Characterisation in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
In Virginia Woolf’s book Mrs. Dalloway, a variety of characters with complex, unique personalities are brought to life. Woolf uses vivid imagery and poignant monologues in order to highlight and simultaneously criticize the social structure, political affairs, and economic state of post-World War I England. Many themes, such as the ones aforementioned, are displayed within the elaborate rhetoric Woolf uses to construct both the outer appearances and the inner thoughts of the characters, which often contradict with one another. Woolf’s intricate blending of each character’s juxtaposed identities gives readers a deep connection to the personal struggles of each character’s past and present. Although many central issues are accentuated throughout the book, gender norms are highly enforced. The main protagonist in the book, Clarissa Dalloway, is very much aware of the gender stereotypes that exist in her society. Although a very elite and powerful figure, her thoughts are consumed by being a perfect party hostess and ensuring that she stays within the boundaries of the gender norms of her society. However, it is interesting to point out that while Woolf elaborates on the social stereotypes surrounding femininity, in particular how women should behave in particular situations, those beliefs are constantly being challenged within the internal monologues of the characters. Although Clarissa succumbs to a set of negative stereotypes, she is able to trespass those prescribed positions for women. Through our journey with Clarissa Dalloway, we encounter several of her relationships that each serve to contradict the rigid gender norms of the patriarchal society in which she lives. Through her relationship with herself, Sally, and Septimus, we see that gender norms and the fluidity of femininity are the products of ongoing social interactions and relationships encountered throughout the play, rather than a defined, concrete set of principles.
Before delving into Clarissa’s relationships and their impact on gender stereotypes, her character must first be analyzed from the point of view of how Clarissa views herself. We are given small pieces of information about Clarissa in the introductory chapters that help us form an identity about who Clarissa pictures herself to be. The first sentence of the book states, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (3). This sentence is a noteworthy and crucial moment of foreshadowing into Clarissa’s independent and emancipated personality. Clarissa is willing to go out into the city and buy the flowers herself, rather than sending her servant to do the deed. This is especially significant because Clarissa can afford servants but instead chooses to buy the flowers for her party herself, a bold move for a woman of Clarissa’s status and abundance of resources. Woolf’s usage of this as the opening sentence of the book highlights the fundamental qualities of Clarissa’s character: independent, strong-willed, and fearless.
However, as Clarissa is walking through London on her way to the flower shop, we begin to embark on her first internal monologue. This is a turning point in which we see a very multifaceted Clarissa, who strives to be an independent woman yet is confined to the gender norms of society. Woolf says, “She could have been…interested in politics like a man…Instead of which she had a narrow pea-stick figure…But often now this body she wore, this body, with all its capabilities, seemed nothing-nothing at all” (10). Clarissa understands that her identity as a woman has prevented her from openly enjoying scholarly pursuits such as politics, and had she been a man, she would be able to immerse herself in academia. In essence, Clarissa scrutinizes herself when she discusses her potential and then refers to her body as the only component of her identity that society values. According to Bordo, “The body-what we eat, how we dress, and the daily rituals through which we attend to the body-is a medium of culture” (1990). From this unique definition by a feminist writer, we can see that the body does not only refer to a physical being, but a melting pot of ideas, culture, and apparel. By Clarissa viewing her body as “nothing,” she feels devalued of her culture, her appearance, and the way she chooses to express herself through clothing. To many women, body image is highly valued and respected, yet to Clarissa, it makes her feel even more isolated from society. Fundamentally, she views this large bulk of her identity as insignificant when she refers to her body as “nothing.”
