Lecture 3: Mrs. Dalloway

“What a lark!  What a plunge!”

                                                            Mrs. Dalloway (p 3)


See the Woolf seminar Mrs. Dalloway web pages for a plot outline and basic orientation to the novel, including an annotated bibliography of selected scholarly criticism.  All scholarly articles cited in this lecture are in that annotated bibliography.


Orientation MD/Ulysses Clarissa/Septimus Narrative Technique Mrs. D's London


Basic Orientation to the Novel

Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is one of Woolf’s two most loved and most written-about novels, the other being To the Lighthouse (1925).  Set on a single June day in 1923, the novel (MD for short) tracks the parallel lives of two very different Londoners, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith.  Clarissa is a 51-year old socialite who is giving a party that night for her husband, Richard Dalloway, a Conservative member of Parliament.  She moves in the upper reaches of British society (the prime minister will attend her party), but she is not a titled aristocrat, and she is thrilled about the prime minister’s actually showing up at the party.  Woolf knew lots of people like Clarissa, though they were not among her best friends.  Most people say Woolf modeled Clarissa on Kitty Maxse (1867-1922), who had been a close friend of Woolf’s two older sisters, Stella and Vanessa (see Mark Hussey’s entry on Katherine Maxse in Virginia Woolf: A-Z). 


In the only introduction Woolf wrote for any of her novels, she says that she originally intended that Clarissa would die in the novel, perhaps by suicide (this is in the Modern Library edition published by Random House in 1928).  At some point, she decided to create another character who would be the one to die.  This new character was Septimus Warren Smith, a 30-year-old, shell-shocked WWI veteran whom we first meet in the street that Clarissa Dalloway is walking down (see p 14, responding to the motorcar that backfires).  Septimus is with his Italian wife Rezia, who is worried about his increasingly erratic behavior and is trying to get him to a doctor.  Septimus works in an office, where he is doing well and seems to have a promising career, but he has begun to have delusions and flashbacks to seeing his friend Evans killed in battle, and he doesn’t trust the doctors who are treating him.  This character allows Woolf to explore some aspects of madness that she had experienced herself, and also to condemn war and the false patriotism she associates with it.  Here is how she describes what she was after in her diary at the place where she first mentions Septimus’ name:

Mrs. Dalloway has branched into a book [she published a short story, “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” in 1923]; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side--something like that.  Septimus Smith? is that a good name?
                                    (Diary, vol. 2, October 14, 1922, p 207)


The following summer, she write this about her intentions in the novel:

I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense.                   (Diary, vol. 2, June 19, 1923, p 248)


Paralleling Clarissa and Septimus thus allows Woolf to play out a range of themes, while exploring the big topics that obsess her in all her works, namely love, death, and the meaning of life.


Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses

In setting her novel on a single day in a city in June in a city through which various characters walk while we listen in on their thought, Woolf is obviously alluding to Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been published in 1922 and which she was reading that summer that Mrs. Dalloway began to take shape.  Ulysses is set on June 16, 1904, in Dublin, and is told primarily through the thoughts of two main characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus, whose lives intersect in complicated ways.  Daedalus is a young man much like Joyce himself, and Bloom may be seen as a father figure for him. 


Woolf didn’t much like Ulysses, or at least didn’t appreciate what Joyce was after (see her diary entries for August 26 and September 3 and 6, 1922), perhaps because it is such a “masculinist” novel in which women are seen primarily as sexual, reproductive beings about whom the male characters obsess.  (Woolf doesn’t say this in her diary that summer.  She just says it’s “pretentious,” “very obscure, “tricky,” and that a good writer doesn’t get so into “doing stunts.” I’m inferring the feminist critique from my own prejudices!)  But something about the structure must have struck a chord with her, perhaps somehow giving her license to indulge her gift for detail. 


