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Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does the structure of Mrs. Dalloway reflect both visual art and the growing media of film in the 1920s?

Mrs. Dalloway is a book full of vivid, colorful visual descriptions of scenes in the characters' imagination. The scenes present themselves like paintings, images of the sea, the sky, or of London itself. Woolf shows the powerful effect images can have on our minds. Peter notices the changes in London through a set of images he's loosely connected to when he notes "there was design, art, everywhere." The images don't move the plot forward or, in some cases, connect to the plot at all. They slow the story down. The narrative doesn't march forward realistically; it meanders from place to place. This emphasis on picture and pattern over drama and straightforward plotting makes the novel resemble art as much as storytelling. Film, fairly new in the 1920s, is an image-related medium that can play with multiple perspectives. Mrs. Dalloway's experimentation shows the intersection of new art forms in the 20th century.

How do Mrs. Dalloway's characters put on performances for Clarissa's party in Section 17, and what does this tell Clarissa about their inner lives and the party itself?

The relentless striking of the clock throughout the novel, juxtaposed with everyday tasks, shows the bravery it takes just to get through the day. Ellie Henderson's nerves when she arrives at the party and her eagerness to please, for instance, show that engagement is difficult. Clarissa considers everyone's social selves versus their private selves: "every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another" during the party. Clarissa herself is "at her worst—effusive, insincere," according to Peter. Her social self moves through the party lightly, "lolloping on the waves." Her private self is genuine, and she realizes that part of this genuineness comes with age. Older people, she thinks, are more comfortable talking than dancing; more honest about their feelings, and less inclined to be clever. She recognizes that sharing one's true feelings is a courageous act.

How does Mrs. Dalloway evoke the Modernist idea of subjective reality (a reality that people create for themselves)?

Different people pay attention to different aspects of London. Septimus notices the dogs and the trees; Miss Kilman notices the church; Peter notices the troops; Richard notices the poor. The citizens' interpretation of the city says far more about character than it does about setting. The narrator points out in Peter's dream that reality is what one makes it. People can imagine things into being. Peter imagines the life and habits of the young woman he follows, and the reader never learns whether his thoughts about her are true or not, because the objective truth doesn't matter to the story. Septimus's distorted reality is presented as respectfully and honestly as anyone else's. When Rezia keeps his papers and drawings, she's honoring that reality.

How does Mrs. Dalloway include the fantasy or fantastic elements typical of Modernist novels?

Septimus's rich imagination manifests a world that is beyond London, where dogs turn into men and trees are as conscious as people. His personification of flowers and nature, and his ability to visualize music, show that his consciousness is open to fantasy. The regular water metaphors—of sea, divers, and shipwrecks—add an otherworldly element to the novel; for instance, the "brisk, sea-salted air" of Clarissa and Peter's intimacy. The time jumps from past to present and takes the narrative in unexpected directions. The references to imaginary women, or the divine feminine, create an ethereal sense of a godlike character watching over London.

How does Mrs. Dalloway employ the Modernist technique of unreliable narrators?

Characters often offer opinions about other characters they disagree with or dislike. But each character is given an opportunity to express his or her own point of view, a chance to defend oneself. Readers see inside the minds of Sir William Bradshaw, Hugh Whitbread, and Ellie Henderson, who are all disliked by the novel's main characters. The novel allows readers to draw their own conclusions about who's telling the truth, and whether the objective truth even matters. In a realist sense Septimus's version of events is unreliable. He has committed no crime, though he insists he has; his entire interview with Bradshaw relies on Rezia to tell the truth. Clarissa's memories of her summer with Sally are consumed by love and feeling, so she may not be recalling the facts correctly. But in the end, Clarissa's subjective truth is the one that matters to her.

How does Mrs. Dalloway show the difference between the clock's time and the subjective human experience of time?

Clock time, or Greenwich mean time, represents authority and order, and the characters are grateful. But the war has upended the traditional sense of authority. Citizens are beginning to doubt the power of the British Empire to keep them safe. Mrs. Dalloway's focus on the interior life shows how much can happen in 12 hours. Plot-wise, little actually changes for the characters, except for Septimus and Rezia. Consciousness-wise, the main characters go through a great deal of change in one day. For most of them, the day isn't even unusual. They simply go through their daily routines. Some, like Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter, return over and over to moments of trauma and love in their past. Their thoughts illuminate and inform their actions, showing the amount of care behind even a small action an observer might not notice—Peter helping an old woman into a cab, Septimus and Rezia crossing the street, Elizabeth taking the bus to the Strand.

Why do Clarissa and Septimus use Shakespearean allusions in Mrs. Dalloway?

Shakespeare represents an older, Elizabethan England, where manners and monarchy reigned supreme. His plays are essential to English history, and Mrs. Dalloway's characters have the self-importance to sense that they themselves are part of English history, too. Septimus is well read, and Shakespeare informed his perception of England as a utopia. Even after the war disillusions him permanently, he still repeats comforting phrases to himself such as "Fear no more," from Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Books don't mean as much to Clarissa, but she admires poets and artists. She appreciates the timelessness of Shakespeare's lines, since they can apply to her own situation.

How does Clarissa's character develop throughout the time covered in Mrs. Dalloway?

During the day of her party, Clarissa becomes more at peace with her past, less afraid of death, and more courageous in confronting the future. Her visit with Peter Walsh opens up possibilities to her that she thought were closed—she can still have a rich life full of debate and imagination. Seeing Sally at her party allows Clarissa to get closure on a part of her past she's always wondered about. She also considers her multiple identities of hostess, wife, ill woman, and mother. She discerns which identities she wants to accept and which she'd rather reject. Septimus's suicide lets her readjust her perception of herself from sick and in need of treatment to someone who's healing and has a lot to live for.

How does Mrs. Dalloway use Modernist narrative techniques to depict Septimus's trauma?

Modernist narrative relies on a consciousnes that predates speech. The brain can communicate thoughts before they've developed into a fully realized narrative. Septimus thinks mostly in scattered images and emotional outbursts. His thoughts don't always have a narrative line and can be difficult to follow. This fragmentation taps into the subconscious. Septimus's thinking is also heavily metaphorical. He gives supernatural meaning to ordinary objects. This can be interpreted as a way of giving meaning to his suffering. His consistent sightings of Evans show a distorted perception of time. The traumatic event of losing Evans appears ever present to him, in different forms.

What is the significance of the "battered woman" and her "ancient song" that Peter encounters in Section 6 of Mrs. Dalloway?

The woman, pining for a lost love, represents both the individual characters' longing for the past and all of Europe's loss in the war. The old woman is longing for her departed lover in the way Peter longs for Clarissa. The old woman is Clarissa's opposite; she doesn't care what people think. A love that prevails till the end of the universe, and seems to cheat death, is tempting to Peter's soul—he craves meaning. The "ancient spring" is water imagery that connotes joy and life. The nonsensical syllables of the song show a Modernist technique of playing with language, imagining its possibilities.

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