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Mrs. Dalloway: Social Norms and Emotional Deficit

Mrs. Dalloway takes place five years after World War I during June 1923. The author Virginia Woolf narrates a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway who is part of England’s high society. The purpose of Woolf for creating Clarissa Dalloway’s character is to allow the reader to explore her internal conflicts and fears. But, more importantly, Clarissa’s perception of society and her relationships conceived by her initial privileged social standing point. First and foremost, it is through Clarissa’s introspective nature that the reader learns that her high social standing does not prevent her from being a victim of the same society she is part of.

This being the reason why Clarissa is able to sympathize more closely with a vulnerable and sensitive character called Septimus Smith; a mentally troubled veteran who fought during World War I and ended up committing suicide upon his return. The effects of a governing class on English society are evident after World War I by examining Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith as victims of social oppression through the application of class norms and emotional deficit.

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To begin with, we could not start a discussion of the post-World War I period in Mrs. Dalloway without mentioning “deferred war shock” as explained by Alex Zwerdling in the article: “Mrs. Dalloway and the social system.” First, to start talking about deferred war shock means beginning to understand the expected class norms during the 1920s in England and the emotional deficit from which most of the characters in Mrs.

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Dalloway used to contain.

The emotional deficit was rooted in the avoidance of discussing war, rather war and its aftermath were supposed to be kept in the past. This begins to be problematic in the novel because as a society becomes dormant on discussing post-war sentiments, society also begins turning their back on the most vulnerable ones. More specifically, traumatized veterans and women. Woolf makes this evident through Clarissa Dalloway’s words described in the following way: “For the truth is (let her ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment (Woolf 1287).” In this sentence, Clarissa who is a woman of high society recognizes that she is surrounded by indifference and selfishness by those who form part of her inner circle.

Furthermore, Clarissa Dalloway is a carefully crafted character with the purpose of being an outlier in a frugal and individualistic society. However, this character must not be misinterpreted for a rebel because her gentleness lies in a psychological state in which the reader is able to dive into and see the character closeness and sensitivity towards a particularly vulnerable character in the novel.

In fact, Jean Thompson wrote the article: “Virginia Woolf and The Case of Septimus Smith” to show the ability of the two characters from different social standings to be compatible with each other’s sentiments. Virginia Woolf picks Clarissa Dalloway which we know to be in a high society and she picks Septimus Smith an ex-soldier from a low status dealing with mental trauma to become part of Clarissa’s realm. Clarissa never sees Septimus in person, but her thoughts will intrinsically connect with those of the troubled ex-soldier through the news of his suicide in the following way: “He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings–what did they want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Homes was at the door. “I’ll give it to you” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings. (Woolf 2107)”

In this instance, Clarissa Dalloway disjointed completely from the emotional deficit which characterizes her inner circle. More clearly, Clarissa was able to imagine what committing suicide as a troubled ex-soldier felt like which represented empathy towards Septimus a byproduct of the social indifference towards affected minorities neglected after the war. This transforms Clarissa’s character by becoming the force against the emotional deficit in Mrs. Dalloway.

Furthermore, Gregory A. Wilson writes a complete journal called: “This Insatiable Hunger for Sympathy” on the element that characterizes Clarissa Dalloway. This critic makes it clear that Woolf refers to sympathy in her novel as: “the capacity to appreciate and identify with the inner lives, thoughts, and spirits of others, even when those lives are difficult to see or interpret clearly (Wilson 33).” More clearly, Mrs. Dalloway allows the reader to explore English society through the inner thoughts of a central character which is key to further develop the element of sympathy until the end of the book.

It is important to mention, during the 1920s in English society women were expected to fulfill a conservative role and adhere to the established patriarchy of the period. Most women did not go to university or have a minimum educational level and their duties consisted of house chores and raising children. Ultimately, women were not expected to expand their views on social norms or explore their personal desires. But, Clarissa Dalloway is a different and unique character in the novel, she is a woman who explores the deepest desires of her heart and more importantly, she is doing so out loud by describing her thoughts in detail to the reader. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus are both able to sympathize with exterior forces but get interrupted by characters who embody societal norms in the following way.

First, Septimus makes a description in the book of his perception of nature by saying: “But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibers with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. (Woolf 377)” This is what Septimus, a mentally ill ex-soldier sees in his daily life and this description most clearly inspires beauty, unity, and wholeness. Perhaps, Septimus’ inner desire for a peaceful world where unity reigns amongst all people after the war period, unity represented by branches and society as leaves hanging from a tree. But, right after Septimus description of nature, Rezia his wife calls him out disrupting his inner thought. In this instance, she represents the outside force breaking this character’s inner desire for peace and unity. In addition, this observation is supported by Gregory A. Wilson calling these disruptions: “intrusions of civilization’s representatives (Wilson 6)” which he recalls are also embodied through Septimus’ caretakers and former characters Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw by declaring the ex-soldier a lunatic. Therefore, Septimus carried with him a vision of unity which failed to transcend due to society’s emotional deficit.

