Virginia Woolf Biography and “Mrs Dalloway”
Author Background (Raelynn): Virginia Woolf, a famous English novelist most commonly known for her unique narrative structure, is recognized as one of the most innovated writers of the 20th century. She was born into an upper middle class family on January 25, 1882, where they lived a socially active life within the suburbs of South Kensington in London. Coming from a large and artistic family, Virginia Woolf was destined to become a famous and influential writer. Her large family consisted of her two parents, Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson, three full siblings, Vanessa Stephen, Adrian Stephen and Thoby Stephen, and four half siblings, Laura Makepeace Stephen, Stella Duckworth, Gerald Duckworth and George Duckworth. All of the children were educated through homeschooling. Perhaps one of the most prominent topics in her novels emerged from the day her mother died in 1895. This was Woolf’s first interaction with death and would later serve as a common theme in many of her novels.
Two years after the death of her mother, Woolf’s half sister, Stella Duckworth who had become a second mother to Virginia, passed away. After the death of these two very influential women in her life. Woolf began portraying signs of mental illness and continued to suffer from mania and severe depression for the rest of her life. During this time period the patriarchal society of London did not support the role of women being able to participate actively throughout society. Despite this discouragement in 1904, Woolf began publishing her first essays, which launched her into a career of writing.Woolf then joined the Bloomsbury group: a circle of writers, artists and other intellectuals from the Bloomsbury district of London. Many of the individuals in the group supported unconventional ideas such as women playing an active role in the arts, openly rejecting the old victorian ideals, adopting more liberal and progressive ideals. For Woolf, this group served as the foundation of education that the repressive Victorian society denied her.
The oppression she and many other female writers experienced during this time period was commonly reflected in her novels. In 1921, Woolf published her novel, A Room of One’s Own, where she highlights her belief that women writers face two hindrances-social inferiority and economic dependence. In many of her pieces, Woolf utilizes a technique called stream of consciousness which was coined by philosopher and psychologist William James in his novel The Principles of Psychology which was written in 1890. Stream of consciousness is a technique of writing characterized by a flow of thoughts and images, which may not always appear to have coherent structure or cohesion, allowing for the plot line to weave seamlessly in and out of certain time periods, carrying the reader through a lifetime of events which are portrayed differently depending on the character experiencing them. Stream of consciousness also allows for readers to explore the complexity of the human mind. Woolf’s first novel was, The Voyage Out which was one of the first pieces she wrote reflecting the inner workings of one’s mind. She uses the complexity of thought that she depicts through dreams and memories that reflect the ways in which consciousness is created by demonstrating the strange and unpredictable connections the mind makes between ideas, images, and people. Another common theme portrayed throughout many of her novels which and inspired by her life, was mental illness and how society reacted to the issue.
Mental illness during this time period was poorly understood therefore often handled the wrong way. Woolf personally struggled with mental illness her whole life after the sudden death of her mother. She often struggled with severe depression and suicidal thoughts, and even wrote two suicide notes to her husband before tragically drowning herself in River Ouse in Yorkshire. Using her personal experiences with mental illness, this becomes a common theme that she chooses to portray throughout many of her novels. In this novel specifically, Woolf illustrated the effects of WWI on not only the economy, but specifically society and the people living in it. WWI left many people with Shell Shock or PTSD, which she uses to cater to her bigger theme of mental illness and how society reacts to it. As a female author during this time period, Virginia Woolf used her societal influence as a platform for bigger issues like oppression and mental illness, which made her one of the most influential writers of the time. Characters (Raelynn): Clarissa Dalloway- Mrs. Dalloway is a fictional high society woman living in London five years after WWI. She is the novel’s main character, and is married to Richard Dalloway. Clarissa is vivacious and cares a great deal about what people think of her and is extremely self reflective. She often finds herself questioning the true meaning of life and is constantly wondering if true happiness is achievable. She used to be i a relationship with Peter Walsh, but rejected him because she desired to be married to someone with money and a better social appearance or status. She has strikingly similar characteristics to Septimus, who seems to reflect the person Clarisa could have been.
She often throws enormous and extravagant parties as offerings to people, yet she struggles to identify what she is offering. Septimus Warren Smith- He is a WWI veteran who suffers from shell shock or PTSD. Septimus is married to an Italian woman named Lucrezia. Suffering from PTSD, he is declared mentally ill by society which has a difficult time understanding what mental illness is and how serious of an issue it is. Septimus views society in many similar ways that Clarissa does. Similarly to Clarissa, he struggles to maintain his privacy while fulfilling his need to communicate with others. He tends to reflect the parts of Clarissa that she struggles to face. Perhaps one of the most prominent differences between the two is their thoughts concerning death. Clarissa very much fears death and the unknown, whereas Septimus accepts death is inevitable. Septimus was also negatively impacted by the war when he saw his best friend, Evan, get shot and killed in combat.This greatly affected his state of mind. Peter Walsh- Peter Walsh was a very close friend of Clarissa, whom he dated for a very long time. He was once in love with her until she rejected his marriage proposal. After this rejection, which hit him hard, Peter moved to India where he met a new girl named Daisy and eventually married. Peter always seems to be hooked on a new girl but won’t leave Daisy.
