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Analysis of Mrs DallowayResearch Paper

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Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway contains many of the hallmarks of the author's style and thematic concerns, including a critique of gender roles and concepts of mental illness. Throughout the novel Clarissa, the eponymous Mrs. Dalloway, reflects on the trajectory of her life and uses her self-reflection as a lens through which she develops a cogent critique of the entire social system in which she lives. "I want to criticize the social system and to show it at work, at its most intense," Virginia Woolf stated on her motives for writing Mrs. Dalloway (cited by Zwerdling 69). Clarissa's reflections, catalyzed by her observations of men and women in her social circle, comprise a pessimistic point-of-view. Septimus's suicide highlights the fact that there is no way out of the patriarchal structure; there are only ways of coping with its immutable power. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf employs Clarissa as a vehicle for critiquing patriarchy and all it entails including class-based social hierarchies, gender bias, and heteronormativity.

In Mrs. Dalloway, one of the key themes is the way patriarchy constrains the organic evolution of relationships. Clarissa has been aware of the ways British social conventions have constrained her own feelings, restricting her ability to love whomever she pleases. Moreover, British social conventions prevent Clarissa from exploring her bisexuality. Woolf explicitly details Clarissa's infatuation with Sally Seton. Throughout the novel, Clarissa gushes when speaking of her friend. Woolf lets her readers know early in the text that Clarissa was in love with Sally and likely still is, given the amount of time devoted to Sally in her narrative. Clarissa is cognizant of her love for Sally, and also understands that there is no place in British society for the development of romantic love between women. Romantic love remains confined to the dictates of heterosexual marriage. Yet Clarissa talks about "falling in love with women," and when referring to Sally Seton states, "Had not that, after all, been love?" (Woolf 26-27).

One of the main reasons why Clarissa loves and admires Sally is for her carefree attitude and her indifference to social norms. Clarissa underestimates her own nonconformist tendencies, and instead projects her feelings onto her friend. "Sally's power was amazing," Clarissa notes, after musing on the nature of "falling in love with women," (Woolf 26). One night, Clarissa "could not take her eyes off Sally," something she does not necessarily feel when looking at her husband or even Peter, who she clearly loves too (Woolf 27). Stricken by Sally's physical beauty, Clarissa notes she "envied" Sally's "sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything, a quality much commoner in foreigners than in Englishwomen," (Woolf 27). Referring to Sally's bohemianism as an inherently "foreign" quality and suggesting even that Sally might have been part "French," draws attention to the primary social critique Woolf makes through her titular character. Clarissa shows readers that English society represses natural sexual and emotional desire, leading to problems in relationships, problems with identity, and problems with mental health. Mrs. Dalloway shows that patriarchal societies create dissatisfaction, loneliness, isolation, and even suicidal ideation. Woolf goes so far as to link patriarchy with death itself.

Death is a major motif in Mrs. Dalloway, serving several functions. One of those functions is to refer to way patriarchy kills the soul. The character of Septimus and his ongoing cries about the "death of the soul" underscores this trajectory of thought in Woolf's novel. Another function of the motif of death in Mrs. Dalloway is for Clarissa to contemplate her own mortality and thereby show the reader what she thinks of her own life and how she views her role in society. Whereas she views Sally as someone with joie du vivre, someone who lives life fearlessly and to the fullest, Clarissa feels "sheltered" in comparison (Woolf 27). In one passage, Clarissa contemplates her own mortality directly and rather fearlessly in spite of her self-deprecating attitude: "Did it matter then, she asked herself ... that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her," (Woolf 7). Finally, death serves a symbolic function as the death of outmoded social norms.

