Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the significance of Peter's pocketknife in Mrs. Dalloway?

Peter feels emotions intensely, and when he becomes overwhelmed, he needs to take action. Sally notices that he opens and shuts the knife when he gets excited, nervous, or anxious. Clarissa also picks up on the pocketknife as a part of his agitation and nerves when he visits her home. Peter opens the knife again when he's headed to Clarissa's party. Seeing people from his past and being open about his feelings trigger a primal impulse he can't express, which is what the knife represents. To Clarissa the knife stands for Peter's "silly unconventionality, his weakness." It's a flaw in his character she can't get past.

How does Mrs. Dalloway explore the issue of confinement?

Clarissa feels trapped inside her narrow bedroom, which represents both death and illness. She also fears the confinement that her choices have trapped her in. Married for a long time, she can't be with Peter or be as free as she likes. She feels the rest of her life had been prescribed for her. Septimus fears confinement in a rest home. As his world closes in, he disappears out the window into death—an escape hatch from a locked room. Rezia feels confined to England after the war reinforced national boundaries and discouraged travel. Confinement can limit both physically and psychologically when one is stuck in a geographic space, or stuck on a certain life path or thought pattern. When Peter and Clarissa wonder about lives not lived, they're considering the confined life that awaits them.

How do Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw act as antagonists in Mrs. Dalloway?

The other characters are united in their goals of living meaningful, independent lives. Clarissa, Septimus, and Rezia also have the goal of healing. Dr. Holmes and Bradshaw appear to want to advance these goals, but actually only thwart it. Clarissa's treatment doesn't address her real problems of melancholy, regret, and loneliness. Septimus is ignored by Dr. Holmes, dismissed by Bradshaw, and driven to his death by both. The values Woolf celebrates—curiosity, mystery, and respect for emotions both negative and positive—aren't valued by either doctor. They both insist treatment is simple, denying the human brain's complexity. In a book that explores women's independence, Lady Bradshaw's loss of personality is treated as a tragedy. The language describes a woman physically disappearing: "squeezed, pared, pruned, drew back, peeped through." Rezia manages to subvert this loss of personality by standing up for herself and her husband to Dr. Holmes.

In Mrs. Dalloway how is Septimus a foil for Clarissa?

Septimus's fantastic flights of imagination resemble a world that Clarissa, who is grounded in reality, can't let herself access. Septimus's reality is more primal, more dangerous. He exemplifies Clarissa's fear that "it was very, very dangerous to live even one day." His function as a foil is to allow the reader to draw further comparisons with the protagonist, Mrs. Dalloway. His character expresses the psychological realities of war in a way Clarissa can't access either. Her gender and class protect her from going to war, but she still feels alien, an observer to reality. When she watches the beginning of her party, she feels like "a stake driven in at the top of the stairs." Clarissa and Septimus are both outsiders. When she hears of his suicide, she feels consoled that others are sad and lonely as well, and feels strength to overcome her own loneliness.

How does Big Ben act as a literary structural device throughout Mrs. Dalloway?

With characters and plot points scattered all over London, the novel finds a uniting force in something everyone does—checking the time. Big Ben is loud enough to hear indoors and out. It also represents England and London, geographic and patriotic forces uniting the characters. The clock, and other clocks, "counselled submission, upheld authority." Time takes a leadership role in the novel, dictating everyone's decisions and movements. The novel is organized by time of day, showing the responsibilities and daily patterns that make up the characters' lives—even the seemingly trivial ones, like having lunch or taking a nap. Woolf almost gave Mrs. Dalloway the title The Hours as a nod to the importance of structured time. Since the Modernist novel is loosely structured, with several detours into fantasy and speculation, the hours marked by Big Ben anchor the plot in a reality the reader recognizes. The strike of the clock frequently interrupts reveries and dreams.

How are repression and behavioral expectations significant to Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway?

Clarissa feels pressure to be the "angel of the house"—a warm, maternal figure and a stellar homemaker. Though she plays this role well, she longs for more freedom. Richard, her husband, deals with repressed emotions when he attempts to express his love for her. He also feels a cultural expectation to get more involved in politics, when he's happier in nature. The Dalloways struggle with playing their defined roles for others. Women in particular are trapped. Clarissa's detractors, like Lady Bruton, feel she's too frivolous and takes advantage of her wealth for seaside recovery sessions. Proper ways for women to behave are changing, and Clarissa doesn't know where she fits. Sexual repression is also significant. Clarissa has felt more excitement and love for Sally than she does for Richard, for whom she feels a deep, abiding affection. But she and Sally are unable to become romantically involved because they simply don't consider it an option. Woolf presents Clarissa's feelings without detailing any of the social repercussions of same-sex relationships, leaving the reader to focus on the truth of the emotion.

