Download Mrs. Dalloway Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mrs. Dalloway comes midway in Virginia Woolf’s fiction-writing career and near the beginning of her experiments with form and technique, just after Jacob’s Room (1922), her first experimental novel. The book is really two stories—that of Clarissa Dalloway and that of Septimus Smith—and the techniques by which Woolf united the two narrative strands are unusual and skillful. While writing the novel, Woolf commented in her diary on her new method of delineating character. Instead of explaining the characters’ pasts chronologically, she uses a “tunnelling process”: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters.” The various characters appear in the present without explanation; various sense impressions—a squeaky hinge, a repeated phrase, a particular tree—call to mind a memory, and past becomes present. Such an evocation of the past is reminiscent of Marcel Proust, but Woolf’s method does not involve the ego of the narrator.

Woolf’s “caves” reveal both the past and the characters’ reactions to present events. Woolf structurally connects the “caves” and her themes by spatial and temporal techniques; her handling of the stream-of-consciousness technique—unlike that of James Joyce—is always filtered and indirect; the narrator is in command, telling the reader “Clarissa thought” or “For so it had always seemed to her.” This ever-present narrative voice clarifies the characters’ inner thoughts and mediates the commentary of the novel; at times, however, it blurs the identity of the speaker. Woolf’s use of the “voice” became more prominent in To the Lighthouse (1927), then disappeared in The Waves (1931).

With its disparate characters and various scenes of street life, the structure of the book seems at first to lack unity. Woolf, however, uses many devices, both technical and thematic, to unite elements. The day, sometime in mid-June, 1923, is a single whole, moving chronologically from early morning to late evening. The book is not divided into chapters or sections headed by titles or numbers, but Woolf notes some of the shifts in time or scene by a short blank space in the manuscript. More often, however, the transition from one group of characters to another is accomplished by the remarking of something public, something common to the experience of both, something seen or heard.

The world of Clarissa and her friends alternates with the world of Septimus. The sight of a motorcar, the sight and sound of a skywriting plane, a running child, a woman singing, an omnibus, an ambulance, and the clock striking are the transitions connecting those two worlds. Moreover, the striking of the clocks (“first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable”) is noted at various other times to mark a shift from one character’s consciousness to another. The exact time, which is given periodically, signals the day’s progress (noon comes at almost the exact center of the book) and stresses the irrevocable movement toward death, one of the book’s themes. Usually at least two clocks are described as striking—first Big Ben, a masculine symbol, then, a few seconds later, the feminine symbol St. Margaret’s; this suggests again the two genders of all existence united in the echoes of the bells, “the leaden circles.”

The main thematic devices used to unify the book are the similarity between Clarissa and Septimus and the repetition of key words and phrases in the minds of various characters. The likeness between Clarissa and Septimus is most important, as each helps to explain the other, although they never meet. Both are lonely and contemplate suicide. Both feel guilty for their past lives, Septimus because he “cannot feel” the death of Evans, Clarissa because she rejected Peter and has a tendency to dominate others. Both have homosexual feelings, Septimus for Evans, Clarissa for Sally Seton. More important, both want desperately to bring order into life’s chaos. Septimus achieves this...

(The entire section is 1,059 words.)