Research Paper: Consumerism in Women Mrs. Dalloway

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Consumerism in Mrs. Dalloway

Social Inequality Reflected through the Shopping Excursions of Clarissa Dalloway and Doris Kilman in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway

Although published almost ninety years ago, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway continues to fascinate literary critics with the subtleties of its plot, themes, motifs, and the complexity of its characters. Literary scholars and students have investigated various aspects of the novel, Woolf's literary genre, and the role of women in the British society in the early twentieth century as reflected in Mrs. Dalloway. Some of the themes explored in the novel include the issue of privacy, disillusionment with the British Empire, women's rights, female sexuality, and social inequality. In the last few decades, scholars began to pay greater attention to the question of "market" and consumer culture as critiqued by Woolf. This latest investigation has offered students of Woolf's works a new venue for discussion, analysis, and understanding of Mrs. Dalloway. Indeed, one of the interesting features of the novel is the use of "shopping" as an activity that tells broader stories about the society and the characters involved. Closer reading of the novel and the recent scholarly analysis suggests that Clarissa Dalloway, the main protagonist, and Doris Kilman (Miss Kilman), a woman whom Clarissa hates, represent Woolf's conflicting views on consumer culture. And the shopping excursions of these two women in Mrs. Dalloway reflect these conflicting views.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that her intention in Mrs. Dalloway was, as she said, "to give life and death, sanity and insanity: I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work at its most intense" (cited in Rachman 4). She struggled with bipolarity and tried to express that in the novel. She had a complicated view on many social issues, including mass consumerism. Woolf was an upper-middle class woman and appreciated the market as an integral feature of modernity. But she also became increasingly critical of mass consumerism later in her life. She tried to convey this complicated and conflicted perspective on consumerism through the characters of Clarissa Dalloway and Miss Kilman. The two women despise each other although it is narrated that Clarissa only "hates the idea" of Miss Kilman (Woolf 14). Clarissa enjoys consumerism through shopping, making her appearance elegant, and throwing parties, while Miss Kilman is a victim of mass consumerism's callousness. By presenting these two characters -- who are two polar opposites of each other -- Woolf expresses her bipolarity and her conflicted view on the value of the market economy.

According to Wicke, Bloomsbury -- the area of London where the story in the novel takes place -- is the representation of modernity as seen by Woolf. "Bloomsbury," she says, "can be seen as an invented community, in intention almost a utopia of and for consumption . . . indubitably associated with socioeconomics" (6). Wicke sees a parallel between the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes and the literary imagery of Woolf, both viewing market as an "aesthetic phenomenon." Wicke says that Mrs. Dalloway "is a head-on collision with class and its minute determinants. In addition, though, it can be read as an extraordinary rendition of the micro-complications of 'the market,' a market shot through with desire, memory, global history and national tradition, sex, loss, and shopping" (13). Shopping for Woolf is no small a matter. It is a reflection of economics and social realities. Its significance is reflected in the fact that shopping is the main activity in the novel. Almost everyone goes to shopping but their shopping excursions demonstrate differences in their social status in Bloomsbury.

The importance of shopping is emphasized in the opening pages of the novel where Clarissa Dalloway says that she "would buy the flowers herself" (Woolf 3). She also says that the servants might be busy with other activities. So, those activities are also important, but buying flowers is a leisure activity she enjoys doing herself. As soon as she embarks on her excursion, Clarissa recalls how as an eighteen-year-old she used to have a conversation with Peter Walsh in the pristine morning of Bourton, her girlhood home. Shopping brings pleasant flashbacks from the past. And while enjoyment is an integral part of shopping, she also sees it as a venue where she can express her status in the society. She goes there to buy flowers and gloves. These were consumer goods that upper-middle class women could afford buying and saw as symbolizing their difference from the lower class women. As Wicke explains, "Clarissa Dalloway has a privileged relation to the metropolitan market because of her status within consumption." She further explains, "Clarissa tentatively and tenuously reverses the disenchantment of the world characteristic of modernity by the generosity of her gendered acts of consumption, where consumption is reformulated as the nature of the gift" (18). It might be argued that the market, shopping, and consumerism are legitimized through the character of Clarissa Dalloway.

Paradoxically, however, the shopping excursion also reminds Clarissa death. The idea of death has been haunting her since childhood. Her pleasant flashbacks are interrupted by the thought of it: "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" (Woolf 11). These thoughts come and go, as they remind the intermittency of her life and her enjoyment. It should also be noted that "death" is used in multiple meanings throughout the novel, sometimes referring to actual physical death, in other situations referring to the end of something important such as love. Later in her discussion of Sally Seton and their mutual attraction, Clarissa uses the metaphor of death to describe her inability to keep that relationship as she truly loved Sally and in her true self was lesbian.

Clarissa's attitude toward shopping and her experience in the excursion is only one side of Woolf's analysis and critique of the market. As Simpson argues, Woolf often argued that women's right to earn money was liberating. It allowed women to express themselves, brought changed perceptions of the world, and freed them from the "need to charm and allure men." In that sense, Woolf supported capitalist market as a force empowering women. At the same time, "participation in capitalist market economies also signals a complicity in a patriarchal system, a system that Woolf sees as tyrannous and as operating in a way similar to a European Fascist state. She describes middle-class women's engagement with capitalist economics as being caught 'between the devil and the deep blue sea.'" Woolf also emphasized that "the exchange of commodities in a capitalist economy and the exchange of women in a patriarchal sexual economy are interrelated" (Simpson 19). So, one can see shallowness of the upper-middle class women who spend extravagantly and shopping not for the sake of consumption but for the purpose of demonstrating their elitism. More importantly, there is a cruel side of capitalist economy that treats women like Miss Kilman as if she is a non-entity, non-person.

In his discussion of Miss Kilman's purchase of a petticoat, Abbott offers an extensive analysis of the significance of shopping. He notes that, in her writings, "Woolf reveals a fascination/repulsion with shopping and with the potential power of consumerism over the individual" (196). He also notes that while department store sanctuaries in Mrs. Dalloway offered female consumers limitless opportunities for pleasure, even Clarissa Dalloway begins to feel aversion to shopping because of the "massness" of public places. Shopping is also a pressure exerted by the upper-middle class society, forcing women to look elegant and fashionable. It forces them to sacrifice some of their freedom and independence. With the exception of Miss Kilman who needs to buy a petticoat for her survival, no other person is in need of buying anything. Clarissa, her daughter Elizabeth, and others do shopping for luxury and for demonstrating their "superior" social status. The irony is that Clarissa's shopping excursion reinforces her "superior" position but also limits her independence and freedom.

For Miss Kilman, shopping is a painful ordeal. She is the granddaughter of a shopkeeper but due to the anti-German prejudices of the British society, she is disenfranchised. She is a born-again Christian who is attracted to Elizabeth but cannot stand the presence of Clarissa. Miss Kilman sees Clarissa as her anti-thesis -- the exact polar opposite -- in everything they do. And shopping excursions of Clarissa and Miss Kilman also represent these stark differences. Here is an example of Miss Kilman's shopping experience: "There were the petticoats, brown, decorous, striped, frivolous, solid, flimsy; and she chose, in her abstraction, portentously, and the girl serving thought her mad" (Woolf 196). Contrast this with the following passage about Clarissa's shopping experience:

There were roses; there were… [END OF PREVIEW]

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