Or perhaps she (unconsciously?) decided to show him how a great writer would address major themes in a novel set on a single day and following several characters’ peregrinations around a city.  Ulysses is written on a grand scale, a huge book that indulges Joyce’s love of word play and multiple levels of literary allusion, the primary one being to Homer’s OdysseyMrs. Dalloway is a short book (under 200 pages), but a very rich one, a book in which small incidents reverberate (and sometimes recur) with meaning.  Parts of it may test our understanding on a first reading (who is the Septimus Warren Smith and what is he doing in this book??), but it is not obscure.  Once you grasp that Septimus is a doppelganger or double for Clarissa, then things begin to open up as you look at them in comparison to each other.  Most of what can be learned from this novel can be learned directly from what is one the page, requiring little or no recourse to literary allusion to narratives outside the novel, unlike Ulysses, which cannot fully be understood without a key.  This is not to say that scholars haven’t dug out some pretty obscure allusions in Mrs. Dalloway, including the source of the song sung by the old woman begging in the street (“ee um fah um so,” MD 82; see Hillis Miller, “Repetition as the Raising of the Dead”).  But the novel is not deliberately obscure, but rather in some respects may at first appear deceptively simple.



Several narrative events (e.g., the car that backfires in Bond St.) link Clarissa and Septimus, although the characters never meet.  In addition, two Shakespearean quotations link the two characters.  The first is

“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rage” (Cymbeline)


Clarissa sees these lines in a book open in a bookstore window (p 9) and then thinks of them again on pp  30 and 39.  Septimus think of the quotation on p 139, and then after Clarissa hears about his suicide, she thinks of it again and feels connected to him: “and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun. . . .  She felt somehow very like him. . . .  She felt glad he had done it; thrown it away.  The clock was striking.  The leaden circles dissolved in the air.  He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun” (MD 186).


The second Shakespearean quotation is in Clarissa’s thoughts in that same scene when she is reflecting on Septimus’ death (MD 184):

But this young man who had killed himself—had he plunged holding his treasure?  “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy,”she had said to herself once, coming down in white.

The quote is from Othello ( II.i.187-88), spoken by Othello to Desdemona when they are reunited at Cyprus, before their troubles begin.  Clarissa recalls thinking of it during that summer houseparty at Bourton 33 years ago when she was 18 and enamored of Sally Seton (p 35), the same houseparty where she met Richard Dalloway, whom she chose over the more emotional and romantic suitor Peter Walsh.  At Bourton, it was herself she imagined dying happy, not for the love of Peter or Richard, but for lovely Sally Seton, who on the next page kisses her one the lips.  These love relationships of the past—who loves whom, who marries whom, what difference it makes—are the substance of Clarissa’s life, a life that she now fears is meaningless and wasted. 


The scene in which Clarissa meditates on Septimus’ death and sees herself connected to him through the quotation about dying happy (184) and not fearing the heat of the sun (186), leads her to break through the “leaden circles” that Big Ben has been sending through the novel on the hour; “he [Septimus] made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun” (186).  Life is beautiful, life is ugly.  Sally Seton is now a stout, titled matron with five sons she can’t stop talking about. You might say that thinking of Septimus’ death has given Clarissa what Woolf elsewhere calls a “moment of being,” moments in which one feels intensely connected to life, to the moment.  The remembered coming down the stairs at Bourton was another such moment.  These intense moments of connectedness are central to Woolf’s artistic vision, to what she was continually seeking in her writing.  Later she would describe the quest as a fin glimpsed far out in a waste of water (see The Waves, 189, 245, 273, 284).  It’s the whole grasped all at once in all its beauty and ugliness.


Narrative Technique

The notion of connectedness, and especially of characters connected to each other at some deep level, is related to at least two narrative techniques that Woolf was experimenting with in Mrs. Dalloway, free indirect discourse and “tunneling.” 


Free indirect discourse is a term scholars use to describe the way narrative point of view shifts in novels like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  It’s a modification of two standard modes of discourse we all use:
direct discourse: Mrs. Dalloway said, “I’ll by the flowers myself.”

indirect discourse:  Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.


In direct discourse, the speaker’s words are usually quoted and the speaker is directly identified.  In indirect discourse, someone else is speaking, perhaps paraphrasing what someone else has said.   The technique of indirect discourse becomes free indirect discourse (FID) when an author weaves a character’s thoughts into the narrative in such a way that it is hard to tell whether they are the character’s thoughts, someone else’s thoughts about the character, or the narrator’s comments.  In a single passage, such as the opening page of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf may quickly shift from one character’s perspective to another.  This technique tends to destabilize the authority of the “omniscient narrator,” which can be read as a male perspective and which Woolf increasingly rejects.  In this way, Woolf allows us into characters’ minds as though we were disembodied spirits, which in some respects we are when we are reading literature.  (For more on FID, see Kathy Mezei’s “Who is Speaking Here?” in Ambiguous Discourse, 1996.) 


