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Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How do the characters in Mrs. Dalloway show they value order, rhythm, and routine?

Time is both burden and comfort. Making and keeping dates, such as lunches, parties, dinners, and doctors' appointments, tethers the characters to reality and gives them the illusion of control. Lady Bruton values the routine of luncheons and a nap afterward, an old system of order in the upper class. Richard insists Clarissa follow her doctor's routine, though the doctor mentioned the routine only once. This is Richard's way of showing love; doing what he can to keep his wife from becoming ill again. Similarly, Rezia takes Septimus to his appointments to help him return to normalcy. Bradshaw's belief in "proportion" is also a belief in order and routine. The only character who seems to have no routine is Septimus. Since he doesn't have a daily schedule that allows him to interact with others, he speaks mostly to himself. His life is entirely interior and private. Rezia fails to make him notice real things, or interpret them in a way that will connect Septimus to those around him.

How does Hugh Whitbread serve as a secondary antagonist in Mrs. Dalloway?

Hugh prides himself on the good he does, but the reader rarely sees examples of this good. He imagines that others, especially working-class people, are grateful to him. Yet, unlike Clarissa, Peter, and Richard, Hugh doesn't think about what life is like for people on the street, or imagine the challenges they're facing. He believes in showmanship and performance, and in a deep loyalty to England he thinks has been unshaken by the war. He values appearance and expensive clothing. He's also indifferent to women's rights, as shown in his Bourton debate with Sally. Other characters don't understand how Hugh's thinking hasn't adapted after the war. Richard notices Hugh's rudeness to a store employee; Peter thinks well-meaning politicians like Hugh do more harm in their "kindness" than criminals. Hugh is kind only to important civic figures from whom he wants something, and reinforces class divisions that do society more harm than good. Sally believes "no country but England could have produced him." He's the product of an insulated, middle-class lifestyle associated with England. Woolf also indicts her country in her portrayal of Hugh.

How are issues of social class and social standing significant to Mrs. Dalloway's characters?

Social class defines both how people are perceived by others and how they think of themselves. Though class divisions are eroding in the 20th century, London is still divided between the haves and the have-nots. Miss Kilman's class resentment is probably the most acute. She doesn't allow herself to enjoy life the way Clarissa does, partly because she hasn't been afforded as many opportunities. She feels a need to control her worldly desires and deny herself pleasure, a position Elizabeth and Clarissa don't understand. Clarissa feels that Miss Kilman's practicality and feeling of being "in touch with invisible presences" is its own pretense. Through both her mother and her teacher, Elizabeth is becoming aware of class issues and how they affect her as a wealthy young woman. She considers going into a service profession or working in the country, showing that class doesn't have to limit her. Sir William Bradshaw has worked his way into the upper class from a lower class; his father was a tradesman. He doesn't understand why Septimus won't respect a doctor's work or present himself more appropriately. His treatment is also affordable only to the upper classes, making Clarissa an object of envy and scorn for her long treatment escape to the seaside. Woolf shows that the working class and poor can't access treatment as easily, and that even the upper class aren't always happy.

Why does Woolf use declarative, short sentences such as "That is all" and "He could not feel" in between longer sentences as in Sections 15 and 17 in Mrs. Dalloway?

Woolf varies her diction and rhythm to keep the language poetic and flowing, like the water she invokes. Readers will remember a short sentence more easily than a long one. She also cultivates repeated refrains, like "Fear no more," repeated by one character or several. The refrains work like musical choruses, helping the reader remember certain things. Modernist language experimentation allowed characters to speak and think in multiple rhythms, singsong and nonsensical as well as conversational. The short sentences are deceptively simple, carrying multiple meanings, depending on which character is speaking or thinking. For Septimus, "Fear no more" means embracing death; for Clarissa, "Fear no more" means embracing life.

For what purpose does Woolf give the viewpoints of multiple characters in Mrs. Dalloway, during panoramic scenes in Sections 2 and 17, both in London and at Clarissa's party?

The experiences are shared by all, even though they can be intensely personal. The motorcar passing through Piccadilly Circus and the airplane overhead show how strangers unite when they're all witness to the same event. Urban crowding throws everyone together by default; they can't do much about the slow traffic. But they can all experience "the pale light of the immortal presence" in their own way, now that they don't gather in church as often. This scene at the novel's beginning and Clarissa's party at its end bookend the novel by bringing characters together twice. By the time of the party, the reader has gotten to know several of the guests, and learns more about their desires and fears as they interact openly. The scenes also show setting as a significant aspect of character. People behave differently at parties, where they're required to perform and put on a brave face, than during their daily errands and in solitude.

Which characters from Mrs. Dalloway express England's desire for imperialism and empire in other countries, and how does each character fulfill this desire?

