Study Guide

Mrs. Dalloway

by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway Analysis

Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mrs. Dalloway follows the title character on a typical day, as she plans a party, shops, meets old friends, and makes her grand entrance at the party, all the while rethinking her life, her choices, her problems with identity, her sense of self, and the conflicting demands of love. Like Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), this is a “stream-of-consciousness” novel, but the book really illustrates Virginia Woolf’s notion of the webs of humanity, love, hate, and even apathy that connect all people. The book also clearly focuses on the metaphor of “the bubbles of selfhood” that surround people and that even those who love them have difficulty penetrating.

Like Joyce’s, Woolf’s style is impressionistic in the sense that she uses interior monologue (characters’ thoughts and feelings) and individual glimpses that illuminate the hearts and souls of her characters while the pace of the plot pauses. To Virginia Woolf, time, selfhood, existence, and the soul or psyche are interrelated and thus must be dealt with intrinsically, each a component or crucial facet of the other.

By presenting apparently unrelated bits and pieces of characters, their actions and choices, and their interactions with others, Virginia Woolf forged an unforgettable and wonderful new writing style that has changed the direction and focus of much twentieth century literature.

Thus, Mrs. Dalloway’s character may be symbolic of purity, sensitivity, and reason, all of which lead her to accept her life without question, while her double, Septimus Warren Smith, poignantly represents destruction, apathy, and a passionate rejection of the fraud of civilization, the needs of love, and the despair of life itself. Their juxtaposition is at the heart of Woolf’s attempt to reveal Clarissa Dalloway’s true character as a woman in search of her self, threatened by the demands of love and apathy, passion and reason. Whereas Smith commits suicide by leaping out of his apartment window, Clarissa’s is an emotional suicide that allows her a chance to believe that she is in control of her self, her nature, her identity.

Clarissa and Septimus never meet but are connected by the streets and activities of London and by the much-repeated Shakespearean line “‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/ Nor the furious winter’s rages,’” which clarifies Woolf’s focus on love, hate, apathy, and fear. The phrase is from Cymbeline (c. 1610), a play about deceit and marital infidelity which ends in love and reconciliation. Its recurrence in Mrs. Dalloway may suggest the author’s ironic view of love as a threat to one’s sense of self. For Woolf, erotic love is much too demanding of one’s identity, particularly if one is female. In her own life, she helplessly watched as her emotionally demanding father killed first his wife and then Woolf’s older sister with his incessant need for totally unconditional acceptance and support. Her own marriage to Leonard Woolf was often too much for her, since his sexual demands were unwelcome and frightening, despite his otherwise kind behavior. For Mrs. Dalloway, too, erotic love requires too much of one’s heart and soul; it was far better to marry the undemanding Richard, who did not care whether she loved him or not, than to risk her fragile sense of self with the passion of Peter or the purity of Sally.

Mrs. Dalloway Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*London

*London. Capital of Great Britain whose diversity of life is characterized by the city’s commercial life, its social order, and national politics. As characters walk through the streets of London, they encounter famous locations and monuments—Whitehall, Westminster, the parks, Big Ben, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. London’s diversity suggests the potential for harmony in society on at least two levels: a union between public and private, epitomized in the characters of Clarissa and Septimus, and among all the diverse social and political factions found in English society.

*Westminster

*Westminster. This upper-class London neighborhood houses many government officials and politicians. The Dalloways’ life in Westminster symbolizes their upper-class social status. Richard Dalloway is a member of Parliament and Elizabeth considers the possibility of membership in Parliament as a career.

*Whitehall

*Whitehall. Section of London stretching from Trafalgar Square to the Westminster Bridge that gives its name to the area where the Houses of Parliament stand. Downing Street, the official address of the British prime minister, is off Whitehall, as are many government offices. In the 1920’s, Whitehall was associated with war and government. In Whitehall, Peter Walsh is overtaken by a parade of boys marching to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph, a World War I memorial erected in 1920. Septimus Smith, a soldier, encounters the glory of war heroes’ statues and government sites, and questions the patriotism and nationalism that promoted the death and destruction of World War I. Ultimately Walsh’s musings and Smith’s devastating reflections contrast with the privileged existence of Clarissa.

