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.


  1. ‘Virginia Woolf, Modernism and Modernity’ by Michael Whitworth (2015)

‘aesthetically, its emphasis on form seemed a mistaken attempt to exclude the randomness of the modern world’

‘reason in the modern world is purely instrumental’

‘an attempt to recover an inalienably literary quality for literature’

‘for her… the relationship was complicated by the values inscribed in the canon’

‘references to the continuing presence of prehistory are not far to seek’ – Reiza imagines London ‘as the Romans saw it’

‘women’s experience of modernity often differs from that of men’

‘art produced after the First World War recorded the emotional aspect of the crisis’

‘Virginia Woolf ‘grew up a Victorian’’

‘she had inherited modernism rather than created it herself’

‘what Carey sees as Woolf’s ‘primitivist cosmetic haze’’

‘Woolf’s text anticipates the very critique of ‘mass thinking’ that Carey levels at it’

‘Woolf’s fictions do not depend upon incident and plot in any conventional sense’

‘defences of Woolf thar point to her political involvement… assume a continuity between the woman and the author’

‘Woolf established the Hogarth Press… ‘to be able to do what one likes’’

  • Virginia Woolf and Sexuality by Patricia M Cramer (2015)

‘Naomi Black aptly describes Virginia Woolf’s feminism as ‘deeply radical’, ‘drastic, basic and transformational’

‘Woolf called for radical reinventions of gender norms – ‘For the degradation of being a slave is only equalled by the degradation of being a master’

‘Woolf’s name is a ‘watchword’ for modernist innovation’ – Suzette Henke

‘Woolf came of age in an era of unprecedented popular, literary and scientific preoccupation with sexuality, including male and female homosexuality’

‘Sexual liberation, and liberation through sexuality, were conscious and central projects of the time’ – Michael Bell

‘modernism itself is a homosexual phenomenon’ – Jay, Davis and Reed

‘Woolf’s opposition to ‘any domination of one over another’ includes opposition to forms of sexuality that eroticise master/slave relationships’

‘Woolf reflects profound alienation from gender norms and socially constructed forms of homosexual desire’

‘Woolf portrays heterosexual seduction as dangerous and degrading for women’

‘marriage as a form of institutionalised sexual slavery’

‘her personal experience of childhood sexual abuse by her half brothers’

‘a haunting if sometimes repressed trauma narrative’

‘Woolf’s marriage to Leonard Woolf was much like Clarissa’s to Richard Dalloway’

‘Woolf wrote most of her major novels with Vita in her heart and much on her mind’

‘Conjuring Vita liberates Woolf’s creativity – ‘ideas rush in’’

‘Woolf’s attention is on the intensity and quality of sexual emotion rather then specific acts’

‘With Hall’s 1928 trial, the ‘mannish lesbian’ became the dominant, popular image of the female homosexual in England’

‘the closeted married lesbian’

‘the combination of a woman’s kiss and a flower produces ‘moments of being’’

3. Historicist Approaches

The History of the Bloomsbury Group (1953-1981)

  • ‘Readers in [Woolf’s] time separated by class culture or national culture may… have found some elements of her work difficult to decipher.’
  • The main argument against the idea that Mrs D is contextualised by and reflective of Woolf’s ‘narrow circle of friends’ positions Woolf as an atheist whose fear of death created a ‘craving for a kind of metaphysical thinking’ (Irma Rantavaara, 1947).
  • Clarissa’s ‘transcendental theory’ (p.129) is ‘an expression of her author’s position’ (Irma Rantavaara, 1947).
  • Johnstone saw Woolf as being ‘united’ [with the Bloomsbury Group] by ‘a common respect for the things of the spirit’ and the inner life, and by ‘an admiration for the individual […] the virtues of courage, tolerance, and honesty’ (J.K Johnstone, 1954).
  • Holroyd’s biography Lytton Strachey (1967) revived interest in Bloomsbury, aligning its rebellion against Victorianism with the 1960s counterculture, but did so at the cost of presenting an almost caricatural version of Woolf as anaemic and apolitical.
  • S. P. Rosenbaum’s posthumously published The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club (2014) has yet to make its mark, suggesting the Bloomsbury Group’s popularity and relevance have depleted in the view of a 21st century society.
  • ‘Much modernist literary theory still holds that there is a crucial disjunction between works of poetry, fiction and drama on the one side, and on the other what is lumped together and defined merely negatively as nonfiction’ (S.P Rosenbaum, 1981).

