Themes of the Novel Mrs. Dalloway

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Various Views on the Theme of Mrs. Dalloway

      Mrs. Dalloway is a complex piece of art, thus it allows a number of interpretations. As for the theme different views are given on it. A few among them are the following:

      According to Irene Simon, Virginia Woolf’s main themes are life and death, time and the absolute, confusion and order, singleness and oneness. Mrs. Dalloway seems to embody all these themes, leading to confusion among the critics.

      David Daiches comments that the theme of Mrs. Dalloway is, “Time, death, and personality and the relations of these three to each other, and to some ultimate which includes them all.” After elaborating on this remark a conclusion could be drawn that the novel is concerned with, “the nature of self and its relation to other people, the importance of social contact and at the same time the necessity of keeping the self inviolable.”

      Karl and Magalaner says, “The basic theme of the novel is the reality of life and death, the significance of the flow of consciousness of which human beings are born from birth to death.” Mr. R.L. Chambers agrees to this critical remark.

      According to Joan Bennett the subject of Mrs. Dalloway is no longer the life story of Clarissa Dalloway, nor of Septimus Warren Smith, but human life itself, its tension between misery and happiness and its inevitable consummation in death.

      Mrs. Woolf herself wrote in her diary: “I adumbrate the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side - something like that.” (Oct 14, 1922).

      Mr. Burgum has observed: “In Mrs. Dalloway, an objective technique is discarded in favor of the introspective method, while the theme accepts the conventionality that to live upon the surface of the proprieties is at all events to keep living, to repress the fear of sudden death (although one’s heart is weak) to attain at least a mutuality of superficial contact with others through poise and graciousness.”

      For the discussion of the theme of Mrs. Dalloway, we should proceed on two points: Prosaic plane and Poetic plane. On the prosaic plane its basic theme is the portraiture of the character and the consciousness of the major characters. Its secondary theme is the presentation of a satiric picture of contemporary civilization. On the poetic plane, the theme of Mrs. Dalloway is the dissolution of experience: love, life and death. It is the expression of basic conflicts of life like the conflict between life and death, hope and despair, love and detest, social control and individual freedom, worry, happiness, beauty and ugliness.

Prosaic Surface

Basic Theme: The Rendering of the Mind of Major Characters and their Character-Sketches.

      The novel is about the life and personality of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway. She affects others and is herself affected by others. The whole story of the novel begins and ends within a single day in June, the day when she gives the party in the evening. But “by means of the contacts she makes and the memories they evoke in her and in others, her life-story from her girlhood to her present age of fifty is gradually unfolded”. Through her stream of consciousness and various associated thoughts with many persons we perceive her at the critical moments in the life. Thus, this rounded personality is built up. The attention is mainly paid on her love experiences. She loved Peter Walsh, still she loves him but is married to a rich and popular man Richard Dalloway who is a M.P. She had probably rejected her lover Peter Walsh due to his trait of possessiveness. He was too demanding and assertive. He was the one who is not expected to allow her wife any privacy of soul, and spiritual independence. Her husband Mr. Richard Dalloway has provided her “attic room”. But was she right in rejecting the love of Peter? Is she happy in her ‘‘attic-room”. Thus her love life shows the tension between the rival claims of the self and social contact. Most of the characters of the novel are mainly portrayed through the stream of consciousness. A character starts recalling his past and other character is presented through his interior monologue. There are satiric portraits of the self-made, successful, self-confident, callous nerve specialist; the picture of neurotic; and embittered teacher - Doris Kilman.

Satiric Picture of Contemporary Civilization

      Mrs. Dalloway gives a picture of the modern world with its destructive forces of class struggle, economic insecurity and war. The theme of the novel is a “serious indictment of society”. According to Blackstone, “It is a serious indictment of society that Virginia Woolf is building up, slowly, from the beginning, by cross-references and allusions, now directly, now ironically, now with the undertones of pity and terror. This parade of civilization and culture, which can gladden the heart of Clarissa Dalloway because it is life and because she does not look below the surface, what does it hide.”

      A.D. Moody has rightly commented that “the novel is rather a portrait of Mrs. Dalloway’s society than of the lady herself. The ‘material’ of which it is the life, in London ... ‘the British ruling class’. And this life is brought into focus in the character of Clarissa Dalloway. The way in which she is characteristic, and what it is she characterizes can be shown from the opening section, in which she walks from her house in Westminster to buy flowers on Bond Street. It becomes clear that her life is no much more than vivacity, and that the world she loves and builds round herself is a tissue of shallow impressions and fantasies. The ‘divine vitality’ which she declares she adores, is manifested in cabs passing, sandwich-men shuffling and swinging, brass bands and barrel organs; that is, in the mere sensations of noise and movement and excitement.”

Poetic Surface

Poetic-Pattern: Universality of Theme

      Joan Bennett has pointed out: “within the book there is a poetic pattern, probing to that deeper level at which the mind apprehends timeless values, as well as the prose pattern wherein the reader is given a picture of the modern world with its destructive forces of class-struggle, economic insecurity and war.” On the poetic plane the theme of the novel is not the individual story of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway or Septimus but human life itself, “its tension between misery and happiness and its inevitable consummation in death.” From this point of view, the fabric of the novel spins between the idea of these Shakespearean lines:-

“Fear no more the heat of the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages.....”
“If it were now to die
’Twere now to be most happy.”

Resemblance with Poetic Drama

      On the poetic surface, the theme of the novel is love and death and the diminishing beauty of the world. Like poetic drama novelist here suggests more than what is described and asserted. The conflict between life and death, love and hope, misery and beauty, hope and despair, individual freedom and social contact etc. are suggested through imagery, symbol and rhythm.

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