*Bourton-on-the-Water

*Bourton-on-the-Water. Gloucestershire town in the heart of the Cotswolds, west of London, close to the River Windrush, Bourton epitomizes country living; its quaint village atmosphere exudes luxury of the upper middle class. The fact that Clarissa’s family home is located here suggests expectations for her future in the upper class. Throughout the novel Clarissa recalls a summer at Bourton more than thirty years earlier, during which she decided not to marry Peter Walsh and shared confidences with Sally Seton. The freedom of youth at Bourton is contrasted with the social protocols of adult society in London.

*Regent’s Park

*Regent’s Park. Large London park with gently undulating hills with a steep rise in the north from which Westminster and the city can be viewed. Predominantly open parkland with numerous benches, it is a place of rest and relaxation for all Londoners. Regent’s Park reinforces the novel’s theme of creating harmony amid diversity; it provides a place where all the social classes come together: Septimus and Reiza Smith, Maisie Johnson, Mrs. Dempster, an elderly nurse, children, and Peter Walsh. This park is also the location where Septimus Smith hallucinates about his witnessing the death of a friend in battle. The contrast between the idyllic setting and the horrors of war symbolizes the conflicted position of British society at this time.

*Big Ben

*Big Ben. Great bell in a Westminster clock tower that is one of London’s best-known landmarks. Big Ben acts as an organizing device as it chimes throughout Mrs. Dalloway signaling the passing of time. Bloomsbury, the neighborhood where Septimus and Reiza Smith live, where Dr. Holmes’s office is located, and where Peter Walsh stays at Bedford Place, is associated with artists, intellectuals, and a bohemian lifestyle. The British Museum, London University, and the Slade School of Art are located in the Bloomsbury area.

*St. Paul’s Cathedral

*St. Paul’s Cathedral. Late seventeenth century church that is mentioned as a hallowed place in London. Its historical value rests in its being the first English cathedral built after the creation of the Church of England in 1534. It is not merely a religious site but also the site of numerous tombs and memorials that speak of heroism and bravery and the tragedy of war. Elizabeth Dalloway ventures by bus, then on foot, toward the cathedral after tea with Miss Kilman. Though she never makes it to the cathedral, she is drawn to it, feeling that it will provide a sense of direction in her life.

Mrs. Dalloway Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mrs. Dalloway is the first of Virginia Woolf’s successful, mature, experimental novels, one that uses impressionistic techniques and interior monologues like those of James Joyce or European writer Marcel Proust to reveal the personalities of her characters, Mrs. Dalloway, Peter Walsh, and Septimus Smith. For Woolf, the human psyche, one’s sense of self (existence), and time are interrelated. For her, the past and present exist simultaneously in the human mind, and the self is not a precise point, as Mrs. Dalloway would hope, but rather a series of ongoing processes. At any given moment, one is the total of one’s experiences, thoughts, choices, hopes, fears, and fantasies.

Virginia Woolf has emerged as the grande dame of feminist writers. Her essays, such as A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), have always had a major influence on twentieth century feminist philosophy, but in Mrs. Dalloway she manages to make a great artistic contribution to literature and to reveal the destructive nature of erotic love on the individual, particularly the female. To Woolf, love is dangerous because it threatens to engulf and even submerge the individual self, who must sacrifice its identity to keep the love object happy and fulfilled. For Mrs. Dalloway, then, passion is rejected so that she may remain her own inexorable, psychically virginal self.

Woolf’s success indicates the clarity, purity, and sensitivity that are the unique characteristics of feminist literature. The conflicting demands of love and individuality, madness and sanity, passion and reason find their way into Clarissa Dalloway’s life at a time when she feels compelled to reassess her life of passionless (yet apparently selfless) wifely and motherly duty. Her double, Septimus Warren Smith, is realized symbolically as the person she might have been: If she cares too little, Smith cares far too much, for his friend Evans (killed in the war), for his young bride, for Shakespearean England, and for all the abstract terms that mean something only to those willing to die to preserve them—love, honor, integrity, justice, and so forth.

