which punctuates the narrative and reveals the strange one-way interpersonal relation… If the reader asks himself where he is placed as he reads any given page of ‘Mrs Dalloway’, the answer, most often, is that he is plunged within an individual mind which is being understood frim inside by an ubiquitous all-knowing mind. The mind speaks from some indeterminate later point in time… In ‘Mrs Dalloway’ nothing exists for the narrator which does not first exist in the mind of one of the characters, whether it be a thought or a thing. …though for the most part the characters do not know it, the universal mind is part of their own minds, or rather their minds are part of it. If one descends deeply enough into any individual mind one reaches ultimately the general mind, that is, the mind of the narrator.”


  1. “This notion of a union of each mind in its depths with all the other minds and with a universal, impersonal mind for which the narrator speaks… Woolf’s ‘tunnelling process’ – that method whereby, as she says ‘I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect.’ …Deep below the surface, in some dark and remote cave of the spirit, each person’s mind connects with all the other minds, in a vast cavern where all the tunnels end. …union with the general mind is incompatible with the distinctions, the limitations, the definite edges and outlines, one thing here another thing there, of daylight consciousness. The realm of union is a region of dispersion, of darkness, of indistinction, sleep and death. The fear or the attraction of the annihilating fall into nothingness echoes through ‘Mrs Dalloway’. The novel seems to be based on an irreconcilable opposition between individuality and universality. By reason of his or her existence as a conscious human being, each man or woman is alienated form the whole of which he or she is actually, though unwittingly or at best half-consciously, a part. That half-consciousness gives each person a sense of incompletion. Each person yearns to be joined in one way or another to the whole from which he or she is separated by the conditions of existence as an individual.”


Repression in Mrs Dalloway’s London – Jeremy Tambling (1989)


  1. “The novel is usually treated in terms of its use of ‘stream of consciousness’, or as a meditation on time and on building up the person every day afresh, but it nevertheless incarnates a critique of Empire and the war, taking the state as the embodiment of patriarchal power, and the upholder of what even Richard Dalloway calls ‘our detestable social system’. Dalloway’s comments echo Virginia Woolf’s record of her intention: ‘In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system and to show it at work, in its most intense.’”


  1. “Character, in ‘Mrs Dalloway’, is not something merely inherent within a person: it is the result of an interrelationship between individuals and the space they inhabit. Clarissa’s theory of the 1890’s, expounded to Peter Walsh from the top of an omnibus …is that ‘she felt herself everywhere; not “here, here, here”; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftsbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them, even the places.’ One such place is the formal, public, squared-off London of statues in rigid poses which helps to forms those who live within its environment. Here is the Modernist sense of character, not as something innate, but produced from without, from the lived practices (which must include the ideology) of a society, rather from a deep personal subjectivity.”


  1. “’Mrs Dalloway’ makes mental instability a dominant theme. In the novel the necessity is for the self to ‘compose’ its fragmentary parts into ‘one centre, one diamond’ …the text’s larger historical story, involving the increased medicalisation of society, the readiness to label people as mentally ill, and the absorbed attention given to nerves and mental instability.”


  1. “…the novel also suggests that the power to make up the character is still a matter of loss, of misnaming, and that the speaking subjects are not masters of their speech in so creating themselves. Mrs Dalloway discovers this at the mirror, ‘seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself. …She pursed her lips …it was to give her face a point. That was her self, pointed, dart-like, definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self drew the parts together…’ The moment in front of the mirror plays on the ambiguity of ‘herself’ and ‘her self’, suggesting the constructed and partial nature of the self she must create that night, and implies that the peremptory call on Mrs Dalloway to create that self does not allow for individual liberty: it also invokes the subjection of disparate parts so that they can be elided into one unit. An analysis using Kristeva or Lacan would see this naming of the self as dictated by the authority of the law of the Father so that the naming is according to the codes and differences set up within the society that insists on clear-cut differences [of sexuality or gender for instance].”