Lady Bruton, Peter Walsh, Hugh Whitbread, and Richard Dalloway all have vested interests in empire—the conquering of other countries and making them into British territories. Lady Bruton is patriotic enough that she wants to be "English even among the dead." This image, paired with the Union Jack (England's flag) flying over countries, displays the connection between empire and war. Lady Bruton even pictures herself in battle, "if ever a woman could have worn the helmet and shot the arrow." Peter and Lady Bruton's relationship with India, a country colonized by England, reveals their desire for England to continue to be a world superpower. Events in India, never explicitly discussed, hang over them like a shadow. Peter feels the English government should do more for India. He imagines himself sitting comfortably in England "biliously summing up the ruin of the world." Richard is interested in improving England from home, with public reform. Though he'd be happier in the country, he stays in the city to help pass legislation, such as the bill to help veterans affected by shell shock. Hugh believes in England's supremacy, content in his service job at court "[polishing] the Imperial shoe-buckles." Rather than questioning England, like Peter, Hugh believes whatever his country does is good and right.

How does Mrs. Dalloway function as an elegy, or a lament, for the dead?

Images of death run throughout the novel. Septimus sees Evans singing for the dead at Thessaly and then joins the dead himself. The novel's soliloquies frequently imagine the world after everyone is dead. The figures of Evans and Septimus linger over the novel as ghosts; so do all the soldiers England lost in the war. Septimus imagines a "giant mourner" grieving "legions of men." Clarissa even confesses that she'd imagined Sally was dead. The living come to realize that the English society they all represent, and participate in, allowed millions to die. They are all culpable. When Clarissa thinks of what she can give back to the world, she's thinking of the dead. Her thoughts of Septimus during her party are a kind of elegy. The novel raises the question of what the living owe to the dead. Each character, in his or her own way, tries to answer that question through individual choices.

How do the characters in Mrs. Dalloway deal with survivor's guilt?

Most characters reach for comfort or consolation of some kind. Clarissa realizes the importance of making others happy, so she unites scattered friends for a party. Rezia, exiled from her family, continues creating hats on her own. Lady Bruton and Richard throw renewed energy into their work. Peter upends his life by ending his marriage and starting over with a new lover. They want to make the world as livable a place as possible for other survivors, while respecting the dead. Miss Kilman and Septimus make themselves martyrs who suffer greatly. Miss Kilman denies herself pleasures, with the exception of nurturing Elizabeth. Septimus's post-traumatic stress disorder returns him over and over to vaguely remembered war scenes, dominated mainly by strong feelings and disconnected images rather than specific recollection; his brain is attempting to protect him from trauma. His self-loathing and the feeling that he deserves to die exemplify survivor's guilt. He is convinced he's committed a crime, but he can't articulate what the crime is; perhaps it's his survival where others have died. His "torturers," though he thinks of them as his doctors, may be the dead. The lush figurative language Woolf uses portrays Septimus's fragmented, image-based state of mind.

In Sections 3, 6, 14, and 17 of Mrs. Dalloway, how do music and songs reveal Modernist technique?

The song lyrics that Clarissa, and later Septimus, repeat come from a song of death in Shakespeare's play Cymbeline. The inclusion of only selected lyrics allows Woolf to put Shakespeare's words in her own context, as Modernist interpretations of text often stripped words of context to recreate old phrases as something new. Elizabeth hears military trumpets in the Strand, songs of death turned into songs of patriotism in a startling reversal. The situational irony shows the many contradictions in a postwar world. The old woman's song that Peter hears has nonsensical words, or one-syllable sounds. Yet these syllables have deep meaning to him. Modernists experimented frequently with language, sometimes (like James Joyce) breaking down language altogether. The woman's song comes from a time before language, from within the honesty of the primitive mind.

How do colors and color imagery play a role in Mrs. Dalloway?

Green recurs as the color of fertility, promise, and inspiration. Clarissa and Isabel Pole, muses for Peter and Septimus respectively, wear green dresses. Green imagery usually appears in descriptions of trees, which promise the continued thriving of nature after war devastation. Blue represents the flow of water; the constant of change; the "irrevocable" hour. Sally is often associated with the color blue. Yellow, evoked in the hot sun, represents force and oppression. Clarissa's yellow curtains hide characters from one another. White represents purity and its own kind of oppression. Miss Kilman's white head and white gloves; the white disc the driver of the motorcar holds out to guarantee swift passage. Septimus sees "white things ... assembling behind the railings" when he first pictures Evans. Other characters appear with certain colors frequently. Miss Kilman and Septimus wear brown—drab and uninviting. Bradshaw wears gray, the same color as the motorcar in Piccadilly, as he's austere and falsely welcoming. Lady Bradshaw, at the party, wears gray and silver, colors similar to her husband's. Elizabeth wears pink and fawn (light brown), which fit her light, soft, and shy personality.

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