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.
It is said that Woolf’s style, and that of other early-20th-century novelists, represents a culmination of this connection between the novel and the individual. Before there were “individuals,” so to speak, a person lived his or her life according to what was determined from the outside or according to what society decreed was correct. A person did not go through life assuming that he or she could make personal, or individual, decisions and choices. The literary historians argue, then, that when this new type of person, this “individual,” began to exist, it needed new literary forms to express itself. The novel was one of these forms.
What comes with being an individual is a sense of separateness and uniqueness, a sense of being apart. One way this sense of being separate is cultivated is by each person focusing on, or developing a sense of, his or her own mind or consciousness. The novel is a literary form of the individual, literary historians argue, because novelists present and explore characters who have significant interior lives.
In novels such as Mrs. Dalloway, consciousness and an internal life are central preoccupations. Mrs. Dalloway is largely made up of the internal thoughts of its various characters. It is for this reason that novels like Mrs. Dalloway represent a culmination of a historical process of individuation. Preceding novels had not so intensively focused on the interior life of characters, or on what characters thought to themselves. That is, the characters in Mrs. Dalloway and similar novels are featured as individual thinkers even more than they are presented as persons interacting socially with others. It is the characters’ individual qualities that are highlighted.
In a sense, the character of Clarissa Dalloway is a representation of extreme, problematic individualism, in that she recognizes her absolute isolation. She is distant from her husband, she appears to have few current friends, and she secludes herself in her own small room as if she were a quiet nun in a convent or a solitary prisoner in a cell. The reader derives this sense of an absolutely isolated consciousness when, for instance, Clarissa watches the old woman across the way. Unseen, looking out from the window of her solitary chamber, separated from the woman by walls and distance, Clarissa seems trapped within the confines of her own consciousness.
The novel seems to ask if people can truly communicate and connect if each is enclosed within his or her own consciousness. Whether the novel resolves this issue, or merely explores it, is for each reader to decide. Is Clarissa’s party evidence of true communion between people despite separateness? Does the imagery of waves and connecting threads and webs complicate the imagery of isolation? Do the depictions of shared public sights and sounds indicate fully shared experience, or simply common experience differently understood?
B Social Change
Some critics believe that Mrs. Dalloway is an apolitical and an asocial novel about individual internal life as opposed to social life. Others insist that the political and social context of the time is included in the book and important to its events. Critics who believe the novel is concerned with social and political events and developments of the time consider it a novel of suggestion, not argumentation. Woolf dropped hints and touched lightly on social and political developments, they say, and a discerning reader is able to make out intended meanings from the author’s allusions.
For example, World War I is obviously important to the sense of the novel. It is what ruins Septimus’s life and career and what hounds him to his death.
Additionally, the histories of Septimus and Dr. Bradshaw indicate that classism is on the wane in the Britain of Mrs. Dalloway. Whereas a person’s social class determined his or her possibilities in earlier days, now Bradshaw has risen from humble circumstances to greatness, having earned a title (he is Sir William Bradshaw). Similarly, the lower-middleclass Septimus, before the war, was on his way to a brilliant career and upward social mobility.
The reader also learns that the political and social scene of Britain is changing significantly, as details of the rise of the Labour Party and of unrest in India are revealed. These details indicate the shifting of political power to the party that represents the interests of the broadest population, instead of remaining faithful to the interests of the old, aristocratic ruling classes. It also shows non-European nations beginning to agitate for freedom from foreign intervention and control.
Also significantly, Elizabeth Dalloway’s rumination over a career indicates how the education of young women and their social positions are changing. As opposed to only having indirect influence through their husbands, like Lady Bruton, young women like Elizabeth can have public careers in their own right. Thus, Mrs. Dalloway stays true to Woolf’s assertion, expressed in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” that, around 1910, human character and society changed: All human relations have shifted-those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.
In short, those persons and classes traditionally without social or cultural power appear in Mrs. Dalloway as coming into a position to exercise their rights, to have appreciable social influence, and to achieve upward social mobility.