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  • Daisy Paterson

Mrs Dalloway - critical review

After I read the novel, I also read through 'The Connell guide to Mrs Dalloway' as well as listened to the In Our Time Podcast on the novel.

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is a novel set in a 'day in the life' of Clarissa Dalloway: a day in June 1923 (notably five years after the end of the war.) It has a minimal action plot, but instead looks into the sensation and qualities of being alive. Wolf herself wrote about modern fiction arguing that it should change in light of the changes in the 20th century, for example, psychoanalysis and relativity. She wanted to look at dealing with the human character differently. Woolf was 40 when she wrote the novel, and before, during and after the novel was going through a series of mental breakdowns. She had a traumatic youth, experiencing a series of familial losses and was diagnosed with heart murmur before she wrote the novel - and therefore was in a fragile state of mind and thus looked at life as fragile itself. I attended a lecture about objective and subjective time, and it mentioned Mrs Dalloway and how this novel really explores that, and therefore I was interested to see how Woolf portrays time in her novel of a regular day in the life of an upper-class woman in 1923 London. What interested me from reading the novel and reading about it was the prose and how it was written and structured, which displayed the consciousness of human beings, as well as how it presented time, the particular characters of Septimus and Clarissa - and how they are connected, and her critique on the social system.

One aspect of the novel which was really interesting was the conflict of whether the novel was a stream of consciousness or not. It was interesting looking at the style of the prose and deciding who was the narrator and the feelings and thoughts one has in a day. The idea of the novel being a stream of consciousness - in which it had no outside, objective or judgemental narrator was debated in the In our Time Podcast. Instead, it was more portrayed as free indirect prose in which it is unstructured but combines both the internal and the external. However, it was clear that the Freudian idea, which Woolf agreed with, that memories affect the present was present throughout the novel: through her present moment often linking back to a memory from the past. An idea that really interested me was who the narrator was. Despite going into Mrs Dalloway's thoughts and feelings, the novel was in the third person. For example, the notable first sentence: 'Mrs Dalloway said she would buy flowers', and the question of whom she is saying it to, and who is noting it down is interesting. In the podcast, it was suggested that it could be Lucy, the servant, who is noting all this down, and therefore perhaps Mrs Dalloway is not the author of the thoughts at all. However, what I thought could be an interesting approach to this was, in fact, the world itself, or perhaps her self-consciousness, was what was noting these things down. There seems to be a sense of someone listening to her thoughts, whether that should be the reader themselves or a part of her consciousness. The novel moves away from the description of material objects, for example, hair or eye colour, and instead focuses on the internal. Woolf herself said that she wants to 'record the atoms that fall on the mind.' Therefore, to me the fact it was in the third person suggests a sense of herself recording what she is thinking, or instead that the consciousness is linked to a bigger, almost cosmic sense of the world listening to different characters consciousness. This questionable narrator makes it hard to trust the description of material things, especially from the character of Septimus who has hallucinations and describes birds chirping to him in Greek (which Wolf herself has accounted to imagine before.) This creates the idea that the narrator is not displaying the real world of what is actually happening, but instead what is happening inside someone's head. In this way there is a question of reality - maybe reality only can really exist through someone's perception of it, because the real pure action of what is happening is either influenced by the memory of the past or childhood (in a Freudian approach) or mental fractures that cause alterations in the reality of life (such as shell shock from war with Septimus). Woolf was interested in a cinematic display being echoed in literature, through the idea of things being said without words, and therefore showing what happened behind thoughts of characters. The fact it is in the third person, then, allows the reader to decide the reality of the thoughts of the characters, and question if the narrator is a reliable source for the thoughts of the characters or almost a censored narrative of what the characters want to be recounted.

Another aspect of the novel, which links to the idea of reality and consciousness, is the idea of time. In a lecture I attended before I read the book, I was introduced the idea of objective (clock, calendar time) and subjective (your perception of time passing) and how they are difficult to separate. This links to Burkson's theory of time, in which there are two parts of time: the spacial time, which accounts the clock and calendar time (objective time) and Ladure time, which is the subjective, non-spacial time: an interior time (subjective time.) Woolf was fully aware of Burkson's theory of time, and this idea is explored throughout the novel. The narrative is very unstructured, but still within the structure of a normal day, and the passing of time is only linked by big ben chiming each hour, which gives a sense to the reader of time passing. Not only this, but it is often a moment of a switch of consciousness into another character, and therefore the big ben presented a moment of unity between all the characters: where they are almost all present, before going into a particular's characters perception. The idea of memory, and characters going into memories, created a sense of time almost stopping, or definitely a sense that there doesn't seem to be an essence of it going away. The idea of memories created a connection between the past and present, portraying that objective and subjective time cannot separate: through the fact that objective time is always contaminated by subjective time, memories and other thoughts. The novel was originally called the 'hour', and the novel has no chapters within it, which creates an endless moment, within the hourly time frames that are reminded to the reader by big ben. What I took away from this presentation of time was Woolf displaying that subjective time will never stop, but only within the framing of objective time: the idea that although time is running out, the length time within objective hourly time, a moment of subjective time can be created by an individual: through memories or thoughts of consciousness. Obviously, time is a hard concept to grasp and I think Woolf not only recognises it but embraces it, creating a complete connection between the two Burkson types and showing that we are never in a moment of pure clock time, it is always influenced by our own sense of time.

