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Mrs. Dalloway | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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How do the multiple points of view serve Mrs. Dalloway's plot?

Mrs. Dalloway is a book about postwar London as much as it is a book about a woman throwing a party. Large-scale issues are shown to be interdependent with everyday issues. No one acts in isolation. Woolf shows that people are infinitely complex; even Hugh Whitbread and the doctors, who may be greedy and selfish, have reasons for doing what they do. Backstories for characters like Septimus, Sally, and Rezia show everyone's past bleeds into their present. Scenes often fade from one perspective to another, showing how little strangers know about each other. Peter, for instance, thinks Septimus and Rezia are only in a lover's quarrel. Septimus, at the same time, sees Evans's face in Peter. Londoners' multiple views on the motorcar in Piccadilly show their diverse aspirations for England. Clarissa despairs that she can't really know others; Peter imagines stories for people he sees on the street based on their clothing and demeanor. By showing the inner thoughts of each character, Woolf makes the reader sympathize with everyone for a little while.

How is the London urban setting significant to Mrs. Dalloway's Modernist viewpoint?

Urban crowding began in earnest after World War I. Soldiers returned from the war and started families, leading to a population explosion. Advances in transportation made cars and buses more popular. Mrs. Dalloway's Piccadilly Circus and Regent's Park scenes show many different people occupying the same space—the rich and the working-class, children and adults, English residents and people from abroad. The modern world looks different from the old, community-based world, like the togetherness Clarissa and her friends experienced at Bourton. The urban setting contributes to many characters' sense of alienation. Rezia is overwhelmed by the city; Peter is delighted and unnerved by its organization; Elizabeth feels both lost and expectant as she rides the omnibus by herself. The sense of being alone with one's thoughts in a crowd, lonely even though surrounded by people, is one that preoccupies the characters in Mrs. Dalloway and shows the fracturing of communities as cities grow and change.

How does Mrs. Dalloway approach the diminishing role of the church and religion after World War I?

Woolf shows there are many ways to have faith. Miss Kilman is the only devoutly religious character, but others look down on her, and even her student Elizabeth doesn't seem to subscribe to her beliefs. Miss Kilman clearly finds consolation in religion after the upset of the war, and she returns to the old institution of Westminster Abbey (site of Big Ben). As Miss Kilman walks past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, readers are reminded of war's costs. In fact, the war caused such a shift away from Christianity that Modernist writers tackled the church directly. As the man in front of St. Paul's Cathedral remembers, the church is a gathering place in that "the cathedral ... invites you to membership of a society." A shift away from religion means a move from community toward loneliness and isolation, and Mrs. Dalloway considers isolation's effects through its lonely characters. Clarissa and Septimus both believe in forces larger than themselves, in place of a traditional God. Septimus uses the word God, but his belief is expressed through nature. Clarissa treasures transcendent moments as "flowers of darkness" and feels grateful for her earthly experiences. Flowers, to her, represent a beauty humankind can't create. Peter observes her "atheist's religion of doing good after the sake of goodness," which Clarissa adopted after the tragedy of her sister's death. The tragedy may help explain her antipathy toward religion, which she feels is a shortcut.

How are tears significant in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway?

Clarissa believes "this late age of the world's experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears." A new era requires a new way to express emotion. Woolf's focus on the importance of the inner life allows her to reveal both when characters cry and when they want to cry. Peter feels he needs to hold back his tears until nobody can see. He thinks crying is "the privilege of loneliness." Clarissa and Septimus also weep freely. Tears are connected with the ability of characters to do as they choose. They represent loss and change, the "tides in the body." The water imagery shows that tears are as natural as tides. Loss hangs so heavily over the book that the characters rarely speak about it in dialogue; they only cry privately.

How does war imagery play a role in Sections 2, 7, 15, and 17 of Mrs. Dalloway?

War imagery crops up in surprising places. London "rushes her bayonets into the sky." Lady Bruton dreams of "commanding battalions." Septimus imagines Thessaly is dead while he sits in the park. Clarissa imagines a backfiring car to be a pistol. Men on Piccadilly Circus look loyal enough to go "into the cannon's mouth." Even the airplane, spelling out letters, reminds viewers of war machines. The image of the flag recurs throughout. Londoners watching the motorcar think "of the dead, of the flag, of Empire." Rezia imagines a flag to honor Septimus after his death. Characters see the aftereffects of war constantly. Violence invades their otherwise peaceful lives. Septimus's suicide is the only violent act in the book, but Woolf shows that war's repercussions last for years, even after the fighting is over. The military troops marching in the street demonstrate that Britain won't feel like a nation at peace for a long time.