  1. “But ‘patriarchy’ in this novel does not mean something abstract or simply inherent in a family structure: it means the rule of an oppressive state power that has its spokesman Bradshaw telling people whether they are well or not in the name of ‘Proportion’, or Richard Dalloway pronouncing on poetry and its dangerous emotional or sexual charge. Nor is there anything abstract in Woolf’s account of the loss the self sustains in its learning of sexual difference. The war-spirit sustains rigid difference and separation. Madness and suicide and coldness imply the price paid for non-recognition of the presence of otherness within the unitary self. Woolf suggests in the news from India, however, that even the Empire cannot be preserved as a monologic and monolithic entity: the signs of otherness are forever coming back in opposition. The architecture of London, the medical knowledge of the doctors with its power of surveillance, class considerations – registered so potently in people’s response to the car going past near the novel’s beginning – these elements show how patriarchy as an ideology is created through specific practices within society. Woolf’s stress on veiled homosexuality suggests that what is repressed could either be a source of warmth, if released, or destructive, if not.”


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Feminist Readings of Woolf – Toril Moi (1985)


  1. “Woolf seems to practise what we might now call a ‘deconstructive’ form of writing, one that engages with and thereby exposes the duplicitous nature of discourse.”


  1. “Through her conscious exploitation of the sportive, sensual nature of language, Woolf rejects the metaphysical essentialism underlying patriarchal ideology, which hails God, the Father, or the phallus as its transcendental signified.”


  1. “For the symbolic order is a patriarchal order, ruled by the Law of the Father, and any subject who tries to disrupt it, who lets unconscious forces slip through the symbolic repression, puts her or himself in a position of revolt against this regime. Woolf herself suffered acute patriarchal oppression at the hands of the psychiatric establishment, and ‘Mrs Dalloway’ contains not only a splendidly satirical attack on that profession (as represented by Sir William Bradshaw), but also a superbly perspicacious representation of a mind that succumbs to ‘imaginary chaos’ in the character of Septimus Smith. Indeed, Septimus can be seen as the negative parallel to Clarissa Dalloway, who herself steers clear of the threatening gulf of madness only at the price of repressing her passions and desires, becoming a cold but brilliant woman highly admired in patriarchal society. In this way Woolf discloses the dangers of the invasion of unconscious pulsions as well as the price paid by the subject who successfully preserves her sanity, thus maintaining a precarious balance between an overestimation of so-called ‘feminine’ madness and a too precipitate rejection of the values of the symbolic order.”


  1. “Jane Marcus (1981) claims Woolf as …a champion of both socialism and feminism. Marcus’s article ‘Thinking back through our Mothers’, however, makes it abundantly clear that it is exceptionally difficult to argue this case convincingly: ‘Writing, for Virginia Woolf, was a revolutionary act. Her alienation from British patriarchal culture and its capitalist and imperialist forms and values, was so intense that she was filled with terror and determination as she wrote. A guerrilla fighter in a Victorian skirt, she trembled with fear as she prepared her attacks, her raids on the enemy.”



  1. Structuralism and Post Structuralism

‘At times Woolf allows Clarissa herself to become conscious of the respects in which she signifies as an upper-middle-class ‘hostess’, or as a ‘wife’

  • Idea that characters are signs/symbols for something wider

Nancy Armstrong, 1983

‘she has done away with the old rhetorical categories of character, plot, setting, and narration’

‘writes in a way we should not find too much out of place in Edwardian fiction’

  • g. Reaction at Bourton to news of upper-middle class man marrying his housemaid

Clarissa’s ‘network of polite exchanges’ may be marginal to the male-dominated languages that control the political and economic worlds, but the process is of interest nevertheless.

Teresa L Ebert, 1985

‘Wherever a character’s perception begins to delve beyond the surface details’ metonym ‘moves increasingly towards metaphor’

‘male and metonymic’ surface contrasted to an ‘underlying verbal pattern’ that is ’metaphoric and female’

  • Metonymic: Word/phrase as a substitute for something else closely associated
  • Metaphor: Word/phrase applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable
  • Whereas metonym is to do with contiguity, metaphor is to do with similarity
  • (Contiguity: the state of bordering or being in contact with something.)
  • Sees metonym as (being characteristic of) masculinity, metaphor as femininity

Edward Bishop, 1986

‘[Mrs Dalloway’s] oscillation between the qualities of speech and writing’

Woolf is deliberately aiming ‘to locate her discourse between speech and writing’

  • Idea that Woolf is carefully constructing the text to emulate natural speech and thought

‘Clarissa’s social language … liberates rather than frustrates the expression of personality’

Woolf’s fictions are ‘grounded in a world beyond the text’ but also ‘meditations on the curious way in which that world exists only in the text’

  • Is anything about Mrs Dalloway unrealistic? Stereotypical picture of life?

