Mrs. Dalloway | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Mrs. Dalloway was Virginia Woolf's fourth novel, published in 1925. The novel focuses on the events of a single day in the life of an upper-class Englishwoman, interspersed with the thoughts and memories of a shell-shocked World War I soldier.

Though its narrative structure bewildered and put off many readers, Mrs. Dalloway has found a place on several lists of great novels. At first glance Mrs. Dalloway seems to be about very little. Yet it is a study in the complexity of character, the nature of time, and the effects of both war and mental illness on society. In the end, it explores the great questions that fascinate many modernist writers and many readers.

1. Mrs. Dalloway's structure confused many readers.

The style in which Mrs. Dalloway is written, called stream of consciousness, was relatively new, though Woolf was not the first woman to use the narrative style. In trying to develop Clarissa Dalloway's character through her thoughts, memories, and dreams, Woolf baffled some of her readers. English novelist and critic Arnold Bennett couldn't finish the book, stating there was no logical "construction," and a 1925 review in the New Statesman said there were "no people" in the book.

2. The New York Times admired Mrs. Dalloway—but not the title character.

The review of Mrs. Dalloway in the New York Times, published on May 10, 1925, called the writing "intricate," "clear," and "brilliantly" conceived. About the character of Clarissa Dalloway, however, the reviewer wrote, "There is a resentfulness in her, some paucity of spiritual graces, or rather some positive hideousness."

3. Woolf hated James Joyce's Ulysses but ended up mimicking the writing technique in Mrs. Dalloway.

When Woolf began reading Ulysses in 1922, she wrote that she was "amused, stimulated, charmed interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters ... & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." However, she kept reading and thinking about the book. When she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, she set the story on a single day in June and used the narrative technique of stream of consciousness, as Joyce did to show the inner lives of his characters in Ulysses.

4. Woolf and her husband were on Hitler's death list in World War II.

Adolph Hitler kept a list of more than 2,500 politicians, intellectuals, and religious leaders in Britain whom he wanted killed if the Germans managed to invade. Other writers on the list beside Woolf included Noel Coward, E.M. Forster, Vera Brittain, and Aldous Huxley.

5. Mrs. Dalloway's lesbian relationship was likely based on Woolf's own.

In 1889 a childhood friend of Woolf's, Madge Symonds Vaughan, spent the summer with the Woolf family. Woolf's feelings for Vaughan were overwhelming; she wrote, "Madge is here; at this moment, she is actually under this roof." The passionate friendship between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton is purportedly modeled on that relationship. And while Woolf was writing Mrs. Dalloway, she was getting to know Vita Sackville-West, with whom she later had a lesbian relationship. Sackville-West was immortalized as the basis for the main character of Woolf's novel Orlando.

6. Mrs. Dalloway focuses on the terrible effects of shell shock caused by World War I.

Septimus Smith, a major character in Mrs. Dalloway, suffers from shell shock, a version of what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. The soldiers in World War I experienced a very different form of warfare in the trenches, with thunderous shells exploding around them. Their symptoms included anxiety, facial tics, blindness, flashbacks, and relentless nightmares.

7. Woolf likely suffered from bipolar disease.

Woolf's diaries and letters reveal a mental illness that today might be diagnosed as bipolar disease, with mood swings ranging from elation to severe depression and times of psychosis. She felt her writing helped her, stating, "Directly I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down."

8. The popular novel (and film) titled The Hours centers on Mrs. Dalloway.

Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours focuses on three women whose experiences reflect those of Mrs. Dalloway in Woolf's novel. The book was called by reviewers "delicate," "exquisitely written," and "luminous." The film adaptation of The Hours starred Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman and won two Golden Globe awards and an Oscar.

9. Woolf used some of the money from Mrs. Dalloway to build an indoor bathroom.

In the summer of 1926 Woolf used some of the proceeds from sales of Mrs. Dalloway to build a bathroom with running hot water in her 17th-century country home, Monk's House. Though lavatories were common in cities by this time, many country homes like Monk's House instead contained an earth closet, which consisted of a box of granulated clay over a pan. When a user pulled a lever, clay covered the contents of the pan.

10. A World War I bomb created a small lake near Woolf's garden.

A bomb dropped near the River Ouse created a small lake near Woolf's garden that became the home of many waterfowl. Woolf would later drown herself in the river, leaving a suicide note that said she was "certain [she was] going mad again."

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