Mrs Dalloway, criticise social systems

In what ways, and how successfully, does Mrs Dalloway illustrate Woolf’s intention to use her novel to ‘criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense’? (Woolf, A Writers Diary, 1923)

Woolf’s novel is a critique of post war society to the very fabric of its pages. She uses a variety of tools such as the varying perspectives of characters, which after the First World War, have come to see how fatally flawed the British Empire is. There are those who outwardly champion English tradition, such as Aunt Helena and Lady Bruton, yet Woolf insinuates that blame falls upon all who blindly accept the system, after discovering that Septimus has taken his life, Clarrisa who often herself feels oppressed by society believes that, “Somehow it was her disaster-her disgrace.” Within this essay I will look closely at the characters and techniques Woolf uses to depict the flaws within this early nineteenth-century society, interpreting if even the protagonist of the of the novel Clarissa, is as guilty as the oppressors of the novel, for tolerating and abiding by there class conformities.

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The First World War brought about the disillusionment of the British Empire, Woolf’s novel set in 1923, shows that post war society is at war within itself. The people of Britain are torn, many wishing to destabilise the forced class structure, which only benefits a small number of people. Woolf leaves a firm impression within the novel that although the war is over its conscriptions and authorities are still in place. As Michael H Whitworth says in his book, Virginia Woolf, ‘The novels three main characters, Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter are all, to different extents and in different ways, outsiders, all resistant to the patterns imposed by authority.’ As the quote suggests, these three main characters are all subject to a constructed social conformity, this illustrated clearly within Woolfs relation of Septimus’ suicide.

The description, ‘now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.” These two quotes, coerce and define the argument, that many after the war felt the oppression of authority more heavily upon there shoulders. Septimus’s character suggests that true happiness can be found not only in death, but in the freedom that it gives from conformity and oppression.

Septimus is a tool Woolf uses to convey the more intense and flawed aspects of the British post war society. His suicide is a reflection not only upon William Bradshaw, but also on a social class, which condones, and lives within a world that allows oppression and cruelty to go unchallenged. Although conscription has been abolished, and the war is over, Septimus is still expected to conform to the expectations of a society, he no longer believes in. On the surface it may seem that Woolf’s novel is speaking to the effects of ‘shell shock’ on an ex solider, yet Septimus is a victim of naivety and neglect. His doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, wishes to “convert” him into a man that he deems appropriate for his society. Woolf often uses Septimus as Clarissa’ double, both are oppressed, Septimus a working class man under the dictatorship of Bradshaw, and Clarissa although belonging to a higher social class is under the oppression of both her circumstances and gender. The treatment of Septimus at the hands of Bradshaw is a direct critique of the post war mentality, yet are characters such as Clarissa and Peter Walsh not equally as guilty. They both understand that life after the war has altered the British Empire permanently, former social constructions are crumbling and yet they live within a society that is blind to these necessary changes. By contributing to this flawed society, are they guilty by association. Making it possible that Clarissa Dalloway herself is a critique of the social system.

Clarissa Dalloway although the wife of a politician and a member of upper class society, still wields very little control over her own life and the world around her. Clarissa is one of the few characters within the novel to understand that the war has altered the British social structure permanently. Even though the war with Germany is over she understands that a war is developing within the British Empire. As Anna Snaith and Michael H Whitworth say in there book, Locating Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place, “The two questions Mrs Dalloway asks may appear to be separate: ‘Is the war really over?, and ‘What right does he have to say “must” to me?” Here we see Woolf linking the war that is raging within British society to the change in gender beliefs. The question ‘Is the war really over?’ speaks to the anarchy that is developing within the lower classes, who no longer wish to live beneath the heel of the rich and powerful. Regardless of Clarissa’s financial standings she is still victim of male oppression, therefore she is able to empathize with the discord among the lower classes. The shift in British society allows Clarissa to question why a man should be able to order her about simply because he is a man. The modal verb “must” being the example within the quote. Clarissa is beginning to acknowledge not only the change in social structure, but also the change in gender relations. This is an example of how Woolf is using Clarissa in a positive light, she becomes a tool that critiques the gender oppression within post war society.

Many of Woolf’s characters stand on both the inside and outside of society, at the same time. On a financial and social standpoint, Clarissa is very much a key component within her society. Yet true power is always just out of her grasp, again as Whitworth displays in his book, Virginia Woolf, “In class terms, Clarissa is an insider, but her role as a politicians wife ‘Mrs Richard Dalloway” places her just outside the circle of authority.” This quote directly speaks to Clarissa’s role as a hostess, her see artificial contribution to society she actually has no influence over. Her lack of power is what leads her to empathise with Septimus so completely. When learning of his death from Mrs Bradshaw, she eventually comes to understand why Septimus would choose death, “She felt very like him-the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.” On the surface it appears that Clarissa is unfeeling and cruel, yet she recognizes that Septimus chose death over oppression and conveys a certain level of admiration, as he claims the freedom that in life, neither of the characters possessed. Woolf unites these characters conveying that oppression in post war society was not confined to the poor. Her characters embody a sense of righteousness as both believe themselves now entitled to the freedom that has been withheld, thereby criticising the social oppression that is shared within gender and class.

Although class and gender oppression is a clearly being criticised within British society, Woolf also hints that freedom can be found through sexual liberation. Many of her characters display a trait of homosexuality, making her them as outsiders in there own social groups. Shown here again in Whitworth’s book, “In terms of gender identity, Septimus is also an outsider: physically, he was “weakly” before the war, though he “developed manliness” during it sexually, his affectionate relationship with his officer, Evans, suggests a homosexual element in his character.” Here Woolf shows that Septimus becomes a man through embracing his sexual needs. Being Homosexual may have been Septimus grasp of freedom and with the death of Evans he reverted back into an oppressed working class boy, helping us to further understand his mental fragility.