Herbert Marder, 1986

Clarissa as ‘a proud independent woman who resists tyranny’ or ‘a study in social decadence’

Pamela Caughie, 1991

The novel contains many different outlooks on life, all of which claim to present a ‘unified vision of experience’: ‘Sir William Bradshaw’s sense of proportion, Miss Kilman’s religious belief, Peter’s possessive love, Lady Bruton’s social conscience, and Clarissa’s party’

‘Just when we get comfortable in the minds of characters, we are made to acknowledge the “artificiality” of the narrative’

  • Aspects of the novel’s language and structure are ‘self-conscious’


  1. Woolf and Philosophy

“the myth of an unintellectual and aesthetic Virginia Woolf”

  • The essay suggests that by applying a philosophical reading of Mrs Dalloway, we see a more serious, intellectual side of Woolf
  • Counters the point that women are frivolous and not concerned with ‘real’ issues
  1. M. Forster The Mark on the Wall (1917)

[Her work] “has no moral, no philosophy, nor has it what is usually understood by Form”

  • Contradicts the point above
  • Suggests that Woolf (and women writers) don’t write seriously

“The solipsistic position […] is present in the novel […] in the atmosphere of anxiety”

  • Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s mind is sure to exist, that we can’t have any real knowledge of things external to ourselves

Anna Benjamin Towards an Understanding of the Meaning of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1965)

“We find a reassertion of the value of living life in its fullest as part of the universe, just where we might expect to find life at its most trivial”

  • London society is not an especially profound subject but Woolf seems to invest it with some philosophical value through Clarissa’s ponderings on life and her love of it

“The constant chiming of Big Ben […] seems to speak to one side of this division, while the interweaving of present and past through personal memory seems to speak to the other”

“Mrs Dalloway represents the conflict, not between person and person, but between duration and false time”

  • Bergsonism – A French philosopher called Henri Bergson suggested the idea that whereas in fact time is something indivisible (la durée), we separate it into false units (le temps)
  • This idea seems to come up in Mrs Dalloway with Clarissa’s reflections on time as well as the recurrence of memories of the past
  • It’s unlikely that Woolf actually knew of Bergson but may have read his ideas or come to these thoughts herself

Lucio Ruotolo Six Existential Heros (1973)

[Woolf attempts] “to establish a perspective for the novel outside of the realm of manners”

  • Existentialism – a philosophical theory placing importance on the individual as a self-determining agent
  • Within this theory, there is the idea of ‘authenticity’, with ‘inauthenticity’ sometime being seen as conformity to a social norm or ideal – “manners” are a form of inauthenticity
  • Is Clarissa inauthentic in this way? What about Sally Seton?
  • Ruotolo sees Clarissa as closer to authenticity than other characters – [Clarissa recognises that she has lead] “an inauthentic life” but “they cannot see Clarissa’s authenticity for what it is”

James Naremore – The World Without a Self

[Clarissa] “is beset by the problem of aloneness and separateness”

  • This gives the novel a more profound and tragic aspect

Mark Hussey The Singing of the Real World (1986)

[Woolf aims to tell us not] “about an external, objective Reality,” [but rather] “about our experience of the world”

  • In Sense and Sensibility, we have a narrator who is external, but is not exactly objective
  • Woolf is trying to tell us something about how people feel, she is not just observing – does this make her work less trivial and more profound?

 “A glimpse of that true self is to be found in her past”

  • What is Clarissa’s true self? Do we ever find out?

“The world of Mrs Dalloway […] is one where individuals live in relative isolation”

  • This could mirror Virginia Woolf’s own struggle with her mental health
  • As we see so much into each character’s head, does this affect the feeling of isolation we get? Clarissa is usually surrounded by people but instead of discussing her worries with them, we hear them in her thoughts


  1. Sexuality and the Body – Audre Lorde and Adrianne Rich (1980s)


“Clarissa Dalloway’s fear of interruption is the most important feature of her personality.”

  • A fear of being found to love Sally Seton, whilst on the ‘recovery’ of forgetting her – marrying Richard.
  • Interruption of this ‘suicide’? Part of her died when losing Sally.
  • Most important feature as it shows strength and self control, or a negative feature of her personality?
  • How Woolf wants Clarissa to be seen by audience.


“Clarissa’s fundamental self-denial is, in effect, a form of suicide.”

  • Denial of how she really feels about Richard/ Sally.
  • Suicide of the heart? Love?
  • Relates to Woolf’s own suicide?