Septimus’ suicide compares with Clarissa’s “emotional suicide” as a way of maintaining one’s freedom from subversion and preserving one’s integrity, even against those whom one loves. It is this contradictory vision, coupled with the psychological realism of the novel and the lyrically woven strings of thought, time, experience, personalities, identities, love, and madness, that has made Mrs. Dalloway one of the most significant books of the twentieth century. Feminists and antifeminists alike find this work a monumental achievement. Other works by Woolf include Jacob’s Room (1922), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), Orlando (1928), Flush: A Biography (1933), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941).

Mrs. Dalloway Historical Context

The New Modern Era
The nineteenth century ushered in developments that profoundly changed European society. Mercantilism and...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Mrs. Dalloway Quizzes

Part 1 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. When she hears the sound of windows opening, how old does Clarissa remember being at Bourton?

2. How does Clarissa remember Peter’s letters?

3. In what part of London has Clarissa lived for twenty years?

4. What street does Clarissa cross as Big Ben strikes the hour?

5. What is Hugh Whitbread carrying when Clarissa sees him?

6. What is Clarissa oddly conscious of while talking with Hugh?

7. To what does Clarissa liken her hatred of Doris Kilman?

8. Why does Clarissa hate Doris Kilman?

9. What color are the hands of Mrs. Pym, the florist?

10. What does Clarissa assume about the car’s...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Part 2 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Whose car does Edgar J. Watkiss believe has just passed?

2. Who does Lucrezia wonder was in the car?

3. Where does the car proceed?

4. What does Septimus say that so upsets Lucrezia?

5. How does Septimus interpret the smoke letters made by the plane?

6. What does Lucrezia tell her mother, to explain Septimus’ behavior?

7. To where does Maisie Johnson ask Septimus and Lucrezia for directions?

8. What question does Maisie Johnson ask herself?

9. What had Mrs. Dempster always longed for?

10. What does the airplane seem to be a symbol of, as Mr. Bentley sees it?

Answers
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(The entire section is 222 words.)

Part 3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Clarissa hand to Lucy?

2. Why would Clarissa have liked to have been invited to Millicent Bruton’s lunch party?

3. What word describes Clarissa’s bed in the attic?

4. About which moment in Baron Marbot’s military career is Clarissa reading?

5. What is Clarissa’s first impression of Sally Seton?

6. How had Sally arranged flowers in such a different fashion from what Clarissa’s Aunt Helen was accustomed?

7. What quotation from Shakespeare’s Othello did Clarissa remember in connection with Sally?

8. What did Sally ask from Joseph Breitkopf?

9. What does Clarissa finally decide about her...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Part 4 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Who tries to prevent Peter from going upstairs to see Clarissa?

2. What does Clarissa try to hide as she hears footsteps upon the stairs?

3. With whom does Peter say he often wished he had gotten along better?

4. To whom is Peter’s beloved already married?

5. Who are the solicitors (lawyers) with whom Peter is arranging Daisy’s divorce?

6. From what college was Peter “sent down” (expelled)?

7. To what sudden and odd conclusion does Clarissa come regarding Richard lunching at Lady Bruton’s?

8. What words are used to describe the way that Clarissa introduces Elizabeth to Peter?

9. To what is the...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Part 5 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. As Peter walks the street after leaving Clarissa’s, what time is it?

2. What question does Peter ask himself regarding Clarissa?

3. At what statue does Peter stare and glare as he thinks of Clarissa and “her set”?

4. What are the boys in uniform carrying?

5. In what famous London square does Peter see the attractive young woman?

6. What does Peter imagine asking the young woman?

7. What does Peter imagine himself to be as he follows the young woman?

8. What does Peter remember about Regent’s Park?

9. To what does the narrator liken the old gray nurse?

10. What is the central image of...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Part 6 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does Peter Walsh awaken at Regent’s Park?

