As Virginia Woolf explains in her famous 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, “Novelists differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes. They go a step further, they feel that there is something permanently interesting in character in itself. When all the practical business of life has been discharged, there is something about people which continues to seem to them of overwhelming importance, in spite of the fact that it has no bearing whatever upon their happiness, comfort, or income. The study of character becomes to them an absorbing pursuit; to impart character an obsession”.
Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway—published in 1925, the year after she wrote the essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”—details a single day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway, a fictional high-society housewife in post-World War I London. Clarissa Dalloway is Woolf’s titular character and, more importantly, a transitioning member of the Victorian age. As this novel’s structure experimentally breaks from the more conventional narration of the Victorian era by emphasizing the internal, its Victorian style characters emerge as ‘thinking’ individuals, self-consciously emphasizing the unconscious rather than the outer, visible self. In almost every sentence of this novel, Woolf’s readers encounter multiple ideas and multiple tones. Through all this noise, Woolf strives to represent her literary era’s war-torn world with brutal honesty by experimenting with stream-of-conscience techniques to explore the personal volume of an ordinary day, attempting to examine the psychology of her different characters—minute by minute, hour by hour, as Big Ben chimes their moments away unfailingly throughout the novel. This internalized shifting free indirect discourse attempts to contain the uncontainable: the unfathomable modern world of post-war London in June 1923.
Post-war England was a civilization poised between its dying Victorian sense of power and it’s impending post-colonial impotence. Yet London at the beginning of the twentieth century was a city marked by an elaborate sense its place as The Capital of British imperialism. Mrs. Dalloway, a middle-aged British housewife character, exists attempting to escape her deeper thoughts in the hustle and bustle of London when forced to deal with repressed undercurrents of urbanization, cross-cultural contact (specifically of post-WWI); colonialism, decolonization; fundamental redefinitions of the individual mind, language, gender, and sexual identity – all essentially hinting toward the growing force of modern globalization juxtaposed against the transitory nature of her deeper human thoughts.
The continuous passage of time during this single day in London’s changing space is shown to be particularly distressing for Clarissa: “Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself” (Woolf 8).
Mrs. Dalloway’s “conscious” world is defined apart from any other subject she passes in her walk through the city, distinct from even the city itself, yet her inner-world also naturally synthesizes with her surroundings. Still, Clarissa’s stream-of-conscious reveals two very different mindsets here: One is displayed through her belief in living superficially in the moment to survive (“the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits … the people she knew best”). The other seems to be a deeper inner-life that Clarissa associates with oblivion (“did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely?; all this must go on without her?; did she resent it?; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”) and, thus, avoids engaging these deeper and darker thoughts by retreating to her superficial observations of London.
It is the passage of time alone that structures Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, creating a lose frame around the chaos of post-World War I London by imposing order where there is none. However, the fascinating thing about Clarissa in the midst of this is that she actually does seem to perform consistently in a way that confirms her identity as a perfect hostess. Each time Mrs. Dalloway finds her performance threatened—that is to say, each time she runs the risk of having her identity deinstituted—Big Ben interrupts the threat and successfully insists that Clarissa immediately return to the confines of her role. Yet her innate complexity as a modern character is not lost on Woolf’s readers. In remaining stuck in her Victorian modes by traditional convention and the lose structure of Big Ben, Clarissa’s true character remains unexplored. But not altogether lost.
This second conscious Mrs. Dalloway hides inside throughout Woolf’s novel, but it is still a force that is ever present. In true Victorian fashion, Clarissa defines her life in terms of her performance as Mrs. Richard Dalloway, the perfect hostess. Clarissa performs the role to the extent that it consumes her. She tries to equate the performance of this role or type with her identity, but her attempts to use the role as a substitute for the fixed-essentially the Victorian—sense of self she covets result in emptiness, a lack of fulfillment, and ironically, virtually no self at all. All of Clarissa Dalloway’s actions testify to a longing for a recognizable, stable, unified Victorian self. Even her love for organizing parties for her husband’s political career hints a deep-seated desire for structure. However, the only true structure Virginia Woolf provides in this modernist novel is, again, time—the chiming of Big Ben, counting down the hours of the day. The simple Victorian conception of selfhood Clarissa constantly attempts to fabricate for herself in her layers of conscious is a flat, nonexistent falsehood belonging to the past era, prior to the trauma of WWI. For Mrs. Dalloway to be a simple London housewife character would be the exact opposite of Woolf’s modernist aspirations of exploring new selfhood in the complexity of modern character. Clarissa cuts much deeper.
Mrs. Dalloway is a prime example of the modern novel and the beginning of modern character due to its experimentation with traditional literary formats by manipulating time and order, perspective, and point of view. “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Virginia Woolf so declared in the beginning of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”. When peace finally arrived in England at the end of the World War One, the trauma incurred triggered a revolutionary movement of self-determination in early twentieth century culture that lives on into literature today. The Modernist Period in English Literature indicates a historic movement that broke from the traditional, recommending that individuals get rid of old conventions and attempt to replace them with updated and improved ones that interact with the new world, shattered by global warfare, in a more self-conscious way. The modernist movement emerged as a new, visceral artistic and literary reaction against the sterile and suddenly culturally irrelevant Victorian culture of the nineteenth century. And, as one of modernism’s foremost literary figures, Virginia Woolf strove to carry this movement forward by breaking from traditional writing forms, recommending that society get rid of old conventions and attempt to replace them with tested and improved ones.