How is the role of women in society presented in Mrs Dalloway?

Categories: Mrs Dalloways

Virginia Woolf wrote her novel, Mrs Dalloway, in 1925 -a period where women were presented as inferior and secondary to men. Woolf's experiences influenced her writing and she has deeply embedded herself into her novel, she's written about her society where woman have a lack of rights and have to be placed in the male-dominated world. She, as well as other women of the time, were victimized into shrinking themselves so as not to threaten men. Woolf uses female interaction as a major theme: relationships to experience the things they cannot get from men and in other incidences, putting each other down out of insecurity and jealousy and set up to compete for the attention of a man.

Clarissa feels as though she is lost in society and cannot express individuality. To try and overcome this while being tied to a man through marriage, she buys her own flowers, throws a party, reads books and has her own room in the attic.

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Clarissa's existence is dependent on her husband Richard, this is self-evident in the use of her married name as the title of the novel and it shows her change of identity and possible lack of self. Her image and position in society are determined by him, even though, as the reader, we know this is not a relationship built on love. In the opening of the first section Clarissa's day is interjected with a thought of Peter Walsh, rather than her husband. Furthermore, Richard had "never" forgiven her for liking [Peter] this stresses that their relationship has no trust and is representative of no more than status.

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"Forgiven" suggests that she has something to be sorry for even though Richard seems to have a particular disinterest in her life unless it directly affects him. She is dependent on Richard socially and materialistically however there are characters of which she has a stronger emotional connection. Dalloway subtlety presents the relationship as lacking is depth and substance as Clarissa said "she felt like a nun". This suggests that marriage has caused her to repress any sexual desires which is contrasted with the freedom of sexuality that she felt when she was younger and with the influence of Sally.

Sally Seton was "who made [Clarissa] feel, for the first time". Woolf's use of this character stresses the effect of the obstacle that is the patriarchal attitude of society that attempts to keep women in order. Sally defies this expectation making Clarissa "feel" which suggests that Sally wasn't just someone Clarissa knew but she was a part of her identity and also highlights the metaphorical cage that women were being kept in. In 1923, women were viewed as being weak, both physically and intellectually due to social conventions; Sally "shocked people", was "untidy" and "completely reckless". She challenged stereotypes and showed people that you didn't have to convey to societal convention, she exists in the novel as Clarissa's memory of the physical security she felt when with her. When younger, Sally taught her to question life and to never accept anything that happens to her without inquisition. She encouraged her to "read Plato in bed before breakfast; read Morris; read Shelley by the hour" all of which show her deep sense of philosophy which a young woman would not be expected to have and would be viewed as a taboo in society. Overall, Dalloway has used the character of Sally as a device to accentuate the assumption that women will play a minor role in their community.

Clarissa seems to feel as though the world around her is very artificial. Her appreciation of flowers and general nature around her remove her from this. Her long description of the flowers in the shop suggests an obsession - roses, carnations, irises, lilac·white, violet, red, deep orange. It is conveyed that her time spent in the flower shop is one of the only times she feels, which represents the male view of femininity and also closely contrasts with the time when she 'feels' with Sally. It could be viewed that all the flowers lined up represent a woman that is there for men to pick out. "The roses looked dark and prim, the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls snow-white, pale", all these descriptions are personified and are viewed as female traits that should attract a man. The roses are a naturally beautiful so don't seem to be trying, however, carnations are aesthetically pleasing, however, lack in scent so "holding their heads up" could represent the woman who have to try harder to get male attention. Clarissa is disturbed in the shop by the sound of the "motor car" which suggests women are threatened by the existence of the man. Furthermore, Clarissa's appreciation of flowers could have stemmed from the situation where Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips to which Clarissa's "whole world might have turned upside down". Sally didn't literally pick a flower; flowers represent femininity in the novel and therefore she chose Clarrisa. The effect this had on her was so powerful and fulfilling that everything in her life after this was never as satisfying and she found her life to dull, it also shows the freedom she had over her sexuality at this time and which she feels she can no longer express now she's older and lacks independence due to male domination.

Overall, the role of women in society is very belittling in Mrs Dalloway which is closely critiqued my Virginia Woolf.


Updated: Dec 12, 2023
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How is the role of women in society presented in Mrs Dalloway?. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

How is the role of women in society presented in Mrs Dalloway? essay
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