Another, more specific part of the novel which was really interesting was the characters of Septimus and Clarissa, both as individuals and together, despite never actually meeting within the novel. Clarissa presents herself as not one set character or personality, and envelops Woolf statement that existence is "streaked, involved and confused." Her character is made up of lots of different aspects and characteristics. In a way, this also represents Virginia Woolf herself, as although didn't want the book to seem autobiographical, she split small parts of herself into the different characters in the novel: putting different aspects of her own personal character into an entire character in the book. In the character of Clarissa, although Woolf very unlike her especially in terms of class and attitude, there are aspects of her within Clarissa's relationships: her Frigid marriage represents that of her own with Leonard Woolf, and Clarissa's love for Sally represents her own ideas of fluid sexuality and love for particular women. Furthermore, Septimus, who is affected by shell shock, seems to represent Woolf's fragile mental state. Through Septimus and Clarissa, Woolf achieves her aim of the novel to write about 'sanity and insanity', without labelling either Septimus or Clarissa as either-or, they seem to be, although each nearer to opposite ends of the spectrum, a part of both: each both sane and insane. This seems to be a reflection on humanity and a criticism on mental illness: suggesting that people have both sanity and insanity, and therefore should not be labelled and treated as either/or. Through Septimus in particular, Woolf writes about what it is like to be mad, or labelled as mad, through the narrative coming from his own thoughts, but also what it is like to live with someone in this state through Septimus' wife Lucrezia. Wolf presents the corruption of the treatment of those suffering from a mental illness through characters telling Septimus to either get some fresh air or be put in a home separate from Lucrezia. The contrast between these two possible cures is interesting because it shows neither the success of being enclosed or trapped (going in a home) or being open and outside ('fresh air'), instead a focus on the interior mind and state needs to be looked at, which is never successfully done, resulting in the suicide of Septimus, which seems to be him rejecting the treatment of those who are deemed as 'mad' in the 1930s. There seems to be a connection between Clarissa and Septimus, despite them never physically meeting within the novel. The question of Clarissa's sanity is evident throughout the novel, and the character of Septimus acts as a foil or an echo of what Clarissa could end up as.

When Woolf wrote the novel she stated 'I want to criticise the social system.' This seems to be done by most a critique on social class and gender. In terms of class, the upper class in the novel seem to suppress their emotions. This is particularly evident through Richard being unable to tell Clarissa that he loves her in words. They also seem to suffer limited losses or suffering, particularly from the war - notably compared to the character of Septimus. If the idea that the whole narrative of reality is from each character's choice of what is included and revealed to the reader, then there is the idea that Woolf is noticing the upper class refusing to accept and grapple with issues, as they seem to be, on the surface, uninfluenced by the reality of life. Woolf also, however, seems to create the idea that social class is an abstract noun which is created by individuals and never matters in the end, as all people seemed to be linked despite their social class. Woolf uses the idea of the sky: through birds ("they fly above London's social and economic divisions and accentuate the oneness of things"), the plane and the Big Ben chiming. This idea of universal sight (the sky) or sound (the Big Ben), unites all the characters and creates that idea that there is a universal connection and a 'group consciousness' throughout all the characters. Furthermore, Woolf also criticises the social system by looking at gender in the novel. Wolf criticises the identity that comes with a married woman and how it is the first sense of influences over people's opinions about women, through creating "Mrs Dalloway" to be the title. This as the title creates the reader to have an automatic perception of her before reading the book, which echoes that of society towards married women. It suggests that she cannot escape her marital identity, despite separating herself from both her husband (they sleep separately) and Peter Walsh (she recounts that in the past she denied to marry him). Not only the universal perception of married women is created, but as women as a whole: as they all wear different shades of green: which creates them to become one identity and represents the blanket of perception that surrounds women, without being able to create much individual identity, apart from different 'shades' of the same thing. Her love with Sally Seton seems to be a rejection of this patriarchal society. However this doesn't seem to be achieved: not only through the title but the notable moment in which Peter Walsh interrupts her kiss with Sally Seton, suggesting the incapability to escape patriarchal influence and society.

Overall, what really stood out to me in the novel was that Woolf studied the nature of humanity and reality both through outer-self abstract nouns: social constructions such as status created through class or gender, as well as inner-self aspects: such as subjective time and consciousness. She studies the nature of life and reality through looking at our consciousness and the influence of the past on the present, and the merge of sanity and insanity, with no clear line between them, as well as the urge to overcome social constructs - which almost is achieved through the universal nature of the sounds and the sky. Significantly the narration causes a question of what the self-conscious can control over what is revealed to the reader, and the reader, throughout the novel, is caused to fill in the gaps that the cinematic style in the literary work creates, with lots of un-answered questions of each characters true feelings and place and significance in society, all done in an ordinary day of June 1923.

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