When he comes back to London he finds himself falling for Clarissa again, but won’t allow Daisy to leave their marriage and be with anyone else. Peter is highly critical of others, and even judges Clarissa’s new lifestyle. He is conflicted about nearly everything in life. Peter is also a very emotional character and tends to show his feelings passionately through crying. Richard Dalloway- Richard is married to Clarissa. He is a member of the English Parliament and is the reason Clarissa gets to live the lavish lifestyle that she does. He recognizes that he doesn’t establish his feelings for Clarissa enough and often neglects his duties as a husband. He is devoted to social reform, but appreciates English tradition. He is a very cowardly character who recognizes his failures as a husband but doesn’t do anything to change his relationship with Clarissa or their daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Dalloway- She is the only daughter of Clarissa and Richard Dalloway. She is a gentle, considerate, and passive seventeen year old. Elizabeth seems to be an exact opposite of her mother, and actually seems to resent her throughout the novel. She is defiant and often desires to go against the flow of society. She spends a great deal of time with her history teacher, Doris Kilman, who helps her consider the different career options she’ll soon have. Her parents suspect that she has a crush on Miss. Kilman. Doris Kilman- She is Elizabeth’s history teacher. She used to be a history teacher at a school, but was fired during the war because of society’s anti- German prejudice. She claims to be a born again christian. She despises Clarissa but is very fond of her daughter, Elizabeth.
She hates the upper class, and believes that they don’t have respect for their positions and reflect down upon the lower class which she inhabits. Lucrezia- She is Septimus’s husband and cares greatly about how society perceives her and her husband. Dr. Holmes- He was hired by Septimus’s wife, Lucrezia, to be Septimus’s primary doctor. Dr. Holmes claims that Septimus is fine, and there is nothing wrong with him, except for the way he treats his wife. Sir William Bradshaw- Another doctor of Septimus. He is obsessed with making profit, and doesn’t believe in helping the poor because all he wants is money. He doesn’t care about the well being of his patients, and often neglects their problems sending them away to die. He is a very incompetent doctor who cares about money more than anything else. He is highly praised by English society despite his lack of actual knowledge, and ability to help treat people. Sally Seton- Sally was a close friend of Clarissa’s when they were teenagers. She was influential to Clarissa’s life, because at one point Clarissa believed that Sally was the love of her life. She was the one who made Clarissa first question her sexuality. Hugh Whitbread- He is a posh, upper class man that captures the hearts of everyone except for Sally. Lady Bruton- She cares a great deal about how others perceive her just like Clarissa.
Similar to Clarissa she wants everyone to like and approve of her, so she tried to be nice to everyone, but she becomes easily jealous which is her most toxic trait. This causes her to be very controlling and uptight. She doesn’t like Clarissa very much, and is often jealous of her. Intertextuality (Raelynn): Woolf employs overt intertextuality to create meaning, reinforce the text’s themes and ultimately to place her work within a cultural and literary context. Through her short story, Slater’s Pins Have No Points, Woolf reveals the harsh realities that many people who struggled with homosexuality, faced during this time period where society had prude and contrasting views on sexuality. In both stories, the main characters face challenges regarding their sexual preferences, which illustrates how societal oppression impacted people’s lives. In both stories, Woolf utilizes a stream of consciousness technique which allowed the main characters define events in their lives as moments of being or moments of non being. Another novel that reflects Virginia Woolf’s novel, is Michael Cunningham’s, The Hours. In this piece, Cunningham intertwines the three generations of women depicted in Mrs. Dalloway to further reveal how individuals have different perspectives based off of their personal experiences. Similarly to Woolf’s novel, Cunningham’s story also reflects how society reacted to mental illness.
Woolf used Septimus’s experiences in the war to create a traumatized soldier who suffered from PTSD. She did this to convey the idea that society fears the unknown. By revealing the neglect of care Septimus received, Woolf highlighted the flaws of modern medicine at the time, where if doctors didn’t know about an illness, then it couldn’t possibly exist. Cunningham demonstrated this idea by using a character similar to Septimus, who embodied the effects of the war and how society dismissed his real problems, declaring him mentally ill. Another major intertextuality to Woolf’s novel, is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. For starters, Fitzgerald’s character Daisy Buchanan, can be related to Woolf’s character Daisy Simmons who is in love with Peter Walsh because both married women have an affair on their husbands with two other men. Another striking similarity between these two novels is found in the main characters and their need to throw extravagant parties to achieve societal acceptance. The clock in the famous fairy tale, Cinderella, can be compared to the clock tower in Mrs. Dalloway because in both stories the clocks are responsible for bringing the characters back to reality. Woolf’s novel, having several references to Shakespearean literature, can be intertwined with Shakespeare’s novel, Cymbeline which displays class differences and a brewing love story between two classes.
