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.

Mrs. Dalloway registers this sense of the end of an era. Clarissa’s Aunt Parry, the aged relic who makes an appearance at Clarissa’s party, represents this decline and this ending of an old way of life. The old woman likes to remember her days in Burma, a time and place suggestive of the height of British imperialism and colonialism. But, as Lady Bruton’s distressed comment about the situation in India makes clear, the old days of paternalistic European colonialism are over. India and other colonies that used to be comfortable homes for colonials like Clarissa’s aunt are now uncomfortable places where the beginnings of serious battles for independence are occurring.

Lady Bruton also mentions the Labour Party’s ascendancy. (This new party gained a parliamentary majority in England in 1924, the year before Mrs. Dalloway was published.) This detail indicates how the England of this time had become radically modern in its move to a fuller social democracy, the political system that still characterizes most modern nations today, including the United States. The Labour Party’s name indicates its representation of rule by the people, for the people, as opposed to rule by an aristocracy or an oligarchic class.

Elizabeth Dalloway, a young woman considering a career, is also an indicator of change, as entering the working world was a social possibility not available to women before this time.

B World War I

World War I bears comparison with the Vietnam War (1959-1975). Like this more recent war, it is remembered as a war that many thought should have been avoided and that traumatized its soldiers. It was an imperial war in two senses. First, it was an attempt to limit the European encroachments of Prussian imperial rule and power. Second, it was partially provoked by border skirmishes among European nations on the African continent (European nations had begun colonizing African territories in the late 19th century). It was a power struggle pertaining to traditional European ruling classes and had very little to do with the everyday concerns and struggles of most European citizens.

What was shocking about the war was how long it dragged on and how many casualties it produced. (It lasted four years and millions of young men died or were terribly wounded.) The style of fighting developed in this war was trench warfare. In trench warfare, soldiers dig deep ditches from which they shoot at the enemy. When given the order to charge, they climb out of these trenches and meet the enemy head-on. These cramped, claustrophobic trenches were breeding grounds for disease, as they were muddy and wet from frequent rainfall. Soldiers felt that the trenches were as much ready-made graves as they were protection from enemy fire. Also, poison gas (mustard gas) was used during World War I, and soldiers caught by the fumes without gas masks died or suffered horribly.

Enemy soldiers often formed friendships during cease-fire periods in the space of no man’s land between opposing trench lines. Soldiers on both sides felt strongly that their real enemies were not each other, but the officers, politicians and generals who were running the war. The carnage, mutilation, and terror of this badly managed war resulted in a host of traumatized war veterans. This trauma was given the name “shell shock” in the years following the war. Septimus Warren Smith, who was a brave soldier, but who ends up a suicidal, ruined man, indicates Woolf’s condemnation of this unfortunate war.

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