The Feminist Struggle In Mrs. Dalloway
In the wake of World War I, the early 20th century presented a turning point in history for feminism and women’s representation in English culture and society. Between the first wave of privileged women granted the right to vote in 1918 and the vote being extended to all women over the age of 21 in 1928, Virginia Woolf emerged as a leader in first-wave feminism and feminist literary theory. In her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf exposes the effects of a patriarchal English society on the lives of English women. Through her portrayal of the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she experiences life, love, and death, Woolf reveals the constant state of internal struggle shaped by social convention that women of the time faced.
Though the story takes place over the course of one day in the characters’ lives, Clarissa’s conflicted thoughts about herself throughout the novel exemplify her lifelong desire to understand herself. The reader sees Clarissa deeply reflecting on her relationship with life and the world around her in the first few pages:
“For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. ” (4)
Clarissa’s extended introspection directs focus to her inner consciousness, revealing Clarissa’s belief that people need to experience beauty and be able to create meaning from it in their lives to maintain their autonomy and purpose. Notably, Clarissa’s introspective nature speaks to the trivialities of the female lifestyle and constraints placed on women at the time. This moment is especially powerful because while she is – in this moment – preparing to purchase flowers for another high-society party, the reader sees that she constantly moves through life searching for a deeper meaning.
One aspect of Clarissa Dalloway’s life that also highlights her internal struggle is her lasting desire for a romantic relationship that allows her to maintain her freedom. The reader is aware from the beginning that Clarissa Dalloway is married – the reason why she is referred to as Mrs. Dalloway – but that her first love is a man named Peter Walsh. A person she loved as a young woman, the narration of the novel details Clarissa’s desire to love and be loved by Peter, but also conserve her autonomy:
“For in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him… But with Peter everything had to be shared, everything gone into… And it was intolerable…” (7)
Clarissa considers the possibilities of how her life may have been different married to Peter. While she knows she can continue to live comfortably as a politician’s wife, Clarissa becomes caught in a loop between past and present – constantly living in a reality in which she sacrificed her youth and passion for the security of an upper-class life. Significantly, Clarissa struggles to reconcile her decision with where her life is now. By choosing to marry Richard Dalloway, Clarissa’s identity as Mrs. Dalloway undermines her inherently feminist desire for social independence – relegating herself to a life she does not want because of existing power structures and the socioeconomic security that an upper-class marriage could provide to a woman of her time.
Another relationship that incites turmoil within Clarissa is her yearning for her longtime friend, Sally Seton. Importantly, the text explicitly details Clarissa’s intense feelings for Sally:
“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 world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up… a diamond, something infinitely precious. . . ” (35)
Here, Clarissa’s declarations show the reader that she sees her relationship with Sally as a gift – a pure moment shared between two women in a time where only they could understand each other.
Though she experienced intense attraction with Sally, intimate female relationships – and even close female friendships – were not welcome in their patriarchal society. Regardless, this did not stop them from expressing physical affection toward one another. The possibility of this relationship, however, ends when the two women grow apart and meet again with lives entirely different from the freedom they promised each other and female community they envisioned together – Clarissa becoming a mother, wife, and hostess; Sally becoming a mother to five boys. By not being in each other’s lives, Clarissa and Sally lose the influence they had over one another and motivation they gave each other. In order to maintain appearances and constrained by strict social roles, Sally and Clarissa are forced to conform – confined to underwhelming roles in unfulfilled lives.
With the death of Septimus, the reader sees a significant shift in Clarissa. Hearing of his suicide through the gossip of Sir William and Lady Bradshaw, she becomes angry, flustered, and unable to process what she hears:
“What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party – the Bradshaws, talked of death. He had killed himself – but how? Always her body went through it first, when she was told. Suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. . . But why had he done it? And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!” (179)
The repetition of Clarissa’s thoughts and questions surrounding the circumstances of Septimus’ death is a physical manifestation of her fear of death and the cycle of feeling trapped. For Clarissa, Septimus becomes the prime example of the darkness and instability she feels in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society:
“Somehow it was her disaster – her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand here in her evening dress. ” (181)
Here, the image of Mrs. Dalloway choosing to continue hosting her party while once again contemplating her existence is a candid look into her profound sadness her inability to escape. While the mental instability of Septimus seems to make him quite different to Clarissa at first, he exemplifies a perfect parallel to her. Their trajectories showcase a stark contrast between the everyday of the working and upper class – something that attempts to speak to the audiences sensibilities and questions the state of English life that so many fought to protect in the war.
As the night continued, however, she “did not pity him” (181) – rather, Clarissa comes to understand that, through his death, Septimus took back his life from the constricting conventions of society:
“A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life… This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them… There was an embrace in death. ” (180)
Septimus’ tragic suicide helps Clarissa to take responsibility for her choices and her role in perpetuating the patriarchy. With this thought, Mrs. Dalloway is finally able to “feel the beauty” (182) and decides to take back her life as well.
Virginia Woolf, in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, exposes the post-war effects of the patriarchy on England and English women. Much like our world at the time, there is no escape for Clarissa Dalloway in her world. In her personal life, she is unable to indulge in her desire for more in life because of the prioritization of women in roles in the home. Mrs. Dalloway, as a result of the male-centered society she lives in, cannot explore romantic – or even deep platonic – love with Sally Seton. In his death, Septimus inspires a revelation of appreciation within Clarissa. Through her portrayal of the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she experiences life, love, and death, Woolf creates a commentary on the constant state of internal struggle shaped by social convention that women of the time faced – and continue to face today.
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