The Concepts of Identity in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway". A Comparison of the Personal and Public Identity Regarding Women during the Victorian Time

Essay, 2018

8 Pages, Grade: A


Dissolution of Personal Identity VS Construction of Public Identity

In Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs. Dalloway

E. Agathokleous 2018

The concept of identity is one that can be given many interpretations and meanings according to relevant components and aspects taken into consideration. In this frame a severance between personal and social identity can be made, referring both to the individual’s self but also the individual’s social identity related to social conduct and aiming toward an accepted and well projected social self. In this however there is need for balance which will diminish the risk of one form of identity consuming the other (Brewer, 475-6).

Clarissa Dalloway serves as a very clear example of that struggle between personal and public identity and especially regarding women of the Victorian time, who by oppressing their true self, aspirations, feelings and wits were allowed to fit in the stereotypical role that society assigned to women. During the 19th century, England’s ascendance as an Imperial nation brought on vast changes. Population in the cities rose highly, industrialization changed the way of life for everyone without exception, new classes of people were formed and most of them sunk in poverty and misery. It also became a time of appearances and propriety at all costs. At such times, men of aristocracy held authority, dealt with politics and matters of the state and ruled on the most important social matters, whereas their women were appointed to the house, confined in the supporting role of a subordinate, which had the task of highlighting male superiority (Davidoff, 93).

A woman’s obedience to what society commanded had grave importance for her future well being, thus meant sacrificing wants for musts, even if in the course of this, personal identity was dissolved giving way to a construct of a proper, uniform identify which abode by the code and principles of the Victorian era. The impact of changes in England’s status caused society’s reaction in preserving standards and even creating new ones to preserve privilege, to restore order and also clearly define the roles of genders in society (Davidoff, 88). Woolf presents a female character whose personal identity is hidden somewhere in the background and appears only through her stream of consciousness, while her public identity dominates due to a wish to be consolidated and to belong and a forceful will of accomplishing all that she should and not all that she could. This dissolution of Clarissa Dalloway’s personal identity was put in motion by societal pressure, realized through an appropriate marriage and justified through a sacrifice.

The temporal placement of the novel highlights the significance of the historical and political context. Mrs. Dalloway’s party day will take place five years after the First World War has ended. Those years resulted in changes that Peter Walsh is in the position to observe after being away for those five years. As he remarks “a change of some sort had undoubtedly taken place […] People looked different. Newspapers seemed different” (Woolf, 51). Shifts in politics led to the uncertainty of the governing class. The threat of being overpowered resulted in a more imminent need for control, stability and maintenance of the order (Zwerdling, 70). The writer in a very balanced way manages to cover a wide spectrum of people spreading from those who truly abode and related to the social norms and biddings against those who in their own way failed to do so. Sir William Bradshaw, the doctor that so hastily seeks to remove Septimus from society and for society’s own good, is a perfect example of the controlling class that held power. “He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up” (Woolf, 73). Individual self had no place in a society promoting uniformity and obedience and needed to be oppressed before leading to antisocial and thus dangerous behaviours. Septimus serves as the other end of the line, a man broken by war, a man that could not return to his previous unified with society self (Zwerdling, 72). Along the way Septimus lost the ability to conform, to obey those he believed to be ignorant and indifferent of a higher truth, a deeper essence in men, one that let to eternal life. “He waited. He listened. [...] they sang in voices prolonged and piercingly in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, that there is no death” (Woolf, 18). The meeting of these two ends clearly shows the incapability of the individual to prevail over such ruthlessly aggressive society. Somewhere in between, Clarissa Dalloway stands, battling to keep balance between her inner self and her well constructed, respectable public self.

