Where is dialectic materialism shown in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Dialectical materialism is shown through the characterizations that define the world of Mrs. Dalloway.

The definition of dialectical materialism comes from Marx.  In the broadest of senses, the term means to view materialist realities in an interconnected way.  Marx and Engels believed that dialectics was the process by which ideas came into being.  An established idea featured its opposite and through the merging of both, a new idea emerged.  This new idea became the established understanding and its opposite would emerge with the process repeating itself.  Marx and Engels believed that society transformed through the evolving process of change that is dialectics.  

The materialist component comes from seeing the world through the lens of economic power and control.  Throughout human society, there have been those who held power and those lacked it.  Materialist dialectics is the process through which the distribution of power changes over time. From power held by the few, it will change into power shared by the many.  A more collective notion of the good life will emerge from a very individualist approach.  

The essence of dialectical materialism is to show that ideas have power and can articulate a changing reality.  In support of his view of dialectical materialism, Marx once suggested "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."  Marx and Engels believed that dialectical materialism is the language through which change in the modern world can be explained.

The idea of dialectical materialism, can be seen in Mrs. Dalloway.  One way the novel shows dialectical materialism can be in its philosophical approach. Woolf felt that the novel is an example of Modernism. A year before Mrs. Dalloway was published, Virginia Woolf wrote an essay where she defined Modernism as a movement. Woolf argued that Modernism was focused on exploring a particular "shift" in all aspects of life:  

On or about December 1910 human nature changed.  All human relations shifted... and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.

Woolf believes that the essence of modernity lies in this landscape of change. Her novel focuses on this shift in the her characters and the world they inhabit.   

Mrs. Dalloway shows this "shift" in terms of moving towards a world that embraces "dialectical materialism." The novel shows a materialist "shifting of relations." An example of this can be seen in how Septimus rose from lower- middle- class origins to become someone of significance. This same rise can be seen in Bradshaw. Dialectical materialism has transformed a world where men of "lower" conditions can move past such constructions.  

Another example of this landscape of change can be seen in politics. In the novel, the dinner conversation features discussion about how the Labour Party is emerging.  This is a political group that speaks for a plurality of people and not merely entrenched interests.  It is entering the dialogue and into the political discourse of the time period.  There is also discussion about how there is unrest in India and the British Empire might be coming to an end. These represent dialectical materialist shifts in thinking because power is moving from an individualist construction into a more collective one.

The novel shows that Clarissa's daughter conceives a world different from her mother. Elizabeth wants more out of life. She is no longer a child, having become a young woman who wishes to be her own person. She breaks free of Miss Kilman's need for control over her. Her disdain for the party atmosphere is another example of dialectical materialism. In  these aspects, dialectical materialism is evident in that Elizabeth seeks to both "interpret" and "change" the world.  

Elizabeth stands in stark contrast to her mother, "the perfect hostess." She is animated with ideas and how they can be a part of her identity. Elizabeth wants to be in medicine or farming, passions that Clarissa could never advocate in her consciousness of her "role" in society.  Elizabeth is not concerned with notions of class and "status." Through wanting something different, Elizabeth displays a dialectically materialist approach.  In these examples, power shifts to a new dynamic.  Dialectical materialism is shown in this new construction of power, moving from staying in the hands of the few to more people having it. 

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