A novel written by Virginia Woolf, details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway who is a high-society woman in post-World War I England. Clarissa Dalloway is fifty one year old protagonist of the novel. She is wife of Richard Dalloway and mother of Elizabeth. The novel has described a single day bringing in different characters to show the social structure of post-World War I England.
Clarissa spends the day organizing her party which is to be held tonight and also thinking of the time when she was young. There is a second main character Septimus, a war veteran, who is disturbed due to his friend’s death in the war. He suffers from hallucinations of his deceased friend. He thinks as if it was his mistake that Evans was killed and he should be punished with death sentence and therefore he often tells his wife Lucrezia that he will kill himself.
Lucrezia is an Italian woman who has no friends in London and had to leave her family to marry Septimus who is now mentally ill so she is very homesick.
Story starts with Clarissa going out to buy flowers in the morning for her party that she will host in the evening. On the way to the flower shop she reflects her past thinking about her decisions including her decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh. Peter Walsh is an old friend of Clarissa. She rejected his marriage proposal in the past. As Clarissa buys flowers the story is shifted to Septimus who is terrified when he hears the sound of car backfiring. He struggles with the after effects of war. He still continues to have conversations with his friend Evans whom he lost in the war.
Virginia Woolf starts by emphasizing the fact that Mrs. Dalloway herself is going out to do the shopping. She has been ill for some time and now that she has recovered she is going to do what she loves. There is one more reason to go on her own that her maid Lucy is doing some other work. Today seems special as it fresh and brisk. The novel pieces together bits of Mrs. Dalloway’s past and bits of Mrs. Dalloway’s present on a single day trying to show what she was in her youth and what she has now become. When she was young Peter Walsh told her that she would someday ecome into a ‘Perfect Hostess’. This was said out of jealousy but it somehow is coming out to be true. As she heads out for flower shop, she has thoughts about her appearance which she thinks is too bird-like. We come know this when she compares herself to Lady Bexborough. She considers Lady Bexborough to be ideal. She would like to have dark and crumpled complexion as of Lady Bexborough. She also wishes if she could be less feminine and a little more masculine. So this tells her that she not happy with her outward appearance. Mrs.
Dalloway has been ill, has been resurrected, and is again enjoying the sight s of this busy London morning. She is happy with noisy goings-on and at times she is lost in thought about the decisions she has made in her lifetime. Is she happy as “Mrs. Dalloway”? She is no more Clarissa, she is Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa chose Richard Dalloway over Peter Walsh as Peter was very demanding of her. Peter would have insisted on sharing. Marrying Peter would have cost Clarissa all private thoughts and feelings. So she chose safety and security in Richard Dalloway.
She restricts the boundaries of her secret world. She is never completely relaxed or open with anyone. She attempts to keep her most serious thought to herself. Most people think that they are always same but the truth is that they are different in different situations. We behave in different ways when we are friends, family or staff. Mrs. Dalloway also is a different person when she is with her husband and she isn’t the same with her daughter. Clarissa is giving a party tonight and these should be happy moments but she filled with unhappy thoughts.
There is this feeling of hatred for Miss Kilman, her daughter’s tutor. The reason of hatred for Miss Kilman is not known but one can guess that Clarissa has never possessed Elizabeth but Miss Kilman kind of owns her. While Mrs. Dalloway selects flowers for the party, Virginia Woolf shifts from Mrs. Dalloway’s point of view to Septimus’ point of view. Septimus is not normal due to the after effects of the war. He is in his own private world at times talking to his friend Evans. His reaction to the noise of car backfiring was different from that of Clarissa’s.
Others think it to be sound of a gunshot but according to Septimus it the sound of whip cracking. Woolf is simultaneously talking of two different classes of English society but her focus is on one. Dalloways being the upper class or the governing class and Septimus is a middle class person. She is doing so in order to get a better picture of the class she is concerned with. In novels, Woolf is deeply engaged by the question of how the individual is shaped by his social environment, by how historical forces impinge on his life and shift its course, by how class, wealth and sex help to determine his fate.
