Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827

All of Woolf's publications, fictional and non-fictional alike, have received a great deal of critical attention. A bibliography of criticism on Woolf would be a very hefty book in its own right, as her work has been the subject of intense study since she began writing, and it is still a major topic today. Considered equal to the likes of Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf is indisputably one of the English language's greatest literary voices.

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Major topics in the criticism on Mrs. Dalloway are the significance of Clarissa's party as the culminating event of the book, and Peter Walsh's and others' criticism of her parties. At one point in the novel, Clarissa is plagued by a bad feeling. With some thought, she arrives at the source of her anxiety: "Her parties! That was it! Her parties! Both of them [Peter and Richard] criticised her very unfairly, laughed at her unjustly for her parties. That was it! That was it!" She goes on to think: "Well, how was she going to defend herself?"

Critics have defended Clarissa amply by theorizing the significance of the opposition of Richard, parliamentarian and politician, and the seemingly apolitical, spoilt Clarissa, giver of parties and lover of beauty. For Suzette A. Henke, in "Mrs. Dalloway: the Communion of Saints," Clarissa's party is akin to a sacred mass, "a ritual culminating in sacred communion." In the opinion of Jeremy Hawthorn, in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway": A Study in Alienation, the party "is not just Clarissa's gift, it is the occasion for communal giving ... which will recharge the participants' social sense and . . . allow them temporarily to escape from their alienated selves."

Other critics, along these lines, suggest Woolf's book argues that politicians like Richard would not be so busy cleaning up the messes of the world if people were brought up to love harmony, communication, community, and beauty before all other things. It is not, then, that Mrs. Dalloway is an apolitical or anti-political novel, these critics argue, but rather that its politics are radically different from the norm—the book advances a politic of beauty and community, as it were.

Many feminist critics suggest that this opposition of political styles is a gender issue. To these critics, it seems that Woolf understands that traditional women's work (mothering children, maintaining family bonds) emphasizes social bonding over competition. Women, therefore, and books like Mrs. Dalloway, have important lessons for society at large, and suggest how it might function more smoothly.

Related to considerations about the significance of Clarissa's parties are estimations about the novel's connection to contemporaneous social and political events. Until perhaps the last twenty years of Woolf criticism, a prevailing view was that Woolf was not at all interested in the "real world." The novelist E. M. Forster, Woolf's famous contemporary, stated in his book Virginia Woolf that "improving the world she [Woolf] would not consider" was not her intention. Yet, as other critics point out, such an opinion does not hold up when the author's own diary records that the novel's purpose was "to criticise the social system, & show it at work, at its most intense." (This entry concerning Mrs. Dalloway can be found in Vol. II of The Diary of Virginia Woolf.)

Critics who examine this aspect of the novel discuss Woolf's subtle, if not wholesale, indictment of the outdated and overly conservative attitudes of Richard, Lady Bruton, and Hugh, and argue that the suffering of Septimus is to be understood as the result of such problematic views and policies. The prevailing attitude today concerning the book's politics, and Woolf's social views in general, is expressed succinctly by Suzette A. Henke (in the article previously cited): "All of Virginia Woolf's major novels suggest an intellectual commitment to feminist, pacifist, and socialist principles."

Another topic in the criticism of Mrs. Dalloway is an examination of Septimus and Clarissa as problems in psychology and mental health. Knowing that Woolf herself suffered bouts of mental disease, they find these characters' portraits a wealth of information. Another significant body of criticism focuses on questions of sexuality in the novel, considering, for example, Clarissa's love for Sally Seton. Some critics suggest that Clarissa's extreme feelings of isolation are to be understood partly as the result of a deleteriously suppressed homosexuality. In "Clarissa Dalloway's Respectable Suicide," Emily Jensen expresses this view: "No simple girlhood crush, Clarissa's love for Sally Seton is a profound reality that permeates her adult life." This critic goes on to say that Clarissa's suppression of this love is a sort of suicide, a death in life, "on a par with Septimus Smith's more obvious suicide." Jensen approaches Septimus as Clarissa's double, that is, as a character who aids the reader in arriving at a fuller understanding of Clarissa. Jensen's essay, in this way, intersects with yet another significant set of inquiries into the novel, which considers the book's clusters of characters, especially the clustering or doubling of Septimus and Clarissa.

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