Reality and the Social System

  • Alex Zwedling’s Mrs Dalloway and the Social System (1977) was a pivotal article in Woolf’s criticism, outlining that Woolf wanted ‘to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense.’
  • ‘[Mrs D] highlights an aspect of her work very different from the traditional picture of the ‘poetic’ novelist interested in states of human reverie and vision’ (Alex Zwedling, 1977).
  • Reviewing Zwerdling’s 1986 study titled Virginia Woolf and the Real World, Richard Pierce praised it for establishing Woolf’s achievement in the world of ‘facts’ as well as that of ‘vision’, but also remarked that it demonstrated the limits of ‘traditional scholarship.’

Militarism and War

  • Sue Thomas’ 1987Virginia Woolf’s Septimus Smith and the Contemporary Perceptions of Shell Shock details that the novel’s anger may derive from both Woolf’s feelings about the rest cures prescribed for her in 1913 and 1915, and her anger at the Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into ‘Shell-shock’, in 1922.
  • Sexuality and the Body, Whitworth 2015

Gold dust from this article:

  • ‘the erotic should be a source of power for women, one which displaces patriarchal power’ (Lorde 1979)
  • ‘heterosexuality is a political institution’ (Rich 1980)
  • ‘Clarissa’s ‘suicide’ is her acceptance of heterosexual convention and her suppression of her lesbian self’ (Jensen 1983)
  • Miss Kilman was ‘one of Mrs Dalloway’s alter egos’ (Suzette Henke 1981)
  • ‘‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’ comprehends sexuality ‘not in terms of female attractiveness or attraction to men but in terms of women’s relations to their own ever-changing flesh, especially with regard to their reproductive capacity.’ (cit. Fulker 1995)
  • ‘The conjunction of menopause and disease at once establishes one aspect of female experience as a sickness’ (Fulker 1995)
  • ‘The pink cake passage ‘demonstrates both a greed and a capitulation to the flesh’’ (cit. Fulker 1995)
  • ‘the ‘homoerotic self’ is a centre ‘from which to oppose patriarchal values and to reimagine self and community’ (Cramer 1991)
  • ‘the crocus […] ‘rewrites men’s conventional associations of women as fragile and vulnerable flowers by using flowers instead as images of female sexual power’’ (Cramer 1991)
  • Mrs Dalloway is a novel that critiques heterosexual marriage as an institution’ (cit. Barrett 1997)
  • Despite its hostility, sexology ‘enabled lesbian self-definition’ (Barrett 1997)
  • Clarissa’s ‘lesbian identity’ is ‘the privacy of her soul’ (Barrett 1997)
  • ‘To preserve the purity, integrity, and privacy of her sapphic moments, Clarissa categorises Doris[, …] with her public passion, as lesbian, as deviant, as other. For Clarissa, Doris Kilman embodies the sexologists’ perversion of lesbian passion and desire.’ (Barrett 1997)
  • The ‘brutal monster’ is the ‘lesbian within’ (Barrett 1997)
  • ‘Clarissa longs for someone to unmask her secret lesbian passions. […] Doris inspires Clarissa to name – at least to herself – her lesbian desires, and to recognise as positive and satisfying the lesbianism of other women.’ (Barrett 1997)

Context from this article:

