Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How do increasingly technological modes of transportation (omnibuses, cars, and airplanes) affect Mrs. Dalloway's characters?

Richard notices the notorious traffic in Piccadilly Circus. It's gotten heavier since the war; more buses show the population explosion. Lady Bruton's solution is to encourage Londoners to emigrate and advance the cause of empire. London is going into the future, willingly or not. Characters are both fascinated and alarmed by the airplane overhead. Maisie Johnson is horrified; Mrs. Dempster is curious. The plane becomes "an aspiration; a concentration" like the postwar future itself. It represents the unknowable, the divine force that preoccupies the main characters. Elizabeth's omnibus journey shows an adventurous spirit. She's seeing what life in London can offer, and she's mingling with the public. The cloud passing over the sky, right before she decides to get on the Westminster omnibus to go home, has an air of unknown menace. Transportation carried the risk of danger and death in a new way. Machines represent a new world with unfettered possibility, good and bad. Machines can inspire travel and character growth, as they do for Elizabeth. They can also cause more deaths than ever before, as Septimus recalls when he sees the airplane. Machines also reinforce class distinctions. The mysterious motorcar is allowed to bypass other traffic, showing that class and royalty still have privileges over the public, even after the war.

In Section 17 of Mrs. Dalloway, how does reuniting with Sally at the party show Clarissa the link between past and present?

Sally's presence shows Clarissa that the pleasures of the past don't have to be over; they can be rekindled in a different form. Relationships may change as people grow older, but they can still find common ground. In a continuance of the novel's death imagery, Clarissa confesses she'd imagined Sally's life ending "in some awful tragedy; her death; her martyrdom." Death is the price Clarissa pictures Sally paying for her young independence. Many have paid the price of death, after all. In fact, Sally has paid a different price: she's changed her name and her lifestyle to fit a middle-class image, despite her youthful hatred of the selfishness that image represented. She's begun "conversion," but she seems happy.

Why does Mrs. Dalloway's Septimus compare himself to a drowned sailor?

The novel's nautical imagery evokes how uncontrollable bodies of water can be. The image of a shipwreck shows the power of vehicles to destroy, a power alluded to by the cars and planes in London. Septimus believes he's an outcast from the world: an observer, like Clarissa, of his own life. Septimus has been on a journey overseas, and in an important way, his soul didn't survive. He pictures himself "lying on a cliff with the gulls screaming over him" helpless and lacking control over his fate. Rezia tries to help him take control, but Septimus believes her efforts won't work. The doctors, with their power and authority, have "drowned" him. He feels dead long before he actually dies, a war casualty that few observers recognize. Septimus also has a tendency to think in poetic metaphors, a reflection of his past as a poet and reader.

For what purpose does the narrative in Sections 2, 14, and 17 of Mrs. Dalloway, flash forward into the far future?

In the beginning of the novel, as the motorcar passes through the street, the narrator imagines a time when symbols of England's empire, such as the car and the flag, will be lost to "the ruins of time." The image evokes long-ago empires. Rezia thinks of ancient Rome when she sees the park, as well, "the country [reverting] to its ancient shape." The military music playing in the Strand makes Woolf's narrator think of all the other lives that war will take in the future. The procession—both a literal procession of soldiers and the procession of time—"would wrap them all about and carry them on" like a glacier on ice. (Again, water surfaces as an unstoppably powerful force.) The novel uses time as both a fixed authority (the clock) and a fluid entity (the past and possible future the characters imagine for themselves). Death is inevitable, the narrative says, so humans might as well reckon with it. As Clarissa thinks, "Death was defiance ... There was an embrace in death." Death doesn't have to be associated with despair; it can be a powerful part of life, the end that gives life meaning.

How are sleep and dreams important to the characters in Mrs. Dalloway?