Hillis Miller discusses this same narrative strategy in Mrs. Dalloway (see his “Repetition As the Raising of the Dead”), but does not call it FID.  Instead, he links it to what Woolf called “tunneling.” Miller claims that (in the words of the bibliography annotation) “by going deeply into each [character’s] mind, there is a point when the mind of one character and the minds of all characters become one.”  The term “tunneling” comes from two diary entries written while Woolf was writing Mrs. Dalloway (which then had the working title The Hours):


I have no time to describe my plans. I should say a good deal about The Hours, & my discovery; how 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, & each comes to daylight at the present moment "The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment"

                                    (my emphasis, Diary, vol. 1, August 30, 1923, p 263)


I am stuffed with ideas for it [Mrs. Dalloway]. I feel I can use up everything I’ve ever thought.  Certainly, I’m less coerced than I’ve yet been.  The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs. Dalloway.  It may be too stiff, too glittering and tinselly.  But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support.  I wrote the 100th page today.  Of course, I've only been feeling my way into it--up till last August anyhow.  It took me a year's groping to discover what I call my tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by installments, as I have need of it.  This is my prime discovery so far.

                                                            (my emphasis, Diary, vol. 2, October 15, 1923, p 272)



Mrs. Dalloway’s London

Woolf had begun writing Mrs. Dalloway as early as 1922, two years before she returned to Bloomsbury in May 1924, and she finished it that summer at her country home, Monk’s House, in Rodmell, Sussex.  So she did only the final editing while actually living in central London.  Yet it is her most London novel, the one in which she most vividly brings the city to life by recreating a day in June 1923 in various parts of central London, especially Westminster, where Clarissa Dalloway lives, and Regent’s Park, where several of Septimus Warren Smith’s scenes are laid.


Woolf gives us so much detail about the various characters walks through London that we can easily trace their steps, as we will do.  But what is the point of this detail?  Woolf is hardly writing a travel guide.  One answer to that is that the geographic details, together with the striking of Big Ben, ground the novel in material reality, giving it a shape that allows readers to follow the characters’ thoughts very far from that material reality.  On a symbolic level, Woolf invests various geographic detail with heavy significance.  Some of this symbolic significance rests in the things themselves, notably Big Ben, the enormous bell in a clock tower, which is universally a symbol for London and for British Government, standing as it does at the houses of Parliament (the Palace of Westminster; see more about Big Ben at www.bigben.freeservers.com/)


Jean Moorcroft Wilson points out how Woolf uses external scenes in London to reflect the characters’ internal reality (see pp 125-126 re MD).  She illustrates with quotations about Clarissa on Bond Street (see p 11, beginning with “Bond Street fascinated her”) and Septimus in Regent’s Park (see p 69, beginning with “He had only to open his eyes”).  Wilson also comments on how Woolf uses objects in external reality as a narrative technique to switch from one character’s mind to another (see Wilson pp 131-133), as when she shifts from Septimus and Rezia viewing the mysterious motorcar that backfired in Bond Street, to the mind of Clarissa, thinking “it is probably the Queen” (see p 16).  This is one of the narrative techniques that the film The Hours imitates very beautifully with photography.


Wilson also comments on how London has mystical significance for Woolf.  Seeing the city as somehow the center of life, it’s also a source of creative energy and access to that illusive thing (the “fin in a waste of water”) that Woolf sought.  Wilson quotes a passage from Woolf’s diary for 1915, about how being is London is “being on the highest crest of the biggest wave—right in the centre & swim of things” (qtd Wilson 136, from Diary, vol. 1, p 10).  Clarissa Dalloway has a similar vision of London scenes providing a sense of immortality. Here is how she thinks of the London streets she is walking:


what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.  (MD 9)


London streets, trees, ordinary houses—these are a part of herself and of all the people who have passed through them, and in so doing live on.  In Mrs. Dalloway, those London street scenes—and the characters’ meditations on them—are key to the theme of relatedness and connection, to the meaning of life (and death), and the reason why it is worthwhile to just go on living.



Updated May 28, 2004             Copyright 2004 Rose Norman
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