  • ‘In the authorised biography (1972), Woolf’s nephew Quentin Bell had largely downplayed her attraction to other women and had treated her as sexually ‘retarded’ or ‘frigid’ (cit. Bell 1972)
  • ‘in Woolf’s relationship in the 1930s with veteran suffragist and composer Dame Ethyl Smyth (1858-1944), Woolf’s lesbianism was closely associated with a sharpening of her political radicalism’ (author)
  • The body is ‘a physical apparatus conceived of as distinct from the self’. (author)
  • ‘Woolf believed that ‘an accurate and satisfying novelistic representation of people’ required a consideration of their physical life.’ (Fulker 1995)
  • ‘Hyslop subscribed to the mid-Victorian idea that humans possessed a limited supply of energy which should be, in the case of women, preserved for the function of childbearing.’ (author)
  • ‘The more our women aspire to exercising their nervous and mental function, […] ‘so they become not only less virile, but also less capable of generating healthy stock’ (Greenslade 1994 cit. Hyslop, one of Woolf’s doctors during her breakdown)
  • ‘the still fashionable Weir Mitchell ‘rest cure’ […] [patients’] treatment consisted of ‘isolation, immobility, prohibition of all intellectual activity’ and […] overfeeding’ (Greenslade 1994 cit. Hyslop)
  • Idea of ‘proportion’ is ‘homespun philosophy masquerading as profundity […] impertinences that shelter under the name of science’ (Greenslade 1994)
  • ‘Clarissa is a persona through which Woolf ‘reevaluate[d] her own heterosexual history’ in the light of her coming out.’ (Cramer 1991)
  • ‘in the ‘passionate friendship’ of Sally and Clarissa, ‘Woolf captures the intermingling of the intellectual and the erotic, the personal and the political that she experienced in her own feminist friendships’ (Barrett 1997)
  • Recovering Woolf: Criticism in the Era of Second-Wave Feminism
  1. ‘A reader of Mrs Dalloway starting from this biological sketch would be unsurprised by Septimus’ mental illness, and would be likely to read it biographically’ Holroyd
  • ‘a novelist of sensibility, but not a novelist of ideas’ Lewis
  • ’intensely interested in things, people, and events,’ and ‘highly sensitive to the atmosphere which surrounded her, whether it was personal, social, or historical’ Leonard Woolf
  • ‘Mrs Dalloway, whose central character, a society lady, Woolf already feared would be too ‘tinselly,’ too ‘feminine?’
  • ‘Clarissa is ‘a typical woman Gemini: light and airy, the “perfect hostess”, artistic […], and composed of easily discerned twin selves: the outgoing social self, oriented toward life, and the inner emotional self, concerned with failure and death’
  • ‘For Samuelson, one of the novel’s larger themes is the conflict between individual and society’
  • ‘Samuelson concludes that the novel celebrates a ‘very definite view’ of life’: the worth of individual personality and the need for its expression’
  • ‘’Woolf’s ideas tend to exist in her novel’s as interrogatives rather than declaratives: they prompt the reader’s own critical thinking, rather than telling the reader what to think’
  • ‘her novels are very far from being ‘pure’ works of art; there is, implicitly, a great deal of social criticism’
  1. ‘[Clarissa] is a hostess with a flair for giving parties, and a natural feeling for society and its conventions’ Marder
  1. ‘Septimus’ interest in culture and poetry had aroused suspicion and concern even before the war; his manager Mr Brewer had advised that he take up a manly pursuit like football’ Edwards
  1. ‘Such freedom, Virginia Woolf suggests, 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.’ Edwards
  • Feminism
  1. “When Virginia Woold was included in this canon, it was most often as an exemplar of ‘feminine’ modes of writing and of an early twentieth-century (over)subjectivism”
  • “Woolf’s short lived period of suffrage activism affiliated her to the suffragist rather than the more militant suffragette cause” – Ms Killman ?
  • Woolf’s letters to the New Statesman –  “women should have liberty of experience; that they should differ from men without fear and express their differences openly”
  • For women “life is circumscribed by the rituals of upper class domestic life and burdened by the demands of family, living and dead”
  • “a distinct women’s history and literary tradition”
  • “The fact of childbirth and child-rearing acts as one of the barriers intercepting the narrator’s imaginings of a different lot of women”
  • “Women are restricted in the middle class home, and excluded from the education and public life which their brothers take for granted. Yet the lives of men, too, are stunted by the inequalities between the sexes”
  • “Woolf seemed to link political propaganda – both left and right – with the forms of masculine war-mongering or war-enthusiasm”
  • E.M Forster on Woolf’s feminism: “There are spots of [feminism] all over her work, and it was constantly in her mind” … “By the 1930s she had much less to complain of, and seems to keep grumbling from habit.”
  1. Austen, A Room of One’s Own, page 67 “Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with the war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room”
  1. “she was among that sisterhood of great women writers whose pens were driven by anger”
  1. Rachel Bowlby – “the fixing of Woolf to one position rather than another is wholly counter to her to her strategies and perspectives”
  • Virginia Woolf, Empire and Race by Helen Carr (2015)
  1. “The patriarchal code; the world of finance and acquisition; the Empire: all these three…are intimately linked in Woolf’s writings and in her analysis of the world.”
  • “Woolf was most concerned with the added self-importance and license for domination imperialism gave to powerful men of her own class”
  • “Woolf was in outlook a committed anti-imperialist”
  • [In the post-war years] “Woolf was perceived as an overly precious, class-bound, minor figure”
  • “her anti-imperialism was…a particularly modernist one, though with her own gendered inflection.”
  • Woolf “mercilessly parodies her own class and culture” – Marcus
  • “her fiction relentlessly connects imperialism to patriarchy” – Marcus
  • Woolf consistently associates “Empire- making, war-making and gender relations” – Phillips
  • “Instead of the patriarchal world of externals, labels and economic facts, Woolf describes the inner life as we experience it”
  1. Woolf “suggests the underlying savagery and animality of the imperial idea of manhood”
  1. “Woolf’s concern for and fascination with the fabric of lived experience”
  1. “a naïve, untutored modernist, obsessed with interior, subjective and mystical experience” – Jane Goldman
  1. “Woolf always troubles the master narratives of patriarchy and British imperialism, but she does not additionally trouble England’s representations of the world outside itself” – Urmila Seshagiri
  1. “she sees them [English educated classes], not as the normative model of civilised humanity…but as a specific culture whose anthropology she traces, an essential step in moving beyond ethnocentricism”
  1. “Woolf herself, in spite of her criticisms of British colonialism, still has implicitly imperialist or racist views”
  • Virginia Woolf and Philosophy