What does British royalty signify to Mrs. Dalloway's characters in Sections 2 and 17, and why is that representation significant?

British royalty signifies authority and community. Peter reflects that all Clarissa's partygoers are connected by "English society" when he sees the prime minister in attendance. The different people in Piccadilly Circus unite at the possibility of seeing a member of the royal family or a high-ranking official in the motorcar. Royalty is also fading in importance, as people like Lady Bruton and Richard feel more willing to speak up for what they need in government. Lady Bruton and Aunt Helena Parry represent an older England, when royalty and empire were entwined. Woolf shows that the English government, including its royal leaders, should have done better at taking care of its veterans. She also demonstrates the dangers of revering royalty too highly. Septimus went to war for an England represented by ancient monarchy, based on the Edwardian and Elizabethan England he read about in books.

How do Mrs. Dalloway's women prove or disprove Peter Walsh's point that "women live much more in the past than [men] do"?

The upper-class women in the novel often have more leisure time on their hands to reflect. Since they don't participate as actively in moving society forward into the future, they can be guardians of the past. Older women, like Mrs. Dempster and Aunt Helena Parry, have rich pasts to draw from and remember. The men in the novel seem to look forward more than back, except for Septimus, who sees no way out of his past experiences. Clarissa imagines Peter's own selfishness and egotism as "the river which says on, on, on," and moves forward at others' expense. She admits she's guilty of egotism as well. Woolf believed the narrative technique of stream of consciousness was an essentially feminine form, in its focus on the inner life and revelation of great meaning in small details. Water images, which represent the past and future, can also stand for female fertility and a way of driving the future onward. Woolf's women live more in the past because she believes women are the chroniclers of history. Peter compares the city of London itself to a woman changing from a day to an evening dress. The divine energy in his dream is also feminine and connected to the past.

Why does Clarissa describe her parties as "an offering," and how does this relate to Septimus's suicide in Mrs. Dalloway?

Clarissa's social efforts are their own kind of art. Her refrain of calling out throughout the book to "Remember my party tonight!" is as regular as Big Ben. Though few characters pay attention to her reminder in the moment, they all attend. The large crowd at her party brings many characters together and shows how they've transformed. By bringing people together, Clarissa can "attempt to communicate" the way Septimus does with his death. She, like her husband, wants to communicate love but isn't sure how. Septimus has made his own kind of offering; although he wants to end his life, he realizes much of it has been good, and he leaves his wife with happy memories. In a way Septimus also sets Rezia free, though not in the way she would have chosen. After Clarissa contemplates Septimus's death, she leaves her private thought and goes to rejoin her guests. She realizes they're each fighting their own private battles. As she expressed to Peter in their youth, since the human race is "chained to a sinking ship," its citizens should "decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can." Clarissa's party is a way to decorate the dungeon and be kind to others as a way out of despair that Septimus never found.

How does Septimus's "plunge" into death in Mrs. Dalloway encourage Clarissa's own "plunge" into her present life?

Though Clarissa isn't overtly contemplating suicide, she's feeling depression and the effects of age. She wants to make a mark on the world and let someone know how much she's loved life. Throughout the novel Clarissa has tried and failed to communicate with Peter, with her husband, and with herself about what she really wants and needs. Instead of the "plunge" she hopes for in the novel's first section, she's taken tentative steps. Water imagery continues to represent unwilling change; Clarissa at the party is "brushed" with age like a "mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun ... over the waves." She knows her death is as inevitable as the sunset. For her and for many others, the most courageous act is to go on living after the war. The juxtaposition between Septimus's violent act in the hot sun and Clarissa's quiet contemplation in the moonlight is a large tonal shift between the two characters. As Clarissa watches the old woman across the street go to bed, she thinks of what she still has to look forward to in her old age. Afterward, she has the courage to talk to the married Sally Seton for the first time.

How do the characters in Mrs. Dalloway express appreciation for physical beauty?

Rezia continues to make hats after moving to London. She puts care into her craft, adorning the hats with flowers—signs of life. As an exhausted caregiver who's longing to create life of her own, Rezia makes hats and clothing her offering. Her work helps Septimus see joy in the concrete. Clarissa appreciates the beauty of the flower shop. Her memories are lush and specific, as if she can still picture the images of the past perfectly. Though she cares "more for her roses than for the Armenians," she realizes the importance to health and healing of physically beautiful surroundings. She feels renewed looking at her evening dress in its silver and green, which are the colors of the "sky and branches" Peter sees in his dream. Septimus has a fascination with physical beauty, and he sees beauty even in things that no one else would notice. Beauty tethers him to the world around him when nothing else can. After the war's destruction, he hears the trees saying "We welcome ... we accept ... we create."

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