In the book Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, each character feels isolated in their own unique way. Many of them are linked by culture, social class, history, love, or hardship which creates a feeling of loneliness in the world. The detachment and outsideness that characters feel throughout the novel brings deep feelings of fear that the entire world is against them. Woolf uses the structure of the Post World War I’s societal and political environment to create the problems, interactions, feelings, and behaviors that characters in the novel face and represent.
The British people were extremely conventional, and a pecking order was observed after World War I. British citizens were to be mindful of their place in that social ladder. The upper class was perceived to have money and was willing to do things at their own pleasure because they were the ones with the wealth. They cherished their families, and most came from royalty or aristocracy. But, the working class often compared themselves to the upper class lifestyle and realized they will never be able to move up the ladder.
Because of this they hid their feelings and emotions, becoming outsiders. Early on in the novel Woolf paints a picture depicting this for the reader. She writes,
“The King and Queen were at the Palace. And everywhere, though it was still so early, there was a breathing, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats; Lords, Ascot, Ranelagh and all the rest of it, the whirling young men, and laughing girls in their transparent muslins, discreet dowagers were shooting out in their motor cards on errands of mystery; and the shopkeepers were fidgeting in their windows” (5).
This quote suggests the British citizens found assurance in the customs of the British conglomerate. Everyone in the town seemed to display a sense of ease in their life and were active out and about, enjoying their days and not having a care in the world. However, because of the hierarchy, most characters in the book held back their true feelings and expressions from within and acted without putting their feelings first. It is almost as if they had masks on and their true identity and feelings were deep beneath what one could see from what they looked and presented themselves like on the outside.
One of the biggest individual oppressors in the novel and someone who does well at making others feel victimized is Sir William Bradshaw. His image stood for everything the typical upper-class male of the time represented. He was a wealthy physician whose practices reflected upon his controlling and authoritative nature. When his patients came to him with concerns, he told them how to feel and it was always negative. Dr. Bradshaw was concerned with keeping the British way of life like it was. Men were not supposed to suffer and when they did, it was only going to be where no one could see. Exposing their feelings and deprivation made British men considered weak and vulnerable amongst society. He was an embodiment of the English patriarchal oppression that the rest of the characters in the novel faced.
One of the characters that faced this suppression was Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa was constantly bottled-up as she held back emotion so she could conform to the social standards of the time period. What she said and how she presented herself were extremely different from what she felt in her heart. Within, she had profound sensations of anxiety and a large worry of death. Woolf writes, “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (8). From this quote, the reader infers that Clarissa has two distinctive mentalities. One was her belief in loveliness and life’s beloved times. The other feeling was her sensation of death and aloneness. The later is one she held deep inside, but it was always there.
Society was not on Septimus Warren Smith’s side either. Someone like Septimus must hold in his emotions because it would not reflect well to have someone from war act in a timid way. Soldiers, like Septimus, coming back from war were supposed to act like heroes on the hierarchical ladder. Woolf writes,
“The war had taught him. It was sublime. He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War, death, had won promotion, was still under thirty and bound to survive. When peace came he was in Milan, billeted in the house of an innkeeper with a courtyard, flowers in tubs, little tables in the open, daughters making hats, and to Lucrezia, the younger daughter, he became engaged one evening when the panic was on him – that he could not feel” (146).
Septimus was unable to act like or represent heroic traits. He was involved only in the moment, not before or after, as knew he had to act tough and suppress his emotions. The things that he saw and did in World War I affected him internally so as a result, he acted in a sense of post-traumatic stress disorder, creating Septimus to become emotionless and stifle all of his feelings. Septimus lost his desire to maintain his society or himself. Physicians and civilians both failed to grasp the severity of Septimus’ disease. He sensed that the doctors were part of the same system that controlled the war and the doctors thought Septimus was a danger to society as his experiences served as a reminder of damage to the war, instead of heroism. Septimus was viewed of not hero or valor of war but rather a victim for what he mentally brought back with him. The scaring and brutal experiences he dealt with in the war had eternally damaged him, creating a monster within himself that he could not beat. This ultimately resulted in the killing of himself as he could not find any other way out of the misery and pain he was dealing with.
Sexual repression was another element of the novel that the characters faced. Clarissa’s husband was incapable of saying “I love you” to her and used flowers to send the message. This repressed love was the opposite of her relationship with Richard. Woolf writes,
“And there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect, thought Clarissa, watching him open the door; for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one husband, without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect – something, after all, priceless” (204).
Here, Clarissa Dalloway realizes Peter would never give her the space that Richard is giving her and she is happy about it. Although Peter’s love was oppressive and needy, Richard respected that they were two different people. Clarissa also struggled with expressing her love for an old friend. Her and Sally Seton were sexually attracted to each other as young girls. Clarissa shared a kiss with Sally Seton and that is something she treasured throughout her life. This was not talked about because Clarissa must curb her feelings about Sally. During this time in society, heterosexuality was deemed as the only way of love and it would not have been acceptable for the two girls to have a sexual relationship with one another.
After World War I, when Mrs. Dalloway takes place, English citizens, including Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus, felt the failure of the King and Queen as much as they feel their own internal disappointments. This created a progressive society that ironically failed to understand how deeply the roots of the war extended afterward. This novel displayed the most vivid and heartbreaking ways how the experience and suffering of the battlefields of World War I hurt people both mentally and physically; how they repressed and isolated those feelings; and how they struggled to understand their civilian surroundings, feeling like outsiders.
Woolf uses the structure of the Post World War I societal and political environment to create the problems and interactions that the characters face and represent. The British society was very conservative and hierarchical after World War I. One of the biggest individual oppressors in the novel is Sir William Bradshaw. Clarissa Dalloway is constantly being suppressed as she holds back emotion so she can conform to the social standards. Woolf suggests that Septimus must hold in his madness because it would not reflect well upon society to have a soldier act in an unmanly way. Sexual repression is another element of the novel that the characters in this novel that is subdued. After World War I, when Mrs. Dalloway takes place, English citizens, including Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus, felt the failure of the King and Queen as much as they feel their own internal disappointments. This novel displayed the most vivid and heartbreaking ways how the experience and suffering of the battlefields of World War I hurt people both mentally and physically; how they repressed and isolated those feelings; and how they struggled to understand their civilian surroundings, feeling like outsiders.