Central Themes, Motifs and Symbols in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Thea Resbot (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Central Themes
2.1. Disillusionment with the British Empire
2.2. Isolation versus Communication
2.3. Fear of Death

3. Central Motifs and Symbols
3.1. Shakespeare as a central motif
3.2. Symbolic Settings in the novel
3.2.1. London
3.2.2. Nature
3.2.3. Single Rooms
3.3. Symbol of Peter Walsh's pocket knife
3.4. Symbol of Clarissa Dalloway's Dress
3.5. Symbol of the Prime Minister

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Virginia Woolf is one of the most famous modernist female British writers of the 20th century. Throughout the years of being an author, she develops an experimental writing style, which is already noticeable in Mrs Dalloway. This book was published in 1925 by the Hogarth Press, which she founded, together with her husband Leonard Sidney Woolf. Mrs Dalloway is based on the two short stories “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street” and “The Prime Minister” and depicts one day in the life of the fictional protagonists Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, who do not know each other and never actually meet during the day either. Throughout the description of this day, the presence intertwines with the past, with the usage of flashbacks to illustrate memories. Virginia Woolf herself once said about the book: “Suppose it to be connected in this way: Sanity & Insanity. Mrs Dalloway seeing the truth. Septimus Smith seeing the insane truth... The pace is to be by the gradual increase of Septimus's insanity on the one side, by the approval of the party on the other... The Question is whether the inside of the mind in both Mrs Dalloway & Septimus Smith can be made luminous - that is to say the stuff of the book - lights on it coming from external sources. ” (Woolf, 1922)

This quotation contains several important aspects: First of all, it illustrates Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith as the two contrary protagonists of the novel. Clarissa Dalloway, who became a women of the upper class through marrying Richard Dalloway, and is now depicted as the perfect hostess and therefore organises a dinnerparty on that certain day and, on the other side, Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of World War I, who is still suffering from shell shock in 1923, the year the story takes place. Septimus commits suicide near the end of the day and in contrast to that, Clarissa's dinner party seems to be a success.

Second of all, Virginia Woolf states in the quotation, that it is her aim to make the insides of Clarissa and Septimus transparent for the reader. In the last part she additionally gives away, that she wants to fulfill this aim with the help of external sources. By that she most likely means the usage of motifs and symbols. This exactly is the central topic of this term paper, because in Mrs Dalloway are a lot of symbols and motifs hidden, which are worth decoding. Beforehand though, central themes are introduced to create a basis of general knowledge regarding Mrs Dalloway, so that the subsequent analysis of motifs and symbols is expedient. Of course, a symbol or a motif supports the idea of a certain theme, but due to the fact, that in this case, a symbol sometimes can represent different themes, all symbols are dealt with in the one chapter and not, while dealing with a certain theme.

2. Central Themes

2.1. Disillusionment with the British Empire

During the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century Great Britain was clearly considered as the greatest colonial power, since it occupied a quarter of the world's territory including parts of Asia (e.g. India) and Africa (e.g. Nigeria, South Africa). Due to it's colonial strength but also because of it's flourishing economy and it's supremacy with respect to it's naval power, Great Britain held the status of being a world power and had the byname empire on which the sun never sets. It is only natural, that the self- confidence of the nation was consequently rooted in it's population. But the faith in the British Empire was about to change with Britain's entry into World War I.

During World War I, which is also referred to as the Great War, Great Britain lost about a million soldiers. Even today this number appears to be large, when it is taken into consideration, that Britain lost more soldiers in the Great War than in World War II. But the great loss of the soldiers is not the only aspect of World War I, which indicated Britain's still existing vulnerability. The fact that Great Britain is an island, always created a feeling of security inside the British population, and the possession of the largest naval power supported it. That was about to change with the beginning of the aerial attacks on the British Isles in December 1914, because it stroke the British citizens, that they were indeed vulnerable on their island.1 For those explained reasons World War I definitely left marks on Britain's population, even so the island actually concluded the war in victory. Generally speaking, World War I left great changes in the society as well, since the army was all of a sudden a large employer and because of the conscription, many people of different classes from all over the country were brought together. Furthermore the social reforms, which have started in the previous century with the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, were to go on and resulted in the “Representation of the People Act in 1918”, that stated the political inclusion of all men, and women began to be politically included as well.

Soon after the end of the war, prosperity seemed to return, because manufacturers and suppliers, that were needed during the war, became rich, and were now able to boost the economy. This era is still referred to as the “Roaring Twenties” and it has found it's end in the mid 1920's, when the ongoing inflation started to weaken the economy, which resulted in depression and unemployment all over the country. 2

Mrs Dalloway takes place in 1923, so the war ended five years ago and the “Roaring Twenties” are soon to be over and the characters of Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Smith and Peter Walsh feel the failure of the British Empire as strong as their own personal failure. It becomes obvious, when Clarissa's current actions are always intertwined with her memories. She thinks of Bourton and remembers her friend Sally Seton. She is in love with a person that exists only in her memory and throughout the book it becomes clear, that she is not happy in her marriage with her husband Richard and therefore being a women of the upper class. Septimus Smith, who was a soldier in World War I, still suffers from shell shock. He blames himself for not being able to rescue his friend Evans, which is noticeable, because he has different visions including Evans, throughout the day. At last there is Peter Walsh, who emigrated to India after WWI, which might be because he still felt the failure of Clarissa refusing his marriage proposal. On the other side there are only a few characters, who cherish the Empire, like Aunt Helena or Lady Bruton.

