Symbolical Elements in the Novel Mrs. Dalloway

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      In poetry and drama, W.B. Yeats and Eliot have vigorously used symbolism but Mrs. Virginia Woolf is by and large a great symbolist in the field of modern English novels. She was very much influenced with the Russian master symbolists like Chekhov and Turgnev. As we know, Mrs. Woolf’s prime concern was to reveal the psyche, not external reality. Thus she found symbols, as other great writers, a helping instrument to express complex mental states. She has very frequently used the symbols in her novels.

The Symbolic Significance of the Characters of Mrs. Dalloway.

      Mrs. Dalloway is a symbolic novel. The background of the novel is a picture of life after the great war. Through Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf ‘delivers her diatribe against a superficial society that lacks depth in human relationships.’ The various characters in the novel represent various aspects of contemporary western civilization. The Dalloway symbolizes the pomp and show, outward glitter of civilization that is suffering from spiritual barrenness. They are rich, possess great wealth but inwardly they have nothing, they are bankrupt. These spiritually hollow men are full of hypocrisy, vanity, pride insincerity and pretension. “The perfect hostess” Clarissa and her incessant parties symbolize this superficiality. Her words to welcome others in party “How delighted to see you;” is the real hypocrisy. Her craving for an ‘attic room’, or spiritual privacy is suggestive of her inner emptiness or inward hollowness. Hugh Whitbread represents all that is “most detestable in English middle-class life.” He has “read nothing, thought nothing” and “is a perfect specimen of the public school type.”

Kilman, Symbol of Religious Intolerance.

      Doris Kilman who is Elizabeth’s tutoress is symbolical of “corrupt religiosity and possessive love.” Religion can not bring her spiritual peace. She is not in love with Elizabeth Dalloway but wants to possess her, and dominate her. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway finds no difference between Miss Kilman and love and religion. She hates love and religion for its possessiveness thus detests Kilman also. She infact, stands for the unscrupulous corrupt, hypocritical and eaves-dropping people of the church. She symbolizes all that is worst in religion, the evils of religious fanaticism and bigotry. She is devoid of love and religious feelings, instead, she is full of bitterness and frustration. She hates the woman like Clarissa who is very fortunate and enjoys all the goods of life. Her inward ugliness and wickedness is reflected in her external feature.

      Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw are symbolical of merciless imposition of an individual’s will, they intend to convert others to their own point of view regardless of whether they are right or wrong. They represent remorseless strength of will which though makes one able to rise high in the world, turns him into an object of fear for others. Bradshaw’s ‘conversion’ is nothing but his ruthless domination over the soul of others.

      Peter Walsh is symbolical of an adventurer who hates pride and vanity Both Peter Walsh and Sally Seton represent new ideals, they stand against the orthodox and conservative outlook. Both detest Dalloway and Whitbreads for doing nothing, thinking nothing and for their ostentation and pride etc. Peter and Sally both are fond of reading and are endowed with the gift of understanding human nature and character. Peter, a failure, is an ironical presentation of the sad plight of the modern civilization which does not promote originality of ideas because in our society second rate brains like Richard Dalloway flourish without any resistance and superior men like Peter suffer badly.

      The tragedy of Septimus Warren Smith is stricture in the modern war. He who was full of intelligence, bravery and patriotic feeling is turned into a neurotic, suffering from hallucinations and nervous breakdown due to the war’s effect. For him life has become intolerable and he finally commits suicide. Mr. Smith is a symbol of colossal waste of human potentiality and knowledge in war.

Nature Symbols.

      Woolf has also used nature symbols and images in Mrs. Dalloway. “Calm fresh morning air, like the flap of a wave, the kiss of a wave, chill and sharp” represents the youth of Clarissa Dalloway, her girlhood at Bourton. Flowers and green fields in the novel have repeatedly symbolized peace and contentment. This was the reason why Lucrezia thinks of fields and flowers when she remembers her happy life in Milan. Rose is the symbol of love and fulfillment that is why Richard Dalloway buys rose to say, “I love you” to Clarissa Dalloway. The beautiful cloudscape with alternating light and shadow symbolizes the alternating joys and sorrows of life.

Some Inanimate Symbols and Few Symbolic Actions.

      There are various inanimate objects that are used as symbols. Streets are the symbols of anonymity and mystery of life. Various aspects and activities of life are presented through the symbols of room, houses, windows, doors and cities. Room is the symbol of protection and intimacy, house represents the integration of a person with his family, windows symbolize the personal outlook etc.

      There are certain actions also which are symbolic. The most conspicuous example is Peter Walsh’s habit of fidgeting with his pocket-knife. It symbolizes “his silly unconventionality, his weakness; his lack of the ghost of a notion what anyone else was feeling”. When Peter compares his life that is full of adventures, love affairs, rides and journeys to the “smugness” of Clarissa’s life, he clenches his fist on the knife. It represents his adventurous spirit. The efforts to make his life according to his liking is represented by the running of his finger along the blade of pocket-knife. Again, when he leaves Clarissa and follows ‘the young woman wearing a red carnation, his stealthily fingering, of his pocket-knife’ is symbolic of his need to reassure himself that he is still young and free. In the end, when he comes to the Clarissa’s party, “he opened the bid blade of his pocket-knife”, it symbolizes his bracing himself to endure the party.

      To sum up, Mrs. Dalloway is replete with symbols. Novelist has successfully used these symbols to render the psyche of the characters.

University Questions

Discuss the statement: Inwardness in Mrs. Dalloway has been achieved by the use of symbolist technique.
The technique of symbolism is utilized in Mrs. Dalloway as an indictment of society; Discuss.
Bring out the symbolical elements of Mrs. Dalloway.

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