1.) Bestowing an intellectual seriousness upon them that counteracts the myth of an unintellectual and aesthetic Virginia Woolf

2.) The solipsistic position – the belief that we can have no real knowledge of anything outside ourselves – is present in the novel not so much in speeches or explicit thoughts, but in the atmosphere of anxiety, keyed to the repetition of the phrase from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’

3.) Woolf frees herself to give the ‘unsophisticated directness of sense impression’

4.) Depending on its effect solely for the relations of forms and colours, irrespective of what the forms and colours might represent

5.) Their reality consists not of themselves as persons, but of their relationship to each other as forms

6.) Reassertion of the value of living life in its fullest as part of the universe, just where we expect to find life at it’s most trivial, insignificant level: among the restricted privileged class in London

7.)Mrs Dalloway 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

8.)A person leading an inauthentic existence allows him- or herself to be bound by conventional expectations of human nature, and lacks a sense of their own uniqueness

9.) Ruotolo presents Mrs Dalloway as Woolf’s attempt to ‘establish a perspective for the novel outside the realm of manners’ (‘manners’ being inauthentic), and sees it as an exploration of nothingness

10.) Her openness to innovation reflects her own independence. She does not require others to supply the meaning of her life

11.) The death of Evans leads to the inability to feel. This in turn leads to a philosophical conclusion: the world might well be without meaning 

12.) But there is always the risk they might value her more as a thinker than as a writer

13.) The world of Mrs Dalloway is also an atomized one, in which individuals live in relative isolation. 

  • Virginia Woolf and the public sphere by Melba Cuddy-Keane (2015)

“…literature itself had moved, due in part to the increasing predominance of scientific discourse, into a more private, and hence less socially influential, space.” Literature has no meaning or purpose to influence in society, it targets communal ears so there is no controversy.

“…cogently argued, negotiated and contested the nineteenth-century division of male and female into gendered public and private separate spheres.” Woolf lost readers for writing about this, always fighting for equality.

“Habermas posited a gradual transformation into the virtual spaces of print culture, such as newspapers and periodicals, which came imaginatively to represent an inclusive forum in which all citizens could be involved.” Made things easier for all people to get involved rather than just the upper class.

“The Habermasian model does not imply ideological agreement; it does, however, depend on a notion of shared discourse for everyone’s voice to be heard and understood.” This includes women; supports what Woolf writes about and tries to get across that women should be heard.

“Radical theorists on the left, however, argued that, due to inequities of power and differences contingent on factors such as race, class and gender, Habermas’s public sphere is in actuality ideologically exclusive, even to the point of what it legitimates as topics for debate.”

“Counter-public sphere’, one that would address not diversity alone but, more fundamentally, the injustices of inequality and the exploitation of the oppressed.” Focuses on the oppression of others, doesn’t let the upper class get away with it anymore dictating everything.

“Freire’s writings exerted a strong influence on feminist pedagogy through writer-activists like bell hooks, a chain that then doubles back to link with earlier writings on education for women, such as A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf.” Influenced Feminism, links to other books as well as earlier writings; more than one view.

“She was an advocate for an ordinary civil sphere in which the voices of all could be engaged in free debate, but her experience as a woman prompted her greater attention to the inequalities consequent on economic circumstances and ideological tradition.” Her novels are based on her own experiences as a woman; writing from experience so it will be an accurate viewpoint.

“Her constant and trenchant critiques of invisible power structures align her more strongly with the radical political work performed in the counter-public sphere.” More Radical, she was constantly critiquing society and politics.

“Woolf focused primarily on women and, by extension, the British working class.” Focused on the oppressed gender and class, showed her readers a different perspective that they probably hadn’t looked at or cared for before.

“Woolf addressed the more advanced level of cultural literacy; whereas Freire insisted that pedagogy must be completed with revolutionary social activism.” Woolf on the side of educating people through literature, Freire thinks it would be more effective to act upon his beliefs and encourage social change.

“Woolf’s engagement of contemporary social issues throughout her total, oeuvre.” Writes about things that will bring about change or issues that are current in society at that time.