2.2. Isolation versus Communication

As already illustrated the disillusionment with the British Empire creates a gap between the conservative people, such as Lady Bruton or Richard Dalloway and the more modern people, like Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Smith and Peter Walsh. So communication between those to factions is not easy. Furthermore, everybody in the novel seems to have difficulties to communicate their true intentions, especially Clarissa. Therefore she organises a party in an attempt to establish some kind of communication between the members of the upper class. In the novel Clarissa has the common small talk with people, which is mainly about flowers or other people's children, but her thoughts are a lot deeper and the reader receives the impression, that the need to communicate is given as well. As soon as the presence intertwines with her memory it becomes obvious that Clarissa only stopped sharing her thoughts, when she married Richard Dalloway and with it, became a woman of the upper class. This aspect is also stated by Peter Walsh, who knows Clarissa from long ago and says that the need to be understood is contradictory for humans, but yet they are unable to open up completely.3

Septimus seems to be the opposite of Clarissa. He slips into isolation, because he consciously refuses to communicate. He is in psychological therapy to treat his posttraumatic stress disorder, but does not trust into the methods of the psychologist, Sir William, since he is old-fashioned. So Septimus believes, on one hand, that the doctor only wants his soul and on the other hand, that his wife Rezia is incapable to understand him and his thoughts, since she has not been a soldier in World War I. Eventually Septimus decides to commit suicide to keep his privacy. At the same time his suicide can be considered as attempt to communicate, only without words. When he jumps out of the window he lands on a fence, so it could show his try to overcome his isolation, but not being completely successful. Clarissa does not know Septimus and only hears about the suicide of a young man, but she interprets it as an act of communication, which is why he earns her admiration.

2.3. Fear of Death

The fear of death is the third central topic of Mrs Dalloway, which is explained in this paper. It is most obviously rooted in the characters of Clarissa, Peter and Septimus, so in those ones, who feel the failure of the British Empire very strong.

It is evident that Clarissa is afraid of death, since she repeats the line of Shakespeare's poem Cymbeline “Fear no more the heat o' sun/ Nor the furious winter's rages”. Cymbeline is a funeral poem and, this line especially, illustrates death as comfort. When Peter Walsh's thoughts mirror his fear of death, he follows an unknown woman to distract himself. At last Septimus is very much scared of dying, since he served in a war and still suffers from shell shock. Eventually he still commits suicide, because, to him, living another day is much worth.

3. Central Motifs and Symbols

3.1. Shakespeare as a central motif

As already mentioned, Clarissa repeats a line from Cymbeline several times in the novel, to reassure herself when she has thoughts about death. But that is not the only time Shakespeare appears in the novel. Quite the contrary, his many appearances suggest hopefulness, because it might represent the concept of finding comfort in art. Septimus for example, states, that he appreciated Shakespeare very much and even wanted to become a poet, but since he lost all his hope he does not find comfort in poetry anymore. Shakespeare's poetry involves lots of emotions, which completely punctuates the sensitivity of Clarissa and Septimus. On the contrary, Richard Dalloway and Lady Bruton do not read or appreciate Shakespeare. That is how the gap between the conservative and more modern people is once again illustrated.

Clarissa also used a quote from Othello during a summer in Bourton, when she was not yet married to Richard Dalloway and shared her thoughts openly. She spent this summer together with her closest friend Sally Seton and when she is about to meet her for dinner she says “if it were now to die, 'twere now to be the most happy.” (Othello, II - 1). Othello is another one of Shakespeare's tragedies. Othello, is tricked by his attendant Iago into believing that his wife, Desdemona, had an affair. Consequently Othello murders Desdemona and commits suicide afterwards. Othello says those quoted words in a moment of pure love and happiness, before all the tragic takes place.4 Thus when Clarissa uses this quote, it, on one hand indicates, that something tragic is about to happen and one the other, it illustrates the great love that Clarissa always felt (and still feels) for Sally Seton. During dinner Clarissa was introduced to Richard Dalloway and therefore this moment signifies the end for Clarissa's relationship to Sally and the beginning of her own personal tragedy.

All those described encounters with Shakespeare throughout the book, justify why he and his literary works can be seen as a central motif.


1 Frey, Christian (2014): „Der Kriegseintritt kostete England sein Empire“. Die Welt. 2014.

2 Johnson, Ben (2015): „The 1920s, the Roaring Twenties, in Britain“. Historic-uk.com. Abgerufen am 06. 06. 2015 von http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-1920s-in- Britain/.

3 Rascolie, Natalie (2014): „Mrs. Dalloway and the Lack of Communication | a rose by any other word“. Arosebyanyotherword.com. Abgerufen am 06. 06. 2015 von http://www.arosebyanyotherword.com/mrs- dalloway-and-the-lack-of-communication/

4 Ria, Harper (2008): „Mrs. Dalloway: 'Twere now to be most happy.“. Mrsdallowayconcordance.blogspot.de. dddAbgerufen am 11. 06. 2015 von http://mrsdallowayconcordance.blogspot.de/2008/09/twere-now-to-be-most-dddhappy.html. 7

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Central Themes, Motifs and Symbols in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway"
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Thea Resbot (Author), 2015, Central Themes, Motifs and Symbols in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/388879


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