As we begin moving deeper into Clarissa’s monologue, we can see that Clarissa understands that society doesn’t view her as an individual. According to Oxford English Dictionary, “individual” is an adjective meaning “One in substance or essence; forming an indivisible entity.” Woolf says, “Not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (11). When Clarissa views herself as Richard Dalloway’s wife, she is not an “indivisible entity” with her own “substance.” Rather, she is a woman confined to the barriers set by her husband. Thus, when examining the language in the context of the definition, we can see that Clarissa doesn’t consider herself an individual human being. Rather, she is deeply conscious of her role as her husband’s property. Clarissa is clearly uncomfortable with the animosity towards women in society yet succumbs to the negative stereotypes because she feels trapped in being unable to express her true opinions. She uses the words, “any more,” which can imply that at one point in time, Clarissa was an individual with her own beliefs, values, and opinions. As she’s grown older and been exposed to the more oppressive realms of high society, she has slowly been stripped away of her individuality. Although Clarissa does succumb to many of the gender norms present in Mrs. Dalloway , she seems to possess a rare knowledge and understanding of female oppression in society. She is able to thoroughly critique and confront the sexist ideologies head on, and visualize her potential if the “glass-ceiling” not been heavily implanted in society. Although negative stereotypes would indicate that women are complacent with being oppressed, Clarissa’s ability to understand the limitations of the “glass-ceiling” displays the intellectual capabilities of women in this era.
The way in which this oppressive society causes Clarissa to view herself propels her lesbian desires for Sally Seton. From a very early point in the book, we are told that Clarissa does not view herself as being physically beautiful. Woolf says, “How many million times she had seen her face, and always with the same imperceptible contraction! She pursed her lips…It was to give her face point” (37). We can see that Clarissa doesn’t consider herself physically attractive, as she has to purse her lips and manipulate her face in order to make herself seem “pretty.” She thinks that her face is too small for society’s standards of beauty and thus, molds her face by pursing her lips in order to make looking in the mirror easier. Clarissa’s battle with her physical features leaves her constantly oscillating between the physicality of her own feminine body and the repressive demands of society. She heavily envies Sally, who has an “extraordinary beauty of the kind she most admired, dark, large-eyed. With that quality which, since she hadn’t gotten it herself, she always envied” (33). Here, we see Clarissa’s true admiration of Sally’s beauty and aura, viewed as an untouchable object that Clarissa yearns to have but won’t ever be able to attain. She has dark, large eyes whereas Clarissa has a small, pointed face. Sally embodies rebellion and free-will, whereas Clarissa desperately tries to fit the preconceived notions of femininity. In essence, Sally personifies the beauty, energy, and confidence that Clarissa craves.
Shortly into the book, we are introduced to Clarissa’s unusual and complicated love for Sally. Woolf says, “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole word might have turned upside down!” (35). When Sally kissed Clarissa, she felt the most euphoric she has ever felt in her entire life. This is interesting because in the 1920s, lesbian desires were not socially acceptable, and thus, Clarissa’s deep love for Sally carries symbolic meaning. Sally is everything that Clarissa isn’t: beautiful, open-minded, rebellious, and free-spirited. By Clarissa loving Sally, she is able to expose herself to the qualities that she always desired and, principally, live vicariously through Sally. Her sexual desires may be a way that Clarissa fights against the gender norms; she must choose between being a masculine female to survive in this patriarchal society, or otherwise join the majority of women who are silenced and oppressed in their behaviors. Therefore, Clarissa’s love for Sally in a time where lesbian desires are condemned can be a sign that she is choosing to engage in her “masculine” side by being attracted to women. Clarissa’s relationship with Sally can be interpreted as her embracing the more “masculine” side of her femininity rather than the “feminine femininity” that is defined and upheld by society. The differing degrees of femininity, and Clarissa’s ability to execute both with precise accuracy, displays the variable structure of femininity in society.