“…A hostess creating the perfect environment for her guests.”

  • How Peter describes her in a negative way, is used here as her defence.
  • Pretending this is her life in order to forget Sally.
  • “Her love for Sally Seton is bitter in its self revelation” was used before this line, giving it a different meaning to how Peter used it.
  • Woolf wants the reader to know Clarissa is not the ‘perfect hostess’.


“There is no difference between [Septimus’s] leap into death and [Clarissa’s] into the life she has chosen; both are suicidal.” (Jensen)

  • Both were homosexual, and parallels can be made between their choices of marriage/love.
  • Clarissa ‘died’ when she married Richard?
  • Woolf makes another link between the two characters to demonstrate the effects of repressed feelings? Inspire the reader?


“…It portrays that sickness as a way to escape the pressures of sexuality.” (Fulker)

  • Influenza is the sickness described, but menopause is implied.
  • Reason could be lack of attraction – use illness as an excuse?
  • Woolf does show Clarissa’s regret, but is it for Richard or another past lover?


“The flower imagery …‘rewrites men’s conventional associations of women as fragile and vulnerable flowers by using flowers instead as images of female sexual power.” (Cramer)

  • Clarissa can be seen as both fragile and empowered depending on the situation.
  • Clarissa does hold the power in her relationship with Richard, but has no power over her heart when it comes to her other love interests.
  • Woolf is changing patriarchal views of the time with this idea.



  1. Woolf and Psychoanalysis – Mark Spika (1980)


  • Clarissa’s mourning for love is focused on the figure of peter.
    • Clarissa is discontent with growing old
    • Peter reminds her of the old time at Burton and what she could have had
    • Unhappy marriage? Dull?
    • Mrs D had to give up ‘true’ love for security


  • The death of romantic love is the cost of maintaining ‘the privacy of the soul’
    • Sacrifice for love
    • Mrs D had to give up ‘true’ love for security
    • Women need more that love in life
    • Although marriage takes a lot of privacy away, women still need their “soul” and to be who they are deep down
    • Women, like Clarissa, didn’t have much of their own so what they do have like their “Soul” needs protecting, despite the cost.

Elizabeth Abel (1983)

  • Clarissa’s grief is not for Septimus, but for herself.
    • Grief for loss of youth, ability to have children, being a mother, looks, love, passion
    • Septimus may just be included so Clarissa is able to express her feels
    • Deep unspoken feelings
    • Unconscious thoughts
    • Clarissa grieves who she used to be. Aging has resulted in her barely recognizing herself. (mirror)


Makiko Minnow-Pinkney (1987)

  • Clarissa considers her sexual feelings and compares them to a “match burning in a crocus”
    • Freudian ‘libido’
    • Mrs Dalloway
    • Secret desires
    • Women are just like men in that respect
  • Septimus is another victim of the patriarchy
    • Nothing is believed to be wrong with Septimus according to the doctor.
    • Septimus is as much a victim of patriarchy as the women however his wife endures a huge amount of suffering also.
    • Expectations of Septimus being “manly” result in his eventual suicide
    • CONTEXT – Little understanding of what is now known as Post-traumatic stress


 “A range of critics argue”

  • A society and culture can be collectively traumatized
    • Mrs D is set after the war
    • People getting use to a new way of life
    • Clarissa is part of “the old generation”
    • Not individual suffering – everybody suffers
    • Expectations can cause suffering – Clarissa married Richard not Sally or Peter who appear to make her truly happy.


  1. Historicist Approaches


  • [Bloomsbury Group] ‘United by a common respect for the things of the spirit and the inner life’ – J.K Johnstone
  • Reaction against Victorian and Edwardian fiction – which gives precedence to events, social issues, story – things happen to people (not so much about the subjective experience
  • Along with James Joyce and other modernist authors Woolf’s fiction – present what it is really like to live, experience life: the subjective experience.
  • Main purpose of the narrator in Mrs D is to get close to the individual subjectivity: present what their moment by moment existence is like.