In Mrs. Dalloway how do Peter Walsh and Richard Dalloway act as foils for each other?

The two men represent two different ways of surviving in the postwar world. Richard, a member of the traditional Conservative party, represents steadfastness and clinging to the past. His family tradition of public service, which he hopes to pass on to his daughter, shows caring and compassion for others. Richard is also more of a literal thinker who is less fond of poetry and Shakespeare. Peter, the diplomat between jobs, is more impetuous and emotion driven. He represents looking forward into the future of English imperialism. He's spent time in India and has a global perspective. Peter is portrayed as more selfish than Richard, unfaithful to his wife, and possibly emotionally unfaithful to Daisy Simmons as he continues to pursue Clarissa. But he has a fanciful mind, prone to wander, much like Clarissa's mind. While Richard has a steady job despite his desire to move to the country, Peter can't seem to get his life together. Both men subtly compete for Clarissa's attention, causing her to wonder which lifestyle—steady or unpredictable—she wants for herself.

Which Mrs. Dalloway characters represent the next, postwar generation of young women, and how do they do so?

Elizabeth Dalloway and Maisie Johnson are the youngest women in the novel, growing up in the shadow of the war. Upper-class Elizabeth has more career options open to her than women of previous generations, like her mother and Miss Kilman. She can gravitate toward a career that uses her gifts and talents. When Elizabeth considers becoming a doctor, Woolf opens up the possibility that the healing professions will be useful in the war's aftermath. In a time when doctors are needed, the two doctors in the novel fail their patients. Perhaps Elizabeth, with her sensitivity, will do a better job. Elizabeth is also intimidated by the fast-moving city and the progress of technology when she rides through the Strand, although she navigates the city more easily than her mother might have. She is compared to a "pioneer" and "running water," meaning she is fluid and adventurous. Working-class Maisie Johnson is even more overwhelmed by the city, seeing it through an outsider's view as "queer" and "odd." Coming from Scotland, she represents the influx of immigrants and foreign residents new to London. Maisie's horror and feeling of alienation show a postwar generation's feeling of discontent in changed surroundings.

Which character is represented by blue hydrangeas in Mrs. Dalloway, and how are such flowers a fitting choice?

Sally Seton is often pictured with blue hydrangeas. Characters associate Sally with the unusually colored, standout flowers in their memory. They show Sally's unorthodox eye for beauty and her indelible impact on those she meets. Blue is also the color of water, transient and quickly moving, a good representation for a character who moved from house to house in her young life. Flowers are intricately tied to women in Mrs. Dalloway to show women's growth, character development, and sense of place in a heavily masculine world. Peter calls women "so splendid a flower to grow on the crest of human life." Many women grow where they're planted, like Clarissa. Some, like Sally, choose different paths throughout life. Wherever they are, they find a way to beautify their surroundings. Sally's able to grow hydrangeas in her suburban Manchester garden, even though the flowers aren't normally found in the city.

What is the purpose of soliloquy, or dramatic monologue, in Mrs. Dalloway, Sections 2, 8, and 14, and how does the soliloquy reflect Modernist technique?

Soliloquy addresses the audience directly in a more omniscient third person, which is a break from the stream of consciousness limited third-person perspective in most of the book. The soliloquies usually deal with time in the far future. The speaker observes Elizabeth's omnibus from above and the morning London streets from the perspective of eternity. Woolf uses soliloquy to introduce a divine force that unites all the characters; the speaking voice may be the voice of time itself. In the Modernist perspective, when big change happens in the world, narrative structure needs to change, too. World War I ruptured the narrative sense of time, and writers portrayed time as divided into pieces rather than flowing seamlessly. After World War I, the planet was more global than ever, and people were thinking on a larger scale, which required a more all-encompassing narrative voice. The voice also shows the fractured perspectives of Modernism, in which reality isn't taken at face value, and the imagery reflects points of view the characters themselves can't see (omniscient third person).

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