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Introduction

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, was a bestseller both in Britain and the United States despite its departure from typical novelistic style. Mrs. Dalloway and Woolf’s subsequent book, To the Lighthouse, have generated the most critical attention and are the most widely studied of Woolf’s novels.

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Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 in London, England. She was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, an eminent man of letters, and Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth. The Stephen-Duckworth household had many children and was financially secure. Woolf had free rein of her father’s extensive library, and was able to educate herself thoroughly.

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Plot Summary

A Section 1

Mrs. Dalloway begins with a sentence that is also its first paragraph: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The second paragraph mentions that “doors would be taken off their hinges,” so it is possible to determine that there will be an event at Mrs. Dalloway’s house that day, and that Clarissa is going out to buy flowers for the affair.

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Characters

A Dr. Bradshaw

See Sir William Bradshaw

B Sir William Bradshaw

While Dr. Bradshaw, unlike Dr. Holmes, immediately grasps the gravity and nature of Septimus’s condition, he is still not a likable character. He seems very similar to Dr. Holmes. The book’s argument against these doctors is that they are primarily concerned with managing individual cases of social and psychological distress without being interested in the causes of such problems. Thus, these doctors are still a part of the problem. They help to maintain the status quo by smoothing over difficulties instead of approaching psychological disturbance as evidence of deep social problems that must be addressed.

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Themes

A Consciousness

Although it is difficult to imagine, the novel is a relatively new literary form. Poetry and drama (plays), for example, have a much longer history. The novel, however, did not arise as a unique genre until the late 18th century. According to literary historians, it arose along with, or partly because of, the rise of the individual.

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Construction

A Narration and Point of View

From the very first sentence, Mrs. Dalloway shows the secure meshing of a third person (external) narrator’s point of view with a first person character’s point of view, such that it is not possible to separate or distinguish the two: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” If the two had been clearly separated the sentence would read: “Mrs. Dalloway said, ‘I will buy the flowers myself’,” or would have included the word “that”: “Mrs. Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself.” In this second case, the reader would assume that the words following the word “that” were not necessarily faithful to Mrs. Dalloway’s thought or speech, but rather that they are a narrator’s interpretation or summary. Instead, what Woolf perfected in this novel is a style of narration that literary critics have called “represented thought and speech,” capturing the motions of a mind thinking in the past tense, third person. A narrator presents character thought and speech, but the narrator’s words are wholly and immediately imbued by the voice and style of the particular character in question; there is no way to separate narrator and character. Woolf invented an elegant and efficient way of moving between and representing multiple characters’ speech and thought; the clumsiness of excessive dialogue or of switching between sequences of different characters’ thoughts presented in the first person is avoided. Related terms in literary criticism are reported thought and speech, free indirect discourse, and stream-of-consciousness.

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Historical Perspective

A The New Modern Era

The 19th century ushered in developments that profoundly changed European society. Mercantilism and industrialism created a powerful new class. The cultural, political, and economic might of this new class, the bourgeoisie or middle class, soon overtook that of the aristocratic classes that had controlled nations and empires before. The spread of democracy and workers’-rights movements also characterized the 19th century. It was not until after World War I (1914-1918), however, that a deep sense of how extremely and permanently European society had changed prevailed.

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Questions

Discuss the role of time in Mrs. Dalloway. Why are Big Ben’s chimes such an important part of the narrative? How are they described, who hears them, and when are they heard?

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Compare and Contrast

1920s: In Britain, the Labour Party rises to power, women get the right to vote, and the first major wave of communication and travel technologies are incipient or, in some cases, widely established (radio, telephone, telegraph communications; automobile and airplane travel). Today: International communications and connections have progressed to such an extent, due to computer technology and the Internet, that the term “globalization” is in common use. The modern world foreseen in the 1920s has definitively arrived.

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Further Reading

To the Lighthouse (1927) was Woolf’s next novel, after the success of Mrs. Dalloway. It concerns a large family spending a summer at the seaside, much like Woolf’s own family did during her childhood.

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