Second, Clarissa Dalloway embodies empathy by deeply acknowledging Septimus death. But, there is a second relationship Mrs. Dalloway shares with Sally Seton that outlines the character’s exploration of her repressed desires and the acceptance of civil intrusion in her life. In this case, James Sloan Allen provides the case for Clarissa’s admiration towards Sally in the journal: “Mrs. Dalloway and the Ethics of Civility.” Although the audience knows Richard and Peter as the men in Clarissa’s love life and most of the book shows her life in the present as Mrs. Dalloway, her attraction for same-sex friend Sally Seton should not pass unnoticed and so does the inner desire she experienced during this phase. It is through this relationship that we understand Clarissa’s sexuality and vivid description of the love, attraction, and admiration she felt for another woman. Sally Seton was Clarissa’s teenage friend who was known in the past for being carefree, rebellious and poor. Clearly, the opposite of Clarissa which happened to be the reason why Clarissa felt drawn to Sally in the first place as she describes it: “For in those days she was completely reckless; did the most idiotic things out of bravado; bicycled round the parapet on the terrace; smoked cigars. Absurd, she was – very absurd (Woolf 538).” In this instance, Clarissa remembers Sally’s young self and her wild nature. At the same time, she remembers receiving an innocent kiss from Sally and exchanging similar aspirations including revolutionary thoughts and hoping to avoid future marriage (Shmoop). Until this point, Sally represents a private desire which lived in Clarissa’s young self, but it did not last long until both women accepted the intrusion of social norms and decided to exchange a “frisson of eroticism (Allen 5)” for a social and financial security blanket, which is their straight orientation status. Therefore, for women in the 1920s, it would not be accepted to hold an open homosexual or bisexual status since it would leave them at disadvantage in the greater English society where ladies are expected to find a respectable husband.

Finally, even though Sally and Clarissa felt attracted to each other they both adhere to social norms. As a result, Sally Seton was later recognized as Lady Rosseter who got married, had children and join the class system she once mocked.

Until this point, the reader has been able to examine the effects of social norms and how they affect the emotional deficit. This has been possible through Mrs. Dalloway a central character who is intertwined with an inner network of characters that are being repressed by social norm models.

Mrs. Dalloway is a robust novel with a lot of space for interpretation and psychological cues being thrown to the attentive reader. After studying the relationship between Septimus-Clarissa and Sally-Clarissa it is essential to mention the way Clarissa forms part of the same society that repressed her inner longings. The best moment to examine Clarissa following the “ethics of civility” is during her final participation in the party. In the last scene, she is an accomplice of society and their expectations but in no way is she suffering from an emotional deficit because in every way possible she is aware of her surroundings and feelings towards the place and people. Clarissa describes the party in the following way:

“Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that everyone was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, party the background, it was possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else, things that needed an effort possible to go much deeper. But not for her not yet anyhow. (Woolf 2389).”

By this, the novel accomplishes to be truthful about the consequences of a rigid society and humane on showing the possibility of emotion living inside a low and high-status persona.

Lastly, to conclude the analysis of England’s social structure during the 1920s philosopher Karl Marx and his theory on The Communist Manifesto can provide an outside support on how Mrs. Dalloway fulfills the shoes of a Bourgeoisie and Proletariat society.

Mary C. Madden brought forth her dissertation where she dedicates a page to examine this philosophy with the title: “Virginia Woolf and the persistence question of class: The protean nature of class and self.” The influence of The Communist Manifesto had to inspire Woolf in shaping the story of Mrs. Dalloway and the class structure of the 1920s. Mainly, because of the capitalist society, she is part of, where a Marxist philosophy places that capitalist society known as Bourgeoisie at risk of being dethroned by the Proletariat who are usually low-class individuals claiming better living conditions. In addition, this philosophy is relevant to the application of class norms in Mrs. Dalloway because Virginia Woolf writes the novel with an introspective inspiration. Some readers, who are familiarized with the author claim that Woolf created a reflection of her actual self through Clarissa’s Dalloway character.

A reader might ask the reasons behind Woolf’s choice of themes in the novel, which is the reason why The Communist Manifesto makes sense in the context of the story that reflects Virginia Woolf’s reality. Madden expresses this point in the following way: “This particular emphasis on consciousness resonates most strongly with Woolf, who over the course of her career becomes keenly aware of the extent to which her very thinking and existence are conditioned by her class environment. (Madden 5)” Just like Clarissa and Septimus, Woolf was a woman in high society who had empathy for the suffering and disadvantage of a lower class. She examined her privileged status, which Marxist theory would classify Woolf and her inner circle as part of the Bourgeoisie class. In this same case, Woolf identifies the rising of a Proletariat class which in English society would have been known as: The Labour Party, a political party looking for social justice and equal social opportunities.

In the context of this Marxist analysis of the novel, Septimus would be the closest character that could be identified within the Proletariat crowd since he belonged to a low class and was a veteran. But, it is clear that Clarissa Dalloway and her friends would be part of the Bourgeoisie crowd protecting their status and emotional deficit from intruders demanding the same benefits of those in high society.

In synthesis, Virginia Woolf forms part of the society whom she is writing about through Clarissa Dalloway’s perspective. She is having sympathy towards the vulnerable ones by attributing characters that embody elements of a vulnerable social class and thus, allowing readers to feel and experience the inner conflict of each character. It is important to mention that English society was listening and being attentive to Woolf’s subtle criticism of civilization and their lack of emotion due to the popularity of the author and her novels during this period. Mrs. Dalloway is Woolf’s clever way of denouncing the lack of humanity because she couldn’t possibly join a protest or decide to stand with Labour Party without being ostracized from her inner circle. However, she decides to express herself and address the symptoms of a superficial social class by writing books that reflect the reality in which society is living in and at the same time sharing her own sentiments which are evident as previously mentioned by Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway the author is so similar to the author Virginia Woolf in real life. In the novel, Woolf built a bold and interesting character however in real life, Woolf could not keep up with a harsh reality and constant pressure from social expectations and her personal traumas. The author of Mrs. Dalloway committed suicide in real life and at this point is evident that the author is an outstanding artist who intertwined literary art and reality to display the roughness of society and how it affects the lives of individuals regardless of their social class or gender.

Cite this page

Mrs. Dalloway: Social Norms and Emotional Deficit. (2021, Apr 09). Retrieved from

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