2. How was the married housemaid who visited Bourton dressed?

3. Whose soul had Peter instinctively decided had died, and why?

4. What was the name of Clarissa’s dog?

5. What was the great bond between Peter and Sally?

6. How had Clarissa first introduced Richard Dalloway?

7. What did Sally Seton call Richard Dalloway?

8. What had Peter called Clarissa that caused her discomfort?

9. At what time had Peter asked Clarissa to meet him at the fountain?

10. What had Peter scribbled at the end of the note to Clarissa?

Answers
...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Part 7 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Peter Walsh decide regarding Regent’s Park?

2. What was little Elise doing before she ran into the woman’s legs?

3. What does Lucrezia Smith do when a small child runs into her legs?

4. What doctor had said that there was nothing wrong with Septimus?

5. What does Lucrezia say has grown so thin?

6. What does Septimus imagine is happening to the dog that sniffs at his trousers?

7. What does Septimus imagine is played among the traffic?

8. What word does Septimus think of as splitting its husk?

9. Where are the dead located in the song that Septimus hears Evans sing?

10. What is the...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Part 8 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. According to Peter’s experiences, what happened to one’s views about women after coming back from India?

2. What are two of the changes that Peter sees in England in the five years he’s been away?

3. In which city is Sally living with her rich husband, much to Peter’s surprise?

4. About which antediluvian (ancient) topic does Peter remember Sally and Hugh arguing about at Bourton?

5. What does Peter envision Hugh doing in his job at Court?

6. How much does Peter assume that Hugh earns per year?

7. How much does Peter assume that he must earn per year?

8. What specific event at Bourton summarizes Peter’s...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

Part 9 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. From what location does the nonsense song issue?

2. Who gives the old woman a coin?

3. Why had Septimus left home as a mere boy?

4. Off of what road had Septimus lodged once he first got to London?

5. At what firm is Mr. Brewer, Septimus’ supervisor, a managing clerk?

6. What would Lucrezia say matters most?

7. What did Septimus, staring through a train window, think might be possible?

8. Off what road did Septimus and Lucrezia take admirable lodgings in London?

9. What did Septimus decide that Shakespeare loathed?

10. To what did Septimus compare the sound of Lucrezia crying?

...

(The entire section is 210 words.)

Part 10 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Where does Dr. Holmes go when he feels the way he thinks Septimus feels?

2. How many children does Dr. Holmes have?

3. What was the great revelation that Septimus had, and where was Rezia at the time?

4. What did Septimus call Dr. Holmes, when the latter came to visit after Septimus’ revelation?

5. Where does Holmes suggest the Smiths go if they have no confidence in him?

6. Where does Bradshaw’s son go to school?

7. What did Bradshaw realize the moment he saw Septimus?

8. What gives Bradshaw the impression that Septimus is successful in his career?

9. What, just before leaving, does Bradshaw suggest...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

Part 11 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Is Hugh described as one who “goes deeply”?

2. Is Miss Brush’s brother doing well in South Africa?

3. How does Lady Bruton express her preference for Richard Dalloway over Hugh Whitbread?

4. How old is Lady Bruton?

5. What is Richard Dalloway’s opinion of Bruton’s idea in the letter?

6. What has Richard Dalloway always meant to do when he has “a moment of leisure”?

7. On the corner of what street do Richard and Hugh pause?

8. What pieces of information is Richard surprised to find that the head jeweler possesses?

9. What does Hugh do that disgusts Richard?

10. What would Richard...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

Part 12 Questions and Answers

Study Questions/b>
1. Whom had Richard and Clarissa not spoken of in years?

2. What does Richard see in Piccadilly Circus (a famous London landmark, comparable to New York’s Times Square) that particularly makes him irate?

