Mrs. Dalloway | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Section 14 (Miss Kilman and Elizabeth Go Shopping) | Summary

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Summary

Miss Kilman stands on the landing, self-conscious about her drab mackintosh, or raincoat. She's poor, in her forties, and feels as though she has been cheated. During the war she was dismissed from a teaching job because she refused to believe all Germans are villains. Miss Kilman is part German, had German friends, and "the only happy days of her life were spent in Germany." She is, however, English, and her brother had been killed in the war. She had trouble finding work until Richard hired her to teach his daughter history. She despises Clarissa's luxury and constant rest, feeling that Clarissa should find a job. Two years ago Miss Kilman converted to Christianity and finds great comfort in the church. Her faith is influencing Elizabeth. Clarissa is angry that a tutor has taken her daughter from her.

Miss Kilman prepares to take Elizabeth shopping. In an attempt to win Elizabeth's affections back, Clarissa calls to them to remember her party. After they leave, Clarissa thinks of the cruelty of love and religion. Both forces, she feels, want to destroy the privacy of the soul. Neither solves the fundamental problems of existence. Miss Kilman has fallen to religion; Peter has fallen to love.

Big Ben strikes 3:30 p.m. While Clarissa remembers details she needs to take care of before the party, Miss Kilman takes Elizabeth to the Army and Navy stores. Miss Kilman considers how satisfied she has become since she renounced the pleasures of the flesh. She plans never to marry, for instance; her only pleasures in life are food and Elizabeth. Still she feels Clarissa has been mocking her, and she is upset.

In the store the two women shop briefly and then go to tea. Elizabeth reflects that Miss Kilman has loaned her books and encouraged her to choose a career, since more work is open to women of Elizabeth's generation. Still Elizabeth feels uncomfortable with the tension between her wealthy, generous mother and the working-class, self-righteous Miss Kilman. Elizabeth leaves tea early, to Miss Kilman's distress. She asks Miss Kilman if she's planning to go to the party that night. No one asks her, Miss Kilman says, because she's plain and unhappy—but she pities other people more than she pities herself. Left alone Miss Kilman goes to Westminster Abbey to pray. Mr. Fletcher, a fellow churchgoer and retired treasurer, sees Miss Kilman in devout prayer and thinks of her soul with sympathy.

Elizabeth waits for an omnibus. She is enjoying being outside but wishes she was in the country with her father and her dog. She doesn't like the constant attention of people in the city. Overwhelmed with compliments, Elizabeth would prefer to be left alone. She rides up Whitehall and feels exhilarated. She considers Miss Kilman's constant suffering and wonders what she herself would like to do for a career. The Dalloway family has a tradition of public service, which her father has continued by serving in the House of Commons as a politician. Elizabeth isn't sure if she'd like to continue that tradition or not. She gets off the bus at the Strand and walks a short distance up Fleet Street toward St. Paul's Cathedral. Military music begins to play in the street. A dark cloud comes over the London crowds, whom Elizabeth has been watching with fascination. She boards the omnibus toward her home in Westminster.

Analysis

Miss Kilman, like Septimus and Rezia Warren Smith, is an outsider and equally unhappy. She is working-class in a world of rich people, religious in a time when the church is losing its importance. Without the financial resources the Dalloways have, she turns to the church and charity for meaning. Elizabeth symbolizes the new generation, with all its possibilities, to Miss Kilman, which may be why her affection is so strong. Through Elizabeth she's living the life that might have been.

Is Miss Kilman's perception of Clarissa accurate? Or Clarissa's perception of Miss Kilman? Woolf is not concerned with accuracy; instead, she shows how difficult it is to really know a person and how perspective is everything. The multiple points of view allow for ambiguity, another trademark of Modernism. Answers are not clear cut.

Clarissa treasures "the privacy of the soul," a concept Woolf emphasizes in her works. The inner life allows for mystery, curiosity, and surprise. When some questions are unanswered, there is still a sense of wonder that is vital to Clarissa's enjoyment of life. Religion removes this wonder by providing answers and dictating ways to behave. Love and courtship rituals do the same, in a way. Clarissa's rejection of a prescribed path reflects the Modernist viewpoint that life is too complex and mysterious for old ways of communication to be relevant.

Miss Kilman views Clarissa's life as "a tissue of vanity and deceit," implying that Clarissa's devotion to the unknowable means she's deceiving even herself. Elizabeth's journey through town reflects the quickly changing world—the omnibuses, the crowds. Elizabeth knows she's part of this change. She has more opportunities than her mother did, and she's more willing (at least internally) to assert her own preferences. Her wealth has insulated her from many of life's concerns, but she's still observant.

Woolf's language in describing transportation—"the assault of carriages, the brutality of vans"—reveals the chaos and confusion of the rapidly developing city. She also alludes to forces beyond anyone's control, like time in the repeated striking of Big Ben. Miss Kilman's solution to rapid change is to take comfort in an ancient faith, a position Woolf sympathizes with, even if most characters don't agree.

The nautical metaphors add to the sense of a larger uncontrollable force. Elizabeth riding the bus is "like the figure-head of a ship," and Big Ben's stroke "lay flat like a bar of gold in the sea." Woolf's description of the voice surrounding the dying also signifies a force that doesn't care: "It was not conscious." Death is foreshadowed, and the reader can see it coming for Septimus.

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