In addition to questioning and confronting norms related to gender and sexuality, Woolf also subverts norms related to social structure and hierarchy. A strong Marxist threat runs through Mrs. Dalloway. Sally and Clarissa used to stay up all night talking and idealistically dreaming about how they would "reform the world," via the establishment of a society to "abolish private property," (Woolf 27). The party that Mrs. Dalloway focuses on is one that brings to light the petty hierarchies that exist in British society. Clarissa despises the formalities and yet, she is bound by them; she has developed no other way of defining herself other than through her social ties. Littleton claims that "the fundamental action of Mrs. Dalloway is to elucidate the mechanisms of Clarissa's thoughts and actions," specifically in order to "chart the ways in which her existence profoundly controverts the ideology and power relations of her cultural sphere," (36). Clarissa consciously questions and controverts the ideology and power relations of her cultural sphere, and therefore Woolf endows her protagonist with tremendous power. Because Clarissa remains humble and unassuming about her own power, she fails to actually wield it to create change in her life. She understands that relationships in British society are fixed, based on "business and power" more than on genuine emotional connectness and empathy, which is why she waxes poetic about Sally and about Peter as well (Littleton 36).

Patriarchal social norms have even dictated the interactions between Clarissa and her husband. Whereas Peter serves somewhat as the role of Clarissa's conscience ("she knew directly he criticized her"), Richard is her proverbial ball and chain (Woolf 48). Richard does try to mend the relationship with his wife, buying her flowers, and even appears on the brink of opening up to her emotionally, but never actually does due to fear. Patriarchy has dictated his role in the household, and patriarchy also specifically segregates the public and private spheres in ways that prevent the exhibition of love and affection. From Clarissa's point-of-view, emotional intensity is the fabric of life. She understands Septimus's pathos so poignantly precisely because she also feels the "death of the soul" in her own life. Whereas the patriarchal point-of-view pathologizes feelings like Clarissa's and Septimus's "viewed in a context of female experience, the capacity for opening up to identification and fusion reveals revolutionary and renewing powers," (Wyatt 115). The "fusion" Clarissa desires with Sally and indeed with herself as well highlight her innate hope for renewal. After all, she described her feelings for Sally as "religious" (Woolf 29). With Peter, too, Clarissa feels a spiritual connection. Clarissa muses on their psychic connection: "they had always this queer power of communicating without words," (Woolf 48).

Communication within the patriarchal British upper crust is an exercise in futility, leading to the "death of the soul." The psychic connection Clarissa shares with Peter is nothing like what she experiences with her emotionally distant husband. Likewise, the sexual attraction Clarissa feels toward Sally cannot be matched in the traditional matrimonial relationship with Richard. If, as Littleton claims, fixed relationships in Clarissa's social milieu are based on "business and power," then Woolf is trying to show that a heterosexual marriage is about "business and power" more than it is about love, intensity, "revelation" or "religious feeling" as she knows exists.

Woolf effectively contrasts Clarissa and Richard's marriage with that of Septimus and Lucrezia, which is established as both a politically subversive and also idealized heterosexual companionate marriage. Septimus and Lucrezia have a model relationship first and foremost because Septimus subverts traditional gender roles for English masculinity. Lucrizia, a poet by nature and a war veteran in the most ironic way, exhibits passion and emotional authenticity. Moreover, Italian Lucrezia possesses the same "foreign" gumption, passion, and lust for life that Clarissa admires in Sally. Both Septimus and Lucrezia exist outside of the boundaries of conventional English decorum, precisely why Woolf weaves the couple into the narrative. Through the juxtaposition of Septimus and Lucrizia's marriage with that of Clarissa and Richard, Woolf achieves the central goal of "criticizing the social system and to show it at work, at its most intense," (Zwerdling 69).

The death of Septimus is the "death of the soul" that he so dearly feared throughout the novel, and which Clarissa also comes to fear from watching her acquaintance succumb to the horrors of a patriarchal society bent on war, colonialism, injustice, and sexism. Septimus's death also means the death of his marriage with Lucrezia, symbolizing the death of hope in any alternative to the heteronormative patriarchal structure that presides in British society. The power structures that keep patriarchy in its place are elucidated firmly: including the military and the medical establishments. Septimus was drawn to fighting for his country out of a romantic sense of duty; instead his soul was raped and killed. When he tries to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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