Form and Content

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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

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*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...

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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.


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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

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The New Modern Era
The nineteenth century ushered in developments that profoundly changed European society. Mercantilism and industrialism created a powerful new class. The cultural, political and economic might of this new class, the bourgeoisie or middle-class, soon overtook that of the aristocratic classes that had controlled nations and empires before. The spread of democracy and workers' rights movements also characterized the nineteenth century. It was not until after World War I (1914-1918), however, that a deep sense of how extremely and permanently European society had changed prevailed.

Mrs. Dalloway registers this sense of the end of an era. Clarissa's Aunt Parry, the aged relic who makes an appearance at Clarissa's party, represents this decline and this ending of an old way of life. The old woman likes to remember her days in Burma, a time and place suggestive of the height of British imperialism and colonialism. But, as Lady Bruton's distressed comment about the situation in India makes clear, the old days of paternalistic European colonialism are over. India and other colonies that used to be comfortable homes for colonials like Clarissa's aunt are now uncomfortable places where the beginnings of serious battles for independence are occurring.

Lady Bruton also mentions the Labour Party's ascendancy. (This new party gained a parliamentary majority in England in 1924, the year before Mrs. Dalloway was published.) This detail indicates how the England of this time had become radically modern in its move to a fuller social democracy, the political system that still characterizes most modern nations today, including the United States. The Labour Party's name indicates its representation of rule by the people, for the people, as opposed to rule by an aristocracy or an oligarchic class.

Elizabeth Dalloway, a young woman considering a career, is also an indicator of change, as entering the working world was a social possibility not available to women before this time.

WWI bears comparison with the Vietnam War. Like this more recent war, it is remembered as a war that many thought should have been avoided and that traumatized its soldiers. It was an imperial war in two senses. First, it was an attempt to limit the European encroachments of Prussian imperial rule and power. Second, it was partially provoked by border skirmishes among European nations on the African continent (European nations had begun colonizing African territories in the late nineteenth century). It was a power struggle pertaining to traditional European ruling classes and had very little to do with the everyday concerns and struggles of most European citizens.

What was shocking about the war was how long it dragged on and how many casualties it produced. (It lasted four years and millions of young men died or were terribly wounded.) The style of fighting developed in this war was trench warfare. In trench warfare, soldiers dig deep ditches from which they shoot at the enemy. When given the order to charge, they climb out of these trenches and meet the enemy head-on. These cramped, claustrophobic trenches were breeding grounds for disease, as they were muddy and wet from frequent rainfall. Soldiers felt that the trenches were as much ready-made earthly graves as they were protection from enemy fire. Also, poison gas (mustard gas) was used during WWI, and soldiers caught by the fumes without gas masks died or suffered horribly.

Enemy soldiers often formed friendships during cease-fire periods in the space of no man's land between opposing trench lines. Soldiers on both sides felt strongly that their real enemies were not each other, but the officers, politicians and generals who were running the war. The carnage, mutilation, and terror of this badly managed war resulted in a host of traumatized war veterans. This trauma was given the name "shell shock" in the years following the war. Septimus Warren Smith, who was a brave soldier, but who ends up a suicidal, ruined man, indicates Woolf's condemnation of this unfortunate war.

Literary Style

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Narration and Point of View
From the very first sentence, Mrs. Dalloway shows the secure meshing of a third person (external) narrator's point of view with a first person, character's point of view, such that it is not possible to separate or distinguish the two: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." If the two had been clearly separated the sentence would read: "Mrs. Dalloway said, 'I will buy the flowers myself’," or would have included the word "that": "Mrs. Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself." In this second case, the reader would assume that the words following the word "that" were not necessarily faithful to Mrs. Dalloway's thought or speech, but rather that they are a narrator's interpretation or summary. Instead, what Woolf perfected in this novel is a style of narration that literary critics have called "represented thought and speech," capturing the motions of a mind thinking in the past tense, third person. A narrator presents character thought and speech, but the narrator's words are wholly and immediately imbued by the voice and style of the particular character in question; there is no way to separate narrator and character. Woolf invented an elegant and efficient way of moving between and representing multiple characters' speech and thought; the clumsiness of excessive dialogue or of switching between sequences of different characters' thoughts presented in the first person is avoided. Related terms in literary criticism are reported thought and speech, free indirect discourse, and stream-of-consciousness.

TimeMrs. Dalloway is striking for the way that its events occur within a single day. This unusual strategy announces the novel's complication of time in general. For example, while most people tend to think of time in terms of the regular clicking away of the clock—of seconds, minutes, hours, and days—this book shows how people can relive, through the operations of memory, whole years within the space of minutes. Peter and Clarissa walk a few paces in London and remember major periods of their youth, how these years affected them, and how they shaped their lives.

On a related theme, the novel multiplies time by presenting the thoughts of myriad characters, each of whom remember and experience time, the past and the present, in different ways. In this novel, chronological time is only one sense of time, as the characters bring the past into the present, allow the meaning and remembrance of the present to be shaped by the past, and shape memories of and feelings about the past with experience in the present.