In Cymbeline, the main character, Cymbeline marries a lower class gentleman, similarly to how Richard Dalloway married Clarissa, who at the time was a middle class woman. Both novels depict the idea that love is love no matter the differences, whether those differences be social class or even sexuality, love is love. Woofl also uses a parody of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which in turn references The Odyssey to connect the two. Another intertextuality that was used was in Greatness Engendered: George Eliot & Virginia Woolf, Alison Booth argues that Woolf believed women have access to a “secret form of heroism” related to epic life. She uses Septimus because he has some connection to heroes of the epics. The broken soldier simulates Achilles in the Iliad when he has no taste for food. Shortly before jumping from the window to his death, Septimus’s thoughts provide another intertextual reference to Cymbeline: “Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more” (Woolf 123). Septimus before jumping enjoys the hot sun and is unafraid; Woolf’s use of Shakespeare’s verse highlights the meaningless of his death. Social/Historical Context (Sonja): The historical context around 1925 also influences the purpose and themes of Mrs. Dalloway. First, World War I was only 7 years before the writing of the novel, and the effects still resonated seven years later.
One of the main characters, war veteran Septimus Warren Smith, suffers from shell shock, and brings up the issue of the treatment of soldiers returning from the war as well as the treatment of anyone with a mental illness in that time period. In addition, the war left unemployment rates to skyrocket, which then contributed to the distinction in classes in the 1920s as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Mrs. Dalloway reflects this effect of the war through the constant comparison between social classes. Then, socially, the upper class was still rich despite the unemployment rates, but the middle class was eager to work for higher wages and better conditions. In turn, women in 1920s England possessed more rights and freedoms, like the right to vote for women over 30 that owned property, given to them in the Representation of the People Act. The fight for rights and the controversy over giving more rights to women presents itself in Mrs. Dalloway as Clarissa’s friend, Lady Bruton tries to get an article published in the newspaper, but Hugh Whitbread and Richard Dalloway giver her mixed responses in her request to them for help. At the same time, culturally, men and women were becoming slightly more equal as laws like the Law of Property Act started to give them the same rights. The Sex and Discrimination Removal Act in 1920 was supposed to make being lesbian illegal, however, the act failed to ass because politicians thought that would just bring more attention to the fact that people could be homosexual.
Woolf directly comments on this historical event with the tryst between Clarissa and Sally when they were younger, neither married. Though post-war, there was a push toward a modern era of art, music, literature, and technological innovation, including airplanes and automobiles, generally, England was in a social depression as there was little production and a lot of poverty. Woolf illustrates the contrast of the depression with the modernization and innovation through her multiple contrasts of classes in the book; for example, as the whole crowd go crazy over the motor car and the possibility of royalty sitting in the car, Mrs. Dalloway stands in the flower shop, apathetic towards the notion of whom the car contained inside. Ultimately, these scenes and the social, cultural, and political movements of the time contribute to Woolf’s themes of perspective and inequality. Themes (Sonja): Woolf includes multiple themes in Mrs. Dalloway, which reflect Woolf’s philosophies and positions on the themes. The most important concepts that Woolf include are perception, differences in social class, and mental health issues. First, because of people’s different backgrounds, they have different perspectives, which influences how they live their lives.
For example, both Peter Walsh and Rezia see the same poor, dirty woman singing a hopeful song, Peter Walsh finds it silly while Rezia actually sees the hope in the song; Peter Walsh, however, leads a more comfortable life as, in contrast, Rezia must work hard every day, especially as she must help her shell shocked war veteran husband. As Woolf writes the novel in the stream of consciousness narrative perspective, that also reflects the distinctive perspectives of very different characters. Woolf appreciates the importance of understanding different perspectives, especially as she herself suffered from mental illness, which distorted her own perspective in life. Second, because of differences in social class, people treat those in different classes with disdain, which reflects the oppression and the unjust treatment of people. In the novel, Woolf develops this theme through multiple juxtapositions of interactions between different social classes. For instance, the wealthy Sir Bradshaw treats Septimus and Rezia like street urchins, disrespecting them, while at Clarissa’s party, which consists of mostly wealthy people, all those wealthy people idolize Sir Bradshaw.
Virginia Woolf, then, through this theme, reveals that she finds the social inequality itself to be disgusting, not people of lower classes, even though she was part of the upper class. Finally, a major theme is that people hide mental illness because it reveals the imperfections of society, and thus, people do not take mental illness seriously. With the only explicit case of mental illness in the novel, Septimus’ shell shock, the doctors reject the idea that Septimus has any problem, treating it as though his behavior is no issue. Similarly, Lucrezia, Septimus’ wife, attempts to hide the fact that Septimus has problems, which reflects her fear of the public’s perception of her husband and herself, which, in turn, reflects society’s fear of mental illness. Struggling with mental illness herself, Virginia Woolf cautions against treating mental illness diagnoses without high importance, as mental health is as significant as physical health. Point of View (Sonja): Furthermore, Woolf’s point of view and narrative perspective contribute mainly to her theme of perception and the idea of time. Woolf writes the novel with a stream of consciousness perspective and a third person limited omniscient point of view.