In this very context, Clarissa Parry makes a decision which gives her the role of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, a wife, a mother, a woman struggling to justify a facade created at the expense of self-loss and to repress the feeling of emptiness and vanity concerning her life. Clarissa’s reminiscence as well as present time narration provide evidence that the resulting consumption of Clarissa’s personal identity by her social, constructed identity emerged by her own need to feel integrated in society as the model wife of a respectable man, as a stable, complete personality according to society stereotypes and furthermore to successfully project that personality to those around her. Social and gender stereotypes prevail over personal aspirations and needs and as a result, the self becomes “invisible; unseen; unknown” (Woolf, 11). The theme of identity is brought up right from the beginning. The novel’s title, Mrs. Dalloway informs that the novel focuses on Mrs. Dalloway, a woman and a married one in fact. The name Clarissa does not appear, signifying the loss of individuality when assuming a role in relation to other social components like marriage. The fact however that her husband’s name doesn’t appear either, may be signifying Clarissa’s remaining internal response and objection about who she has become and how different she would be if she hadn’t made the choices she made (Forbes, 39). Perhaps the most significant of those choices was turning down Peter Walsh for Richard Dalloway.

Peter was certainly the one dearest to Clarissa, a man more committed to sentiment than duty; a man that would offer a sincere true connection as a husband. Clarissa often doubts her decision to turn him down and at other times she mentally justifies her choice contrasting all he offered with all she thought she needed. “So she would find herself arguing in St. James Park, still making out that she had been right – and she had too – not to marry him” (Woolf, 6). It is evident that her choice had to be the right one and Clarissa had to convince herself about that since at the time she contemplates on this, her own personal identity is already diminished, remaining just a shadow in the back of her head, raising all these kinds of “what ifs” and hence there is nothing to fall back to if ruling against her decision. Young Peter tries to make Clarissa see where she is headed. He warns that her future lies in the role of “the perfect hostess” and asks of her the release of fearless emotion that would lead to deep and meaningless communication. Clarissa however is resistant. Though her emotions for Peter are evident since she still carries “in her heart the grief, the anguish” (Woolf, 6), a future with Peter would destroy them both, she claims.

Proper marriage is one which offers distance between man and woman, one that sets the correct parameters between husband and wife and places one above the other. “For in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house;” (Woolf, 6). Clarissa tries to rationalize her marriage to a man who finds it hard to express sentiment but also her own lack of interest in the details of his life paralleling these with freedom. Yet this notion of freedom is just a screen hiding the lack of one’s ability to disclose one’s true self and defy the strict privacy that was so valued during the time. The panic that took over her when Peter boldly tries to ask if Richard makes her happy (Woolf, 34) is evident in the way she introduces her daughter “emotionally, histrionically perhaps.” (Woolf 34). Elisabeth, like “deus ex machina”, appears at the most convenient time to spare her for having to support her choice to Peter, showing the uncertainty she felt of being able to convince someone and especially Peter about something she constantly tries to convince her own self. Peter’s presence brings forth the feeling of emptiness and loss of individuality (Forbes, 41). Clarissa’s social identity is however enhanced from the social acceptance she receives which allows her to support her Mrs. Dalloway persona and get more and more consumed by it.

Her choice of husband was the right one, according to a society in which female individual self had little importance. For Clarissa belonging and being accepted as a worthy member of society is important and even if she realizes that the things she does are mostly to “make people think this; or that” (Woolf, 7) and she is extremely worried that she is not convincing at all, “for no one was ever for a second taken in”(Woolf,7), she has no other choice since her personal identity is by now conquered by her social one. Clarissa finds the character she impersonates exhausting, definite, one that needs to be assembled with effort in order to hide the other, incompatible self she hides, a self with flaws “faults, vanities, jealousies, suspicions” (Woolf, 27). During her walk toward Bond Street Clarissa finds the consolation she needs, the acceptance as part of the whole, the sense of belonging that made her proud to be a part of a “perfectly upright and stoical” society (Woolf,7). Belonging to society as an esteemed member, was important to Clarissa and this is evident when transferring into Peters stream of consciousness, “The obvious thing to say of her was that she was worldly; cared to much for rank and society and getting on in the world-” (Woolf, 55). It is not farfetched to say that Clarissa always had the notion of freedom related with a marriage that would ensure respectability and high status even if that meant a life of no passion, one in which individual identity would have to be sacrificed on the altar of Victorian norms and values (McGuigan, 137). Clarissa is devastated when she is left out of Mrs. Bruton’s lunch, she feels trembling, shocked, caught up in a frailness streaming from the lack of an individual self detached from social reception and inclusion. This inclusion is exactly what she tries to accomplish as “the perfect hostess” of parties that bring society’s finest, together.

