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.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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. 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. 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. 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.


(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).

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Narration and Point of View
From the very first sentence, Mrs. Dalloway shows the secure meshing of a third person...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Several critics have noted that Woolf's fourth novel marks a moment in Woolf's own sense of artistic independence and maturity; most notably,...

(The entire section is 131 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1920s: In Britain, the Labour Party rises to power, women get the right to vote, and the first major wave of communication and travel...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research shell shock in relation to WWI. How do treatments for war trauma today differ from those used then?

What was the role of...

(The entire section is 37 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

James Joyce's Ulysses, finally published in 1922 after many difficulties with the censors, was celebrated by intellectuals at the...

(The entire section is 70 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Mrs. Dalloway is Woolf's second stream-of-consciousness novel; Jacob's Room (1922) is the first. Jacob Flanders is a quiet...

(The entire section is 75 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Mrs. Dalloway was adapted into a film of the same name in 1997, directed by Marleen Gorris. It stars the venerated British actor...

(The entire section is 27 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

To the Lighthouse (1927) was Woolf's next novel, after the success of Mrs. Dalloway. It concerns a large family spending a...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Allen, Walter, The Modern Novel in Britain and the United States, EP Dutton & Co., New York. 1964.


(The entire section is 428 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Abel, Elizabeth. “Narrative Structure(s) and Female Development: The Case of Mrs. Dalloway.” In Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Margaret Homans. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993. Analysis of Mrs. Dalloway as a “typically female text” that hides its “subversive impulses,” which resist the typical narrative structure. Points out that Clarissa’s real passion was not for Peter but for Sally, whose kiss gave Clarissa “a moment of unparalleled radiance and intensity.”

Blackstone, Bernard. Virginia Woolf: A Commentary. London: Hogarth Press, 1949. An older but excellent essay on Woolf’s use of time, “the insistent hours pressing on,” to create a sense of the pressures felt by Septimus and Clarissa. Blackstone claims that the characters’ loneliness and the pity they evoke are keys to Mrs. Dalloway.

Brower, Reuben Arthur. “Something Central Which Permeated: Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway.” In The Fields of Light: An Experiment in Critical Reading. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1951. Excellent analysis of Woolf’s use of metaphor to convey a sense of suspense and interruption. Woolf creates a sense of the “terror of entering the sea of experience and of living life,” so that the reader feels both the loveliness and the frightening truths of reality.

Daiches, David. “Virginia Woolf.” In The Novel and the Modern World. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Revels in the rhythms of Woolf’s style, with repetitions and qualifications of impressionistic “patterns of meaning” that are almost “hypnotic.” Focuses on time, death, and personality as key themes and compares Woolf favorably to James Joyce in her stream-of-consciousness technique, which limits space and time to reveal individual consciousness and memory.

Harper, Howard. “Mrs. Dalloway.” In Between Language and Silence: The Novels of Virginia Woolf. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982. Harper reveals the genesis of Mrs. Dalloway and its characters, who are based on Woolf’s own friends and family members. Discusses the absence of a mother, Clarissa’s own ambivalence about her life, the imagery of sea and wind, and the work’s parallels in Night and Day (1919), The Voyage Out (1915), and To the Lighthouse.

Henke, Suzette A. “Mrs. Dalloway: The Communion of Saints.” In New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Jane Marcus. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. Discusses Mrs. Dalloway as a “scathing indictment of the British class system and . . . patriarchy,” focusing on her use of Greek tragedy and Christian doctrine to create a symbolic story of good vs. evil, art vs. war, privacy vs. passion, homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, sacrifice vs. revelation.

Homans, Margaret, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1993. Many of the articles in this collection connect Mrs. Dalloway to Woolf’s other works. One essay focuses on the web created in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse to explain Woolf’s images of space, darkness, and affirmation. In another essay, the structure of the novel is analyzed as it relates to female development. Mirroring and images of death are also examined as a key to understanding the novel.

Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987. An examination of five of Woolf’s novels in terms of her “feminist subversion of conventions.” The chapter on Mrs. Dalloway explains how Woolf deliberately confuses past and present thoughts and actions to diminish the “linear progress” of the narrative to blur the identity of the subject, thus producing a feeling of fluidity, spontaneity, and sensibility.

Warner, Eric, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Centenary Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Includes some of the best available articles on Woolf’s symbolism and purpose. The images of reflections in glass, sight, and mirroring are key to her sense of being and to the creation of continuity between people. One article deals with the paradoxes of love and silence, duality and time. Another discusses Woolf’s concern with the self and with consciousness.