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Mrs. Dalloway | Context

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Sections in the Original Text

Virginia Woolf originally divided Mrs. Dalloway into 12 sections rather than chapters. The sections, indicated by line breaks, helped keep the continuous flow of the narrative without the stop that a chapter break typically provides. The 12 sections align with the 12 numbers on the face of the clock. The breaks do not match hour by hour with the narrative, however, and are not preserved in all editions.

From Edwardianism to Modernism

King Edward VII's death in 1910 signaled the end of the late Victorian age in England. Queen Victoria had died in 1901, and Britain began to grow more liberal. Religion's influence faded. Women took positions of authority, and reformers agitated for better treatment of the poor. Radical thinkers such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein shaped the changing cultural landscape. Technology such as radio and television increased connection to the world. The former classist system, favoring wealth and prestige, looked to be on its way out.

For writers these changes showed in their styles and topics. Instead of chronicling the past, they turned their attention to the inner lives of unorthodox men and women. Rather than telling a straightforward story, they wrote in soliloquy (a type of extended monologue in which characters express their thoughts aloud when alone or think to themselves when not). These authors tended to use complex language that defied interpretation.

Virginia Woolf agreed with many of her contemporaries that a new postwar world demanded a new style of writing, more adaptable and tuned to human psychology. Writers like Woolf, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust experimented with a storytelling style that presented characters' thoughts and conscious minds in a continuous flow. This style, called stream of consciousness, introduced a new way of reading for a new era.

Woolf remembered the past, even while looking to the future. Her Modernist techniques reveal the human mind's tendency to process traumatic memories through fragments and flashbacks, and human uncertainty in the face of rapid change. Book reviewer Ralph Thompson said of her work, "Mrs. Woolf is nearest perfection when dealing with the past or with a present that has already begun to lose itself in the past. Then she is near perfection indeed."

World War I and Its Impact

World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918. Britain emerged no longer a world superpower, with the United States and the Soviet Union surpassing Britain in authority. The war was longer and bloodier than anyone expected. Britain's veterans, those who survived, had faced horrific conditions in muddy, rat-infested trenches. War machines became more sophisticated, and jet aircraft flew overhead. The British weren't sure what would happen next, but they knew nothing would ever be the same again.

Mrs. Dalloway deals directly with the plight of veterans through the character of Septimus Warren Smith and explores how the anxiety and alienation caused by the war affects characters from all walks of life. The novel explores shell shock (now called post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]), an illness often observed in war veterans, and its devastating effects. The characters' confused responses to Septimus's symptoms, and to his suicide, show the government's, and the average citizen's, struggle and failure to meet the needs of war veterans.

Woolf's Mental Illness

Woolf's cycling periods of depression and mania led to multiple treatments, often involving rest and a lack of human contact or mental stimulation. She was invested in the plight of so-called mad characters in a time when mental illness was stigmatized. In Mrs. Dalloway Clarissa Dalloway's despair and Septimus Warren Smith's flashbacks shed light on the minds of the mentally ill. The well-meaning but ultimately ineffective doctors in the novel reflect Woolf's own experience with inadequate treatment.

Women's Shifting Roles

Woolf and her sister, Vanessa, were not content with serving tea to male guests. They participated fully in intellectual discussions with the Bloomsbury Group. Their unorthodox living arrangements—several men and women to one house—and Woolf's intimate female relationships reflected a break from the more conservative Victorian era.

However, Woolf was still frustrated by the limited roles available for women. She resented being unable to attend college and believed women were unequal to men in marriage. She was also frustrated that women's lives, often confined to the domestic sphere, were regarded as trivial by male intellectuals. Mrs. Dalloway focuses on the inner worlds of several women, giving them depth and a broader context. Clarissa's calm but less than passionate marriage to Richard Dalloway may reflect roles in Woolf's own marriage.

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