The choice of not conforming could have devastating consequences. Septimus, even though physically missing from Mrs. Dalloway party, becomes a significant part of it. Septimus, is an individual that irrevocably surrenders to the need to oppose social confinement and instead express his inmost ideas and notions which, after the war, lost the ability to oppress (Wang,186). In this sense Septimus acts in the exact way Clarissa struggles to avoid acting. His sacrifice justifies Clarissa’s choices and way of life, presenting one of the tragic consequences of not conforming. Even at the time Clarissa poses as the perfect hostess, she thinks that this role she took on is “too much an effort” (Woolf,126) but yet she is anxious to do well and hide all objection to her pretending resulting in a successful projection of the public identity she had constructed. The fact that this was a common line of behavior for everyone, “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.” (Woolf, 122) gives her comfort (Forbes, 44). Septimus’ sacrifice as a result of his inability to be a “fixed and stable subject of the state” (Wang,186), gives the alternative to Clarissa’s contemplation on her life’s choices that would have as a result a less efficient public identity (Wang, 186). This way, her public identity is even more appraised and justified even though inside she sees Septimus’ act as liberating, a final form of resistance to a system that rejected him and rendered him unfit to participate in society. Septimus’ ideas and their open expression are what deprive him of a public self that would be considered normal and socially correct and accepted (McGuigan,123). Clarissa Dalloway on the other hand, managed to hide any form of resistance to social norms and she did it so, so well that her personal identity and unique self remained just voices in the back of her head.

Mrs. Dalloway can be considered a highly political novel in the sense that it opposes a social system surviving at the expense of individuality, emotion and free thinking (Wang,190). Personal identity must be diminished so that the individual will perform the role assigned by society with no objections and no deviations. In any other case, authority acted ruthlessly and decisively to save it’s control and domination on institutions and affairs, maintaining this way the privilege of class, economic superiority and influence on matters of importance. Identity is formed mainly by the Victorian influence that highly regarded privatization and appearances and valuated human existence according to status, wealth and gender (Zwerdling, 69). Clarissa’s alone contemplation after Septimus death clarifies even more the opposition between being free to maintain a personal identity and being forced to construct a public identity that would provide acceptance. When she hears about Septimus’death she is so shocked she must hide from prying eyes in order to be able to sympathize and even in some way identify with him, expressing her own belief that “A thing there was that mattered; a thing wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every dayin corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance” (Woolf, 131-2). Personal identity is just a shadow, covered in lies and manipulation, hidden behind destructive oppression, but it is still there, even though well hidden behind the persona which forms the public self. Septimus, the threat of society, the complete expression of personal self versus a lack of public identity is extinct in the end, while Mrs. Dalloway, “assembles” (Woolf, 133), and returns to her party, continuing to exist in the construct of her public identity, having no other alternative than to abide to the forces but also her own choices that led her there.

Works Cited

Brewer, B. Mairilyn. “The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 17, No. 5. (1 October 1991), pp. 475-482, doi:10.1177/0146167291175001

Davidoff, Leonore. “Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick.” Feminist Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 1979, pp. 87–141.

Forbes, Shannon. “Equating Performance with Identity: The failure of Clarissa’s Dalloway Victorian “Self” in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway”. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 38, No. 1, Special Convention Issue: Performance (Spring, 2005), pp. 38-50.

McGuican, John. “The Unwitting Anarchism of Mrs. Dalloway”. Woolf studies Annual, Vol.19, Annual, 2013, pp. 123-190.

Wang, Ban. “ “I” on the run”. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1, spring 1992, pp. 177-191,doi: 10.1353/mfs.0.0857.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs.Dalloway. Hogarth Press, 1925.

Zwerdling, Alex. “Mrs. Dalloway and the Social System.” PMLA, vol. 92, no. 1, 1977, p. 69-82, doi:10.2307/461415.


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The Concepts of Identity in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway". A Comparison of the Personal and Public Identity Regarding Women during the Victorian Time
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Elena Agathokleous (Author), 2018, The Concepts of Identity in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway". A Comparison of the Personal and Public Identity Regarding Women during the Victorian Time, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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