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.