  1. The socio-political vision of the novels – David Bradshaw (2015)
  • Her novels seem designed to extend our ethical and political ‘sympathies’… An ideological bias, unobtrusive, but palpable, is at work.
  • Woolf’s radical critique of ‘the fabric of things’ is subtly persuasive, never bluntly didactic.
  • ‘When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath’
  • We are urged to see through the thin skin of civilisation which covers society to the armature of poverty and pain which supports it.
  • England’s women, regardless of their circumstances, were then encircled by the oppressive noose of patriarchy.
  • The city is a kind of vast burial mound or necropolis, once again evoking ‘the skeleton beneath’
  • Rachel has few options as a woman without means, and criminalised down-and-outs have none. Her Thames Tunnel dreams underline the fact that they are all victims of the patriarchal oppression which Richard Dalloway personifies
  • The partial availability of electric power symbolises the stark inequalities of the capital and England as a whole- and this knowledge ironises Clarissa Dalloway’s jingoistic gush.
  • The Royal Navy and the Empire it helped to control were part and parcel of a larger evil which she was inclined to represent in skeletal terms.
  • Woolf complained that her ‘generation’ was daily scourged by the bloody war
  • It is Dalloway’s belief that the state is ‘a complicated machine’ and the individual a mere cog within it. This idea of the supreme state dominated British political thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Woolf develops her profound opposition to it.
  • ‘A common interest unites us, it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realize that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove.’ And in The Years this sentiment is encapsulated in Eleanor’s quotation from Dante: ‘For by so many more there are who say “ours”/so much the more of good doth each possess.’
  1. Structuralism and post structuralism
  1. ‘Literary structuralism begins in the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913); it also drew on the later structuralist anthropology.’
  2. ‘Idea of contrast is important to structuralism. One strand within structuralist anthropology and literary criticism seeks to find the most profound contrasts within literary culture or within an individual literary text. ‘
  3. ‘Whereas structuralism found relative stability in the system of signs, post structuralism finds looseness self- contradiction and movement. ‘
  4. ‘ […] meaning is created through contrast – which is everywhere –  structuralism has the potential to clarify […]  the meaning of the individual words or utterances , as if the text were no different from ordinary uses of the language it is written’
  5. ‘might also be used at a higher, more abstract level, seeing the characters as signs and seeing how they beco0me meaningful through contrasts with each other.’
  6.  ‘At times Woolf allows Clarissa herself to become conscious of the respect in which she signifies as an upper middle class ‘hostess’ or as a ‘wife’, ‘Mr Richard Dalloway’; but structuralist criticism does not depend on the text demonstrating self-consciousness about signification.’
  7. ‘When he considers Woolf, the contrast provides a way of narrating the trajectory of her writing. He finds in modernist writers ‘a general tendency to develop (either within the individual work, or from one work to another) from metonymic (realistic) to metamorphic (symbolist or mythopoeic) representation of experience.
  8. ‘the ‘’essential line’’ of Woolf’s ‘’literary development’’ conforms to the typical modernist pattern’
  9. ‘the novel [Mrs Dalloway] marks the transition in Virginia Woolf’s writing from the metonymic to the metaphoric mode. Instead of lineality, simultaneity’
  10. ‘Armstrong sees Woolf as a proto- structuralist: she ‘tentatively played with the idea that words are arbitrary in relation to things in the world and thus meaningful in relation to one another’
  11. ‘nineteenth – century realism had employed a commonly understood ‘rhetoric’ of fiction, the modernist writers cultivated their own individual styles.’
  12. ‘Armstrong comments that Woolf ‘’writes in a way we should not find too much out of place in Edwardian fiction’’ ‘
  13. ‘Armstrong suggests that ‘we’ –readers comfortable with modernism- ‘have something at stake in not looking too closely at what it means to become the model reader of Woolf’s or for that matter, any modernist fiction’
  14. ‘The combination of the metaphorical and metonymic undercuts the ‘empirical particularity’ of the details and suggests that what is being depicted is not the singular existence of this moment in June in this place, but ‘any June moment, on any central London street in the city’s long existence’
  15.  ‘Bishop begins in a relatively conventional mode of close reading when he identifies the ways that sentence rhythms contribute to the effect of Mrs Dalloway’
  16. ‘Marder identifies two schools of thought about the novel: ‘‘those who emphasize Woolf’s mythical vision and those who emphasize her attitude as a social observer’’ to the first Clarissa is an ‘existential heroine’ , an ‘exemplary character’ , ‘a proud independent woman who resists tyranny’ [..] ‘to the second group of critics, Woolf’s portrait of Clarissa is ‘a stuy of social decadence’