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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The events of Mrs. Dalloway take place on a single day in June in central London where Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of Richard Dalloway, MP, sets off to buy flowers for a party that she is hosting in the evening. Some critics have argued that the novel is a sharp and critical examination of the governing social milieu at the turning point of its power, and of people's ability to deal with change, be it change of life, changes from war to peace, change of class or change of family life. Although the novel was initially accused by some critics of triviality, it was well received on the whole and sold well. Over time, Mrs. Dalloway has become one of Woolf's texts that is the most frequently discussed by students and critics because it depicts a richly textured impressionistic canvas of the social life, as well as describing the mysterious path of change which human relationships and personalities take over the passage of time.

Mrs. Dalloway is also distinctive for its portrait of a society woman which manages to be both fascinating and alarming in its scope, as well as Woolf's genuine concern with the life cycle of one generation of women as it is about to repeat itself in another generation: in this case, Clarissa who is past the end of her childbearing years at the age of fifty-two, and her daughter Elizabeth, who stands on the threshold of her eighteenth birthday. Each of the women in the novel represent one of the decades in a woman's life from her daughter's adolescence to the nameless old woman whom Clarissa sees through a window. Woolf uses these women characters to confront such issues as femininity, sexuality, identity, and menopause.

There is much speculation and research that attempts to link the bouts of psychosis which Woolf suffered in her own life with the sensationalism of the male hysteria or "shell-shock" that is suffered by Septimus Smith which ends with his eventual suicide. Woolf's concern with hallucinations, delusions and illusions are also explored through the religious fanaticism of Doris Kilman.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Mrs. Dalloway, as in all of Woolf's texts, is her concern with the role of women that has been the legacy of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Although her quarrel is not discussed until later in explicitly feminist terms, her concerns are directly reflected in her desire to invent a new way of representing female characters that would capture their subjectivities. In her novels, Woolf's aesthetic theories come to incorporate gender and genre, feminism and modernism to show how as religion, conduct, politics, and literature change, so do human relations.

Themes

(Novels for Students)

Consciousness
Although it is difficult to imagine, the novel is a relatively new literary form. Poetry and drama (plays), for example, have a much longer history. The novel, however, did not arise as a unique genre until the late eighteenth century. According to literary historians, it arose along with, or partly because of, the rise of the individual.

It is said that Woolf's style, and that of other early-twentieth-century novelists, represents a culmination of this connection between the novel and the individual. Before there were "individuals," so to speak, a person lived his or her life according to what was determined from the outside or according to what society decreed was correct. A person did not go through life assuming that he or she could make personal, or individual, decisions and choices. The literary historians argue, then, that when this new type of person, this "individual," began to exist, it needed new literary forms to express itself. The novel was one of these forms.

What comes with being an individual is a sense of separateness and uniqueness, a sense of being apart. One way this sense of being separate is cultivated is by each person focusing on, or developing a sense of, his or her own mind or consciousness. The novel is a literary form of the individual, literary historians argue, because novelists present and...

(The entire section is 1,387 words.)