Another important relationship in the book is the contrast of Clarissa and Septimus Warren Smith. Although these characters never meet in the novel, they are linked to one another through intense emotional experiences. Their internal monologues seem to contrast each other yet are placed so strategically within the text that it is crucial to discuss the discourse of their relationship, although they never truly meet. They can be seen as each other’s opposites, at the same time as each other’s doubles. Septimus’ character suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after watching his friend Evans die in the war. In one part of the book, we are taken on an intense emotional journey with Septimus as he thinks about his experience in the war. Woolf says, “the flesh was melted off the world. His body was macerated until only the nerve fibers were left. It was spread like a veil upon a rock. He lay very high, on the back of the world. The Earth thrilled beneath him” (68). This powerful paragraph shows how Septimus sees his body fading before his eyes, a symbol that he is being ripped from this world in which he doesn’t belong in. According to Oxford English Dictionary, “macerated” is a verb meaning “Cause to grow thinner or waste away.” In essence, Septimus sees himself as not belonging in the world and therefore, his skin grows thinner and he fades away. He doesn’t want to be present in this world, which can be interpreted as a powerful foreshadowing into his suicide later in the book. He watches the “Earth thrill below him” because he doesn’t want to live in a place where he has to relive his horrific nightmares from war, so he escapes to another world where he feels less pain, and “watches Earth” from above.
We can compare this instance to another instance in the book where Clarissa is thinking about how alive her parties make her feel and how they make her want to stay firmly attached to the ground to experience the entirety of them. She understands that her days are limited and this propels her to embrace every second of every day. The grave contrast of Clarissa and Septimus provides a basis for evaluating gender fluidity in this society. Generally, women are thought of as being more emotional and thoughtful, which ultimately leads to depression and other mental illnesses. The stark contrast between Clarissa and Septimus’ characters displays how the text directly challenges gender norms and expectations. In this particular situation, Clarissa was a woman who was very happy to be at her party and felt invincible. On the other hand, Septimus, who was supposed to be a “strong war hero,” is unable to shut out his internal emotions and major depressive disorder. Because Septimus is a man, his mental illness was dismissed by Dr. Holmes, who had told Septimus’ wife, Rezia, to “make him notice real things, go to a music hall, play cricket…” (25). Since masculinity is associated with being able to get over problems and move on, Dr. Holmes failed to recognize any problems and was part of the reason that Septimus ended up killing himself. Upon further examination, the casual relationship between Septimus and Clarissa turned out to be an extremely vital method that Woolf used to target and challenge associated gender roles, proving that both men and women were capable of feeling the same degree of emotions and mental instability.
In conclusion, Woolf’s elaborate rhetoric and stream-of-consciousness writing in Mrs. Dalloway serves as a powerful indicator that gender stereotypes are not always set in stone. The enchanting use of interior monologues gives readers an unparalleled view into the complex minds of the dynamic and robust characters of Mrs. Dalloway . From Clarissa’s very first monologue, we can see how interesting her relationship with herself is. On the outside, Clarissa seems content being a housewife: she doesn’t work, she spends her days shopping and exploring the city, and lives to throw fancy parties at her home. However, her internal monologues give us a unique insight into the damage that this oppressive society has infringed on her. Clarissa is able to separate herself from society and deeply criticize the gender stereotypes that are prevalent in the social structure of society, and see how the oppression affects her psyche and well-being. Clarissa’s critical view on the patriarchal society she lives in displays that women aren’t complacent with the treatment they receive from their husbands and the rest of society. This is a very interesting and tactful way of describing women because, in the early 1920s, women had just been granted their right to vote and were still viewed as being less intelligent than their male counterparts. Mrs. Dalloway challenges these beliefs by displaying that women are intuitive, insightful, and able to critically analyze complex situations. Additionally, the varying degrees of femininity seen in the book prove that there is not a concrete definition of femininity and women are free and able to act upon their femininity in unique ways. Mrs. Dalloway also manages to shatter the female stereotype of being more emotional than men by including Septimus as a character who indirectly challenges Clarissa’s experiences, providing a stark contrast between male and female embodiments of emotion. Woolf’s way of illustrating the complexities of gender norms in post-World War I England while managing to shatter preconceived notions of gender is masterful artwork. It is no surprise that Mrs. Dalloway is considered one of the most revolutionary artworks on the twentieth century.
Bordo, Susan R. “Reconstructing Feminine Discourse on the Body.” Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing . New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. 165. Print. “individual, adj. and n.” OED Online . Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 4
December 2016. “macerated, verb.” OED Online . Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 4 December
2016. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Edited by First Perennial Fiction Library. New York, NY.First Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
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