Woolf’s attention was focused as sharply on society as on individual consciousness. The target of her satire was the English social system, with its hierarchies of class and sex, its complacency, its moral obtuseness. Her impulse was to understand as well as to judge, to know her society root and branch. Mrs. Dalloway is in large measure an examination of single class and its control over English society – the governing class as Peter Walsh calls it. Woolf’s picture of Clarissa Dalloway’s world is sharply critical; it looks at its objects from inside.
Woolf examines the governing class of England at a specific moment in history. It takes place on a day in June 1923, five years after the end of the First World War. During this period England’s government was on the verge of change. Labour Party was coming in power and the conservative prime minister who showed in Mrs. Dalloway’s party remained in the office only till January, 1924. At Lady Bruton’s house when they are talking about Peter Walsh, Lady Bruton says “Ah, the news from India! ” because during this time strong Independence movements were starting in India.
Solidity, rigidity, stasis, the inability to communicate feelings – these are the central concepts in Mrs. Dalloway. The governing class is incapable of acting rationally to the critical events of their times. They are not able to handle things in England or in India. They are unresponsive and evasive. It is not wrong to say that “deferred war-shock” is the major theme of Mrs. Dalloway. Though millions were affected by the war, only Septimus seems to have counted its cost. The governing class on the other hand deals with this in a very different way. They try to deny its pain and significance.
For them war is already an event in past and their attitude is to move on. This may be because they are the governing class and they have to be calm in all the situations so as to be able to take wise decisions. The war was an unmitigated catastrophe that made them to examine their consciences and major ethical decisions. With war there came hopes for a new society. The people now expected things to change from what they were before the war but nothing went as expected. The world returned to the same old society thus making the sacrifices of millions meaningless.
The governing class or the upper class shows utter self-control and it is this ability to have self-control that helps them to remain in power. All you have to do is to be sane. There are lots of incidents in the novel that show us the calmness of this upper class. For example, Mrs. Dalloway though jealous of Miss Kilman just tries different excuses to make her daughter stay rather than saying it directly, she can’t be anything other a Perfect Hostess though she wishes to be because it is her role, Richard Dalloway can’t tell Clarissa that he loves her.
The upper class always tries to protect itself from any kind of intense feeling and uses its influence to exclude any threatening forces like Miss Kilman or Septimus Smith. The characters that cannot control their feelings are in serious trouble. The governing class will keep them away from the world so that they can feel safe. For example, Septimus is being taken away from Rezia because he said that he would kill himself but Septimus killed himself when Sir Bradshaw and his attendants came to take him away. It is clear that Rezia doesn’t want him to go and she would take better care of him than anyone else yet he is being taken away.
So it can be seen that it’s all in the hands of the governing class and they use their power to the extent that they can feel protected. Even Clarissa’s party is class demarcated. There is no Kilman, no Septimus or any other person from a different class. When Clarissa asks Elizabeth to remember the party tonight she doesn’t ask Miss Kilman to come to the party. Miss Kilman who always tries to show has nothing also says “people don’t ask me to parties”. The governing class is responsible for the stability of the society.
Different people in power want to use their ideas to bring reforms. Lady Bruton suggested that people should immigrate to Canada so that the problems of unemployment could be handled; Richard Dalloway’s work on committees of Armenians and Albanians; Sir Bradshaw working with his patients and helping them out to get better though doing this by taking them away from their loved ones or by being a cause for death of innocents which government would say suicide; Hugh Whitbread writing to The Times asking for funds, appealing to public to preserve, to protect and to abate smoke.
Though the governing class does or shows all this good that they are doing to the society I feel that this is all artificial so that people get convinced with their work. There might be some politicians who are working for the good but most of them do it to be popular. The governing class has remained unruffled by the problems of the society. They are the administrators so they ought to make things manageable. These managerial skills are used to keep the society stable and retain power. We have discussed about the society in England in the early 20th century.
The job that women should do in a patriarchal society and how should they always be under man. How Governing class tries to retain its power? What are norms they follow to maintain stability in the society? Now let’s talk about the main character of the novel ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. We will talk about her role and what she herself thinks about the role she has to perform. The connection between the meaning constituted through performance and the meaning constituted through a role one chooses to enact is important when analyzing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.