Septimus is not the only character in the book to find freedom through sexual experimentation. Peter Walsh, the chaotic spurned suitor of Clarissa, also is hinted to be homosexual. His character also subtly suggests an underlying violent nature, which Whitworth again supports, “The implications of sexual violence are undeniable”, showing that Peter may seek his liberation in a more sinister form. Although Woolf depicts Peter as oppressed by his emotions, the audience would struggle to feel the same level of compassion as they do for the character Septimus, as Peter often comes across as a spoilt child unable to control his mood swings. This could be construed as a less obvious criticism of the Middle Class man, who cannot determine his own personality.

Clarissa often ponders the events of her past, her refusal of Walsh’s proposal and her marriage to the reliable Richard Dalloway. One character in particular, who often drifts to the forefront of Clarissa’s mind is Sally Seton, for the majority of the novel she is simply seen through Clarissa’s imagination. Yet when both are present at the party that evening it becomes clear that neither of the women have forgotten that secret kiss they shared so long ago. In Patricia Moran’s book, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Trauma, she notes that, “Woolfs emphasis is on the forbidden sight and the curiosity, followed by and shrouded in subsequent shame and silence.” Their adolescent fling was there particular way of defying authority, but eventually shame became more important than there feelings and the women entered into passionless marriages. Even to this day Sally Seton places Clarissa before her husband and five children when counting her blessings. Woolf shows that social expectations made it impossible for the romance between the two young ladies two blossom, if they had acted upon there feelings they would have been shunned from a society that does not accept anything that they don’t understand.

The summer of 1890, depicts a different Bourton to the one the characters reside in, within the present day. It appears to be a place of freedom and sexual prowess. Clarissa is young and free, the war is many years away and she has multiple suitors, of both the male and female gender. This depiction of life is a very contrasting to the description we see of present day London, the crucial factor being the destabilization of the British Empire, people know longer feel the security they once did. As Whitworth notes, “One alternative is glimpsed in the 1890’s. Bourton is presented as a place and time of freedom and possibilities, an Edenic location free from authoritarian categories of the present day London. Its freedom is imagined particularly as a sexual freedom seen in Clarissa’s intimate friendship with Sally Seton and in Clarissa’s to choose between possible male partners” This can be supported by the fact that the reflection of society thirty years prior is a more stable and brighter version than of the one in the present day. Woolf appears to be criticizing the fact that society has declined, rather than improving and becoming more civilized, it is a place of social and gender prejudice. Yet were these prejudices already in place and did it take the impact of the war to open societies eyes to the changes that need to be made for the greater good. If so then Woolf is both criticizing the sexual prejudice of society, and the way in which it took a war for people to start seeing the flaws that made the infrastructure of their society so

Richard Dalloway is the antithesis of Clarissa in almost every manner. Although he is far from cruel of sinister he is inadvertently an advocate for her and his daughters Elizabeth’s suppression. He enjoys that women need him, and unlike Septimus and Clarissa he is a champion of traditional English beliefs. Yet he himself is also suppressed by his own inner conflict, as when he attempts to relate his feelings of love to Clarissa, however he cannot bring himself to express the sentiment. Clarissa’s role as Mrs Richard Dalloway, is a false portrayal of her personality. As Whitworth again suggests in his book, Virginia Woolf, “While her role as a hostess is not, for her, a matter of life and death, it nevertheless requires her to focus sharply on the external world, at the expense of the inner person…’Mrs Richard Dalloway is an automaton, operating simply by reflex.” This showing that by choosing reliability and steadfastness, the two most honorable traits in Richard’s character, she is compromising her own. However Richard does not see Clarissa’s role as a hostess as a suppression of her personality, he believes women should not be independent, as he shows with his attitude towards his daughter Elizabeth. If she were a man, Richard would have supported his daughter in hunting for a job and spurning many suitors, but he simply cannot see, his backward thinking is hindering his daughter’s future, he is a blind villain. I believe Woolf uses Richard Dalloway to show how deeply ingrained sexist and social beliefs are within this post war society, he does not see that the British social system is collapsing and no longer tolerated by the masses.

In conclusion I believe Woolf portrays the prejudices of her time through each of her character’s lives. Septimus is a victim of authority, an authority that has been established and passed down through generations. There are a few characters within the novel who see that this authority is being challenged and yet they live within and contribute to the social structure anyway. Clarissa herself is guilty of this, although she entertains thoughts of independence, the role as a hostess and loyal wife is to deeply ingrained and she cannot break free from tradition. Within the novel, Septimus is the only one who truly gains freedom but at the cost of his life. Woolf essentially is pointing out a flawed world wherein being different makes you an outsider and the only route to freedom is through extreme measures. Septimus chose death over a bleak existence and Clarissa on the other hand chose to conform by marrying Richard Dalloway, choosing stability over passion. The world that Woolf depicts is one of either conformity or exile, hence Clarissa’s respect for Septimus, for defying a society which she succumbed to. Furthermore, Woolf makes clear, that British Empire is blind to its own faults, characters such as Bradshaw see themselves as honorable men of tradition, when they are simply self centered and unseeing. The post war society shown through the world created by Woolf is one of intolerance and blind ignorance.


Moran Patricia: Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Trauma (New York ; Houndmills, Basingstoke and Hampshire : Palgrave Macmillan 2007 1st ed.)

Snaith Anna, Whitworth Michael: Virginia Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place (Published Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan 2007)

Whitworth Michael H: Virginia Woolf, (Oxford, New York, Oxford University press, 2005)

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