Character Double
Septimus Warren Smith can be seen as Clarissa's double in the novel. As a character double, he is a character whose attributes and story fill out the character and story of Clarissa. According to the literary critic Alex Page, in "A Dangerous Day: Mrs. Dalloway and Her Double," "Septimus's character is in all essentials Clarissa's, but taken to a deadly extreme." Where Clarissa is isolated, Septimus is disassociated from reality; where Clarissa manages the disappointments and strictures society imposes upon her, Septimus buckles under greater pressures. The close connections of these characters is made clear by Clarissa's deep upset when Dr. Bradshaw informs her, at her party, that one of his patients committed suicide that day. She retreats from her guests in shock when Bradshaw mentions Septimus's death, as if she herself were susceptible to the same degree of despair that destroys the young man.

Literary Techniques

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Several critics have noted that Woolf's fourth novel marks a moment in Woolf's own sense of artistic independence and maturity; most notably, it is Clarissa Dalloway's interior monologue or stream-of-consciousness that, when mingled with the urban scene, that heralds a new phase in Woolf's mastery of literary technique. She also incorporates flashbacks and photographic techniques of recalling childhood experiences, and shows that external events are only given significance because of the internal or subjective associations which the perceiver makes with the event. These narrative techniques of montage show Woolf's desire to experiment with the representations of consciousness as well as the importance of perspective in any three-dimensional narrative in which the author desires to explore the psychology of her characters and the psychological time which drives them through their life stories.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: In Britain, the Labour Party rises to power, women get the right to vote, and the first major wave of communication and travel technologies are incipient or, in some cases, widely established (radio, telephone, telegraph communications; automobile and airplane travel).

Today: International communications and connections have progressed to such an extent, due to computer technology and the Internet, that the term "globalization" is in common use. The modern world foreseen in the 1920s has definitively arrived.

1920s: Modernism, the set of artistic movements that try to express, through form and style, the cultural and social changes of a brand new century, is flourishing. The modernists profess internationalism.

Today: Art at the close of the twentieth century is defined by postmodernism. The name of this new set of movements suggests how its forms are both tied to modernism (postmodernism), and in some ways defined against modernism (postmodernism. Postmodernists examine and question globalization and transnationalism.

1920s: While the American colonies of Europe (i.e., the United States and the nations of South and Central America) have long since established themselves as independent nations, the twentieth century is characterized by nationalist and independence movements in Europe's remaining colonies (in Asia and Africa). These movements are not brought to a close until the 1960s.

Today: Colonies no longer exist; rather, a group of independent nations cover the globe.

Literary Precedents

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James Joyce's Ulysses, finally published in 1922 after many difficulties with the censors, was celebrated by intellectuals at the time, and since, for its achievement is advancing the form of the novel. Taking place during the course of a single day, the novel develops its themes through flashbacks and interior monologues, Woolf, along with Joyce and Marcel Proust, are credited with using style and technique to inagurate the modern psychological novel.

Media Adaptations

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

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927.

----, Virginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press, 1942.

Hawthorn, Jeremy, Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway": A Study in Alienation, Sussex University Press, 1975.

Henke, Suzette A., "Mrs. Dalloway: the Communion of Saints," in New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Jane Marcus, University of Nebraska Press, 1981, pp. 125–47.

Jensen, Emily, "Clarissa Dalloway's Respectable Suicide," in Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant, edited by Jane Marcus, University of Nebraska Press, 1983, pp. 162-79.

Johnson, Manly, Virginia Woolf, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York. 1978.

Naremore, James, The World Without A Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel, Yale University Press, New Haven CT. 1973.

Page, Alex, "A Dangerous Day: Mrs. Dalloway and Her Double," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VII, No. 2, Summer 1961, pp. 115-24.

Woolf, Virginia, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell with Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols., Hogarth Press, 1977-1984.

Woolf, Virginia, Mrs. Dalloway, Harcourt Brace & World, NewYork. 1953.

Woolf, Virginia, A Writer’s Diary, Edited by Leonard Woolf. Harcourt, Brace and Company. New York. 1954.

----, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," in The Gender of Modernism, edited by Bonnie Kime Scott, Indiana University Press, 1990.

For Further Study
Abel, Elizabeth, Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis, University of Chicago Press, 1989.
The brilliant chapter on Mrs. Dalloway from Abel's book examines the way in which Woolf's novel responds to and contests Freud's theories about women.

Daiches, David, Virginia Woolf, James Laughlin, 1942.
Daiches book gives an excellent, highly readable overview of Woolf's art and fictions.

Edwards, Lee R., "War and Roses: The Politics of Mrs. Dalloway," in The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards, University of Massachusetts Press, 1977, pp. 161—77.
This essay provides an important and informative aspect on the politics of Mrs. Dalloway.

Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975.
Fussel's text is a definitive book on WWI—its life in the popular imagination, the way soldiers experienced it, and the poetry of its soldiers.

Lee, Hermione, Virginia Woolf, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.
Lee presents a recent and highly readable biography of the author.

Thomas, Sue, "Virginia Woolf's Septimus Smith and Contemporary Perceptions of Shellshock," in English Language Notes, Vol. 25, No. 2, December 1987, pp. 49-57.
Thomas offers an examination of the literature and attitudes about shell shock in Woolf's time.

Zwerdling, Alex, Virginia Woolf and the Real World, University of California Press, 1986.
Zwerdling's book discusses the social and political contexts and arguments of Woolf s novels.


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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.


Critical Essays


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