Dalloway. It is helpful to distinguish between the role Clarissa performs and her split fragmented self. The adult Clarissa clearly performs the role of the “perfect hostess”, though there exists a debate among critics about why she has chosen to enact this particular role. Clarissa tries to equate the performance of this role with her identity, but her attempts to use the role as a substitute for the fixed-essentially the Victorian-sense of self she covets result in emptiness, a lack of fulfillment, and ironically, virtually no self at all.
Clarissa has chosen the role of “Mrs. Dalloway”. This being the title of the novel suggests that Clarissa no longer exists, she is invisible, unknown, unseen and she is now Mrs. Dalloway, she is now Mrs. Richard Dalloway. But there is one more point to be noted that title doesn’t include Richard or Clarissa in it. The title is such that it closely signifies its performed role. Clarissa desperately desires to possess a Victorian, stable, unified self but she knows it is almost impossible for her to be that Victorian self.
Therefore, she tries put one image of herself to the outside world as ‘The Perfect Hostess’ which makes the world feel that she possesses that Victorian self. All this thought process is going on when Clarissa is going to buy flowers for her party. She relates the absence of her unified self with the vitality of the city. She loves London more than the country as it validates her choice of performing the role of perfect hostess. London gives her a sense of stability and order. While walking on the Bond Street Clarissa has become a part of the environment and it has helped to expand her Victorian self.
Clarissa is again forced to question her choice to marry Richard Dalloway when Peter Walsh asks her if she is happy. Peter again tries to make Clarissa reveal herself when she doesn’t want to do that and this was the reason why she didn’t marry Peter. If Elizabeth hadn’t appeared while discussion was going on Clarissa would have to define herself outside her role. Clarissa then tells Peter to come to her party hence restoring her role of being a perfect hostess. Similarly she was forced to think outside her role when she hears about Septimus killing himself.
She compares herself to him because both were sad it’s just that Septimus was sadder than herself. Also she could control herself but Septimus couldn’t, he was insane. Clarissa suddenly remembers that Peter and Sally are waiting for her so she again gets back to her original role. Why did Clarissa marry Richard Dalloway? It was because she felt safe with him. Why does she need to feel safe? The reason behind is that London is a patriarchal society so women doing things that men should do would be termed wrong according to the society.
When Clarissa was thinking about her young age her mother tells her “Don’t run Clarissa, ladies don’t run”. This is a stereotype as it is made general for the ladies not to run. So she is safe doing the role what ladies should be doing and in the patriarchy of Richard Dalloway. London validates her role of The Perfect Hostess. It is this role that exacerbates her sense of lack of a unified self but also providing a sense of stability. All the time during her party Clarissa is very much worried about the party being a success or a failure.
She is really worried about Mrs. Henderson destroying the party but when she sees people laughing and talking she thinks “after all it is not a complete failure”. This shows that she is not enjoying her party rather it is a burden on her. Though she has made the arrangements for the party, dedicated her day in organizing the party and has been very much excited about it still she doesn’t seem very happy during the party. May be it is because she has been ill or maybe she isn’t enjoying throwing the party.
She is making too much effort to perform this role but she decides to hold on to the role as it helps her to immunize herself from the threat of having no self. Clarissa cannot locate a stable unified self in the confines of this role but when she sees around she finds that every person in the party is performing a role outside his/her ordinary self. Clarissa is so much consumed with this role that she can’t even spend some time alone while her party is going on. One moment she is thinking about Septimus and the other she remembers her role so she has to go downstairs to attend her guests.
Thus, in conclusion, the concept of performance is the key to understanding the way gender for Woolf is a social construct stemming for women from their struggle to identify and simultaneously oppose the Victorian ideology forcing them to equate their identity with a corresponding and acceptable Victorian role. In a patriarchal society like England it is difficult for women to think or act outside the box. Woolf belongs to the upper class and she has tried to point some important aspects of the governing class. She has focused on both positive and negative aspects. Upper class tries to retain power; they ignore the sufferings of lower class but this may be because if don’t do that they might not be able to manage the things which is their job.