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Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway.

Mrs. Dalloway | Themes


Age and Memory

For many Londoners in Mrs. Dalloway, the past informs the present. Clarissa, Peter, Richard, and Sally consider how their youthful time together shapes their current lives as they age. Memory can comfort and convict; it helps the characters understand why they made certain choices, and it reminds them how full their lives have been.

The fractured, magical, prose style shows memory can be unreliable. For Septimus, whose memories are affected by trauma, the past spirals into the present and creates ghostly visions. Settings—the city of London, the Dalloway home, and Regent's Park—have a kind of memory, too. Peter reflects on the changes London has undergone in five years and the way it continues to remember its royal, noble past. Virginia Woolf emphasizes, through her characters who have suffered loss, that the dead live on in the memories of the living.

Clarissa thinks frequently of death, though she has a deep desire for life. She and Peter are only in their fifties, yet they notice and comment on the effects of aging. They do not enjoy the activities they once did, and their moods become quieter and more reflective in middle age. Both are concerned with their legacy and worry they haven't made the most of their lives. The specter of mortality hovers over the younger characters after the many deaths of World War I. Septimus, for instance, is only 30 and Rezia, 24.

Yet age also creates opportunities for the characters in Mrs. Dalloway. With the perspective age brings, they can appreciate life more than they ever have in their knowledge that it is temporary and precious. Sally mentions that she feels more passionately every year. By the end of the novel, aging is celebrated, rather than feared.

Passage of Time

Time, as told by the hours on Big Ben, dictates the characters' movements and pushes them to accomplish as much as possible. The city of London is driven by time—appointments, traffic, work, lunch hours. The unstoppable movement of time provides both stress and the comfort of order and rhythm.

Characters do not experience time in the same way. In some moments, time speeds up; in others, it slows down. The novel's Modernist style allows for leaps in time, both into the distant future when all Londoners will be dead and to the past through memory. The 12 hours of "real time" in the novel do not count the flow of thoughts that are ever present for each character. Their thoughts have the ability to stop narrative time, displaying Woolf's focus on the interior life.

Aftershocks of War

Shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by the stress of World War I, is most apparent in Septimus and his caretaker and wife, Rezia. But every character feels the effects. Airplanes in the sky recall war, and London's loud traffic echoes the link between technology and violence.

England is permanently changed, and the changes bring out both patriotism and cynicism. Politically involved Londoners like Lady Bruton and Hugh Whitbread wonder how England can best repay its veterans and become a world power again. Miss Kilman finds meaning in assisting other countries harder hit than England. Peter admires and worries about young military men.

Stress and Mental Illness

Woolf's prose goes deeply into characters' imaginations, so the mental instability experienced by Septimus and Clarissa feels real and honest to the reader. Both feel depression and pain but can still see the beauty in life. The novel also discusses the effect mental illness has on loved ones, such as lonely Rezia Smith.

The good reputations and good intentions of Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw contrast with the insufficient, and sometimes harmful, effects their treatments have on patients. Dr. Holmes minimizes Septimus's symptoms. Bradshaw prescribes bed rest and isolation, both frequent treatment methods for the mentally ill and suicidal in the 1920s, without considering his patient's needs. Clarissa's and Septimus's bond, though they never meet, is driven in part by their simultaneous experience of mental illness and the resulting alienation from others both feel.

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