3. What is Richard doing about the police?

4. How is Richard carrying the flowers for Clarissa?

5. What building does Richard think cannot be denied a certain dignity?

6. What is Richard’s response when asked about Ellie Henderson?

7. Where does Clarissa place the flowers Richard brought?

8. What does Clarissa imagine that people do, or will, say about her?

9. About what does Clarissa feel after...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Part 13 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What kind of flower is Elizabeth compared to?

2. With what words does Miss Kilman sum up Richard’s and Clarissa’s attitudes toward her?

3. What exactly has Miss Kilman been hired to do?

4. Where does Miss Kilman think that Mrs. Dalloway, and all the other fine ladies, should be?

5. What did Clarissa yell to Elizabeth as the latter left?

6. When Clarissa thinks about the destructive power of love, who in particular occurs to her as an example?

7. Why and for how long does Miss Kilman think about Russia?

8. What does Elizabeth feel is the one pleasure left to Miss Kilman?

9. What does Kilman say about...

(The entire section is 250 words.)

Part 14 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. When Elizabeth leaves, whom does Kilman feel has triumphed?

2. Where are the trunks Kilman runs into meant to be taken?

3. Why, according to the narrator, does Mr. Fletcher not stop and talk with Kilman?

4. On what street does Elizabeth wait for an omnibus?

5. According to Clarissa, what does Elizabeth’s friendship with Kilman prove?

6. Where is Clarissa as she thinks this?

7. What did Kilman say regarding Elizabeth’s future?

8. Why, exactly, does Elizabeth have to be going home?

9. Toward what does Elizabeth walk a little?

10. In what manner does Elizabeth board the Westminster omnibus?...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Part 15 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Exactly what, according to Septimus’ perceptions, is Nature signifying?

2. What did both Holmes and Bradshaw say was the worst thing for Septimus?

3. What did Mrs. Filmer give Rezia that morning?

4. What does Septimus say about the hat for Mrs. Peters?

5. Why does working on the hat make Septimus proud of it?

6. What was the doom that Septimus had sensed in Milan?

7. Of what had Septimus reminded Rezia when she first saw him?

8. With what does Rezia tie up the bundle of Septimus’ drawings?

9. What does Dr. Holmes call Septimus?

10. Whom does Dr. Holmes say is to blame for the suicide?

...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

Part 16 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Peter think that one might do in privacy?

2. Who had influenced Peter more than Clarissa had?

3. Did Peter need much effort to read one of Clarissa’s letters?

4. What does Peter think he would do when he retires?

5. What does Peter realize has been his undoing?

6. Does Peter decide that he is jealous by temperament?

7. What specific words uttered by Peter win him the respect of others?

8. What does Peter want to ask Richard at the party?

9. What news are the paperboys proclaiming?

10. What does the narrator say the brain and body must do, as Peter approaches the party?

...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

Part 17 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Lucy’s reaction to seeing Elizabeth dressed for the party?

2. What has Mr. Dalloway sent for from the Emperor’s cellars?

3. How does Clarissa greet everyone at the party?

4. Is Peter pleased that he came to the party?

5. What is the minor gesture that reassures Clarissa about the party?

6. What is the main thing that makes Ellie Henderson afraid and nervous?

7. How are Ellie and Clarissa related?

8. What do the guests feel as they see the Prime Minister enter?

9. What does Clarissa say that she would like to have had at the party?

10. What does Lady Bruton feel that Richard...

(The entire section is 280 words.)

Part 18 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Is Bradshaw making a connection between what delayed him and politics?

2. About what had the Prime Minister and Lady Bruton been talking?

3. Into what had Clarissa once thrown a shilling?

4. What surprised Clarissa when she looked out her window?

5. How had Sally once described the cauliflower leaves at Bourton?

6. What is the only thing that Peter knew about Sally’s husband?

7. According to Sally, had Hugh once kissed her?

8. Had Sally ever invited the Dalloways to come for a visit?

9. What does Peter say has spoiled his life?

10. What does Sally say about Clarissa and Richard that made...

(The entire section is 278 words.)