Bloomsbury group – set of English writers/philosophers who were based around the Bloomsbury area of London, including Woolf, Strachey, and Forster

Mrs Dalloway – reader’s insight into her ‘inner life’ is facilitated by free indirect style

  • Mrs Dalloway ‘takes the state as the embodiment of patriarchal power, and the upholder of what even Richard Dalloway calls “our detestable social system” – Jeremy Tambling

Ways in which the state could embody patriarchal power include Septimus’ demonisation as a result of his mental illness, institutional repression of his fascination with Evans & admittance he didn’t marry Rezia for love, and the inertia in providing support for the women victims of the war

Extent to which the social system is ‘detestable’ is highlighted by Tory MP Richard Dalloway’s criticism of it

In Woolf the criticism is there, as historicist critics point out, but it is not as strident as some modern critics would have us believe (in Austen, any criticism of the social order is far more nuanced: the invidious choices presented to women)

  • ‘The allusion [to cadets] is not a mere geographical filler, but yet another signpost which alerts the reader to the all-encompassing nature of the novel’s critique of war and militarism’ – David Bradshaw

Shows the war’s pervasive influence in all areas of life, as it has turned young boys into soldiers

However – something puerile/boyish/childish about this symbol, like Peter Walsh’s penknife – is there something pathetic about the patriarchy?

  • (Septimus treats Lucrezia as a Florence Nightingale figure) – ‘women become the antidote to the appalling conditions at the Front, and in doing so, lose their independence’ – Masami Usui, ‘The Female Victims of War in Mrs Dalloway’(1991)

Encapsulates the burden the war places on women: they become men’s primary carers (because of lack of state support offered to soldiers returning)

  • ‘The ring is not only the index of the physical stress of being married to Septimus, but also symbolises the indirect effects of the war in the form of marital breakdown’ – Jessica Meyer

Lucrezia’s wedding ring is loose in the novel’s opening, which symbolises the breakdown in her relationship to Septimus – she has ultimately been uprooted from her home in Italy to fulfil a role as Septimus’ carer, rather than wife

  • ‘Clarissa thinks of herself as part of the background, merging with her social and physical surroundings’ – Susan Merrill Squier

This is a ‘typically female’ approach to life – meek and subordinate?

When Clarissa walks around London her approach is similar – she is directionless

This is in contrast to the representation of Hugh Whitbread and Peter Walsh, who seem more purposeful, have a more inflated sense of self and are ultimately more self-important, eg. Hugh’s ‘little job at court’ (irony) /Peter who walks through ‘the haunts of masculine imperial and sexual power’ eg. Parliament Square


  1. Criticism in the Era of Second-Wave Feminism

“She felt a physical aversion to the boldly functions described… aversion to vulgar.”

  • Her ‘illness’.
  • Avoiding age throughout the book
  • Menopause- old age is something to be avoided by women of the time.
  • Women only really have their youth as they are only just reaching political equality
  • A natural process seen as ‘vulgar’.


“Clarissa is so far removed (from the ground of life) it as to lose touch with her basic instincts.”

  • No interest in politics or anything outside of her neighbourhood.
  • Only attracted to shallow pleasures (hosting parties, social events), suggested that this is to distract herself from her reality (menopause, age)
  • Little faith in anything but her own social gratification.


“Sir William and Lady Bradshaw… are the ‘symbolic portrait’ or the patriarchy.”

  • ‘demonstrate masculine entitlement through their relationships’
  • Clarissa manages to convince herself that she is content with her marriage, whereas Lady Bradshaw more honestly can admit it is entrapment.
  • ‘”Trust everything to me,” he said, and dismissed them.’- Entitlement, thinks highly of himself.
  • “A description of Lady Bradshaw’s subservience to her husband.”


“Mrs Dalloway is a ‘serious, implicitly political investigation of the strengths and failures of middle class society.”

  • Middle class society is what oppresses Septimus, leading to his death- Clarissa plays a part in this.
  • “somehow It was her disaster- her mistake.”- taking responsibility for what the class system has done.
  • Everyone is somehow complicit in the oppression of others.


“Developed manliness in the trenches.”

“Manliness should been seen as a quality to be learned… do not have to teach a horse to be horsely, or a rose to be rosely.”

  • Social conformity
  • Only way to prove masculine is to be assertive and dominant, and Septimus had only came out of the war more unstable.
  • Eager to prove himself a man through cobra, but he cannot go back to his old life after it.
  • Society had ruined his life.


“Such freedom… is more easily available to women precisely because they have less power in society and therefore less of a vested interest in either society or power.”

  • Advantages of the patriarchy
  • Sally/Clarissa completely rebel against the norms given to them.
  • Women have less of a role in society, making it easier for them to do what they want and avoid consequence.