Symbolism in the Novel Mrs. Dalloway

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      In poetry and drama, W.B. Yeats and Eliot have vigorously used symbolism but Virginia Woolf is by and large a great symbolist in the field of modern English novels. She was very much influenced by the Russian master symbolists like Chekhov and Turgnev. As we know Mrs. Virginia 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.

      Mrs. Dalloway is a symbolistic 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.” 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, wealthy but inwardly they have nothing, they are bankrupt. These spiritually hollow-men are full of hypocrisy, vanity, pride, neurosis, insincerity and pretension. 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.”

      Doris Kilman who is Elizabeth’s tutoress is suggestive of corrupt religiosity and possessive love. Religion cannot bring to her spiritual peace. She is not in love with Elizabeth Dalloway but wants to possess her, dominate her. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway finds no difference between Miss Kilman and possessive love and religion. She hates love and religion, so she detests Miss Kilman also. Miss Kilman, in fact, stands for the unscrupulous, corrupt hypocritical and eavesdropping people of the church.

      Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw are symbolical of merciless imposition of an individual’s will. They intend to convert others according to their own 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 an object of fear for others. Bradshaw’s ‘conversion’ is nothing but his ruthless domination of the souls of others.

      Peter Walsh is symbolical of an adventurer who hates pride and vanity. Both Peter Walsh and Sally Seton represent new ideals which stand against the orthodox and conservative outlook. Both detest Dalloway’s 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’s failure is an ironical presentation of the 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 a stricture in the modern war. He, who was once full of intelligence, bravery and patriotic feeling is turned into a neurotic, suffering from hallucinations and nervous break down due to the war’s effect. For him, life has become intolerable, and he finally commits suicide, in order to get rid of the imposition of Dr. Holmes and Bradshaw. Mrs. Smith is a symbol of colossal waste of human potentiality and knowledge in the war.

      Mrs. Virginia 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 is 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. The beautiful cloudscapes with alternating lights and shades symbolize the alternating movement of joys and sorrows in life.

      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 represented through the symbols of rooms, houses, windows, doors and cities. Room is the symbol of protection and intimacy, house represents the integration of a person with his family, window symbolizes the personal outlook etc. Peter Walsh’s habit of fidgeting with his pocket knife is symbolical of his varying emotions and attitudes. For Clarissa Dalloway, Peter’s knife is suggestive of “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, journeys to the ‘smugness’ of the life of Clarissa, he clenches his fist on his knife, that represents his adventurous spirit. His efforts to trim his life according to his liking is represented by the running of his finger, along the blade of pocket knife.

      Thus Virginia Woolf has abundantly used the symbols both animate and inanimate in Mrs. Dalloway. Those symbols help the characters in expressing their inner reality, and the novelist to interpret stream-of-consciousness.

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