Both Clarissa and Lady Bruton rest after work and meals. As they dream, they remember the sounds, sights, and smells of the past. Sleep is a chance to escape, to go back into memories or forward into an imagined future. Peter and Septimus also rest, and their evocative dreams reveal aspects of their personality that weren't clear to them awake. Peter's dream illuminates what he's really looking for—a home to go to, a woman to help him through life, a divine goodness to answer his questions. Septimus's dreams often blend with his waking life, reinforcing his trauma as Evans reappears, and reminding him that his life is forever changed.

How do Mrs. Dalloway's characters struggle with the renunciation of desire?

Peter, Miss Kilman, and Clarissa try to reconcile their physical desires with their goals of living a meaningful, examined life. Peter is led by desire, in some ways. He's compromised his career to marry Daisy Simmons; he returns to Clarissa knowing she's (possibly happily) married. Peter and Clarissa want to strike a balance between duty and desire. They wonder what accomplishments they have to show for their lives and what personal sacrifices they have made in the face of war. Are their desires good for them, or bad? Richard also balances duty and desire by living in the city, despite his love for the country, to pass important legislation. Miss Kilman is an example of how someone can renounce desire completely, denying oneself even the pleasure of food and how this complete renunciation doesn't solve any problems.

Which specific past moments do Clarissa and Septimus repeatedly return to, and how do these events become part of the "continuous present" in Mrs. Dalloway?

Clarissa thinks constantly about her summer at Bourton. The moment she returns to is her kiss with Sally, and Peter's interruption of the kiss. Though she can't remember her old emotion, she recalls the physical feelings—growing "cold with excitement"—and the image of the rose Sally held. She and Septimus both have memories imprinted on their bodies and shown through physical action and reaction. Septimus returns to Evans to both the moment of his death and simply to his face and image. He sees Evans in the faces of the living and tries to warn Evans of his impending death on the battlefield. Colored by trauma, Septimus's memories focus more on pattern and image, rather than event and narrative. Evans becomes one of the "torturers" Septimus describes.

What is the significance of same-sex intimate relationships to Mrs. Dalloway's characters?

Clarissa and Septimus both have emotionally intimate relationships with people of the same sex, Clarissa with Sally and Septimus with Evans. They spend the novel trying to sort out what these relationships mean to them, friendship or something more? Sally and Evans help Clarissa and Septimus discern what love means to them, and what they want from the people around them. Clarissa enjoys Sally's intellectual combativeness, appreciates her unorthodox beauty, and admires her courage. Sally, poor and without significant family ties, is in many ways the opposite of wealthy, connected, cautious Clarissa. Evans and Septimus bond through the shared, forced experience of war. They're able to be carefree with each other, especially since they're isolated from others they love. Their connection is more primal and animalistic, since both are quiet men. Septimus was able to enjoy a freedom with Evans thathe shares with Rezia only toward the end of his life.

How are trees significant symbols in Mrs. Dalloway?

Trees represent a life force larger than the characters themselves; fertile and eternal. Their function in the novel is similar to that of flowers, but trees are more removed from mankind, more godlike. People can give each other flowers, for instance, but they can't necessarily uproot a tree and make an effective gift out of it. Clarissa believes the moments she treasures are "buds on the tree of life." Septimus is both in awe of and afraid of the life trees represent. He feels leaves are"connected by millions of fibres with his own body." His experience of nature is religious, worshipful. When Peter imagines "spectral presences" in the woods, he's thinking of a nurturing divine force represented by trees.

How does Clarissa approach old age, and what does this approach reveal about her character and the nature of time in Mrs. Dalloway?

Clarissa approaches old age with both dread and optimism. She's apprehensive about death, as most people are, and doesn't quite comprehend its reality. When she considers old age she feels "an exquisite suspense," comparing herself to a diver about to plunge into the sea, and to a plant feeling "the shock of a passing oar." The nautical metaphors emphasize her relationship to nature, as a mortal being at the mercy of forces (like war) beyond her control. Clarissa's contemplation of death shows, again, that the experience of time is subjective. As she thinks about what's to come, she feels time moving very quickly. Because she can't stop the process of aging, she decides to enjoy every moment of life while she can.

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