Verious Themes in the Novel Mrs. Dalloway

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Introduction: The Theme

      Mrs. Dalloway is a rich and complex work of art, thus it allows a number of interpretations. Various critics have given their own views regarding the basic theme of the novel. Karl and Magalaner says, “The basic theme of the novel is the reality of life and death, the significance of the flow of consciousness on which human beings are borne from birth to death. 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 has commented 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.” Joan Bennett says that 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 into death. Mrs. Woolf has herself written in her diary: “I adumbrate the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side - something like that.” (Oct. 14, 1922)

The Fundamental Theme (Life and Character of Mrs. Dalloway)

      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 of June, the day when she is giving a party in the evening. But her contacts with various people and the memories that 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 her life. The main attention is paid on her love experiences. She loved Peter Walsh, still she loves him but is married to a rich man, M.P. Richard Dalloway. She had probably rejected his love due to his trait of possessiveness. He was not expected to allow her wife any spiritual privacy but Richard Dalloway has provided her that. But Is she happy in her “attic room”? Thus, her love life shows a tension between the rival claims of the self and social contacts.

The Spiritual Turmoil as Presented by Septimus

      The conflict between the need of spiritual privacy and the claims of society is presented by the character of Septimus Warren Smith. He projects the other facet of Clarissa Dalloway’s personality. Septimus was horrified at the approach of such dominating men like Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw who want to possess his soul and in order to escape from them he commits suicide. Septimus, in the novel, is symbolical of Clarissa’s spiritual turmoil and irrational aspect of her personality.

Satiric Picture of Contemporary Civilization

      Mrs. Dalloway gives a picture of modern world with its destructive forces of class-struggle, economic insecurity and war. The theme of the novel is the ‘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 surfaces, 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 in the character of Clarissa Dalloway. The way in which she is characteristic and what it characterizes can be shown from the opening section in which she walks from her house in Westminster to buy flowers in Bond street. It becomes clear that her life is not 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-man shuffling and swinging, brass bands and barrel organs; that is in the mere sensations of nose and movement and excitement.

The 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.” Thus the poetic pattern deals with the universals of life. From this point of view the theme, of the novel lies within the idea of these Shakespearian lines:

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

Resemblance with Poetic Drama

      Mrs. Dalloway, on the poetic surface the theme of the novel is love and death and the diminishing beauty of the world. Like the poetic drama, Woolf here suggests more than what is described and asserted. The conflict between life and death, love and hate, misery and beauty, hope and despair, individual freedom and social contract etc. are suggested through imagery, symbol and rhythm. Only most cautious and careful reader can find out more subtle and higher elements that is poetic pattern of the novel Mrs. Dalloway.

University Questions

Discuss Mrs. Dalloway is a serious indictment of society that Woolf saw and lived.
Discuss the various issues of the novelist in her novel—Mrs. Dalloway.
Mrs. Dalloway is a separate picture of contemporary civilization or the novel contains the double pattern that is prose-pattern as well as the poetic pattern.

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