Term Paper: Idea or Use of the City in Mrs. Dalloway

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¶ … Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

The Function of the City in Reflecting the Theme of Social Oppression in "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

In the novel "Mrs. Dalloway," the character of Clarissa Dalloway figured as the most dominant element in the author Virginia Woolf's narrative. In it, readers are able to witness the life as it occurred to English society during its post-World War I years. However, in the midst of the recovery of the nation lies a deep-seated tradition of social oppression, which has been initially left not confronted by the society, but experienced first-hand after the war has ended. Thus, during its post-war years, English society is undergoing the stress of experiencing the loss of lives, livelihood, and re-establishing the nation from where it had left off, prior to the start of World War I.

Evidently, the physical and social setting in "Mrs. Dalloway" sets the mood for the novel's dominant and emergent theme: the theme of social oppression. Social oppression as shown in the novel was depicted in two ways: the oppression of women as English society returned to its traditional norms and customs after the war, and the oppression of the hard realities of life, "cloaking" these realities with the gallantry and elegance of English society and of London. This paper discusses in detail the function of the city in mirroring the theme of social oppression, focusing in particular to the issues of gender oppression, particularly against women, and the oppression of poverty and class discrimination between London's peasants and the elite class.

The City as a Manifestation of Clarissa's Deliberate Choice to be Subjugated

The theme of oppression against women in Clarissa Dalloway's society is but a common theme depicted among English literary texts set in the 20th century. However, more than just a depiction of oppression against women, "Mrs. Dalloway" also highlights how oppression is deeply embedded in the English psyche that it has become an acceptable and expected behavior among the English people.

In the novel, oppression is has become an option and a way of life for Clarissa. After the War, she has consciously chosen to lead the way of life she led: wife of a member of the government and gracious hostess to her friends and the elite English society. Her choice of lifestyle is also a manifestation of her choice to marry Richard Dalloway instead of her former boyfriend Peter Walsh, demonstrating how deeply-rooted her psyche is to her English society and environs:

what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. 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.

This passage illustrates Clarissa's subsistence to her environs in order to make sense of her decision to lead life as expected of her as an English woman by the society (Kostkowska, 2004:190). The line of thought, "did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely...did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?" projects her self-reflection, wanting to justify her deliberate choice to become part of the English society, to blend in it, and to fit the "stereotype" or what people expected her to be.

Clarissa's uncertainty uncovers the oppression she feels, despite the fact that she belongs to the privileged class of her society. Just as she had stated, it is "inevitable" that she be subjected to specific forms of prejudice or discrimination simply because of the fact that she is a woman. What the passage connotes, then, is a "questioning" Clarissa, whose acceptance of her fate as the wife of a respected English man is haunted by the fact that she herself had no identity, or had no way to express her feelings and frustrations in life, not just as a woman, but as a thinking and feeling individual.

It is also noteworthy that in her trail of thoughts, Peter Walsh surfaces as a significant figure that once again, allows readers to look into her real feelings and thoughts as a married woman. In the same manner that she questions her chosen life as a married woman, she also wonders whether she made the right decision when she married Richard instead of Peter. The stark difference between Richard and Peter demonstrates what Clarissa willingly chose: Richard as the embodiment of English society, and Peter as the individual who despised Clarissa's classy parties and remained detached to his English society.

It is then in the city's environs that Clarissa found the comfort and solace that she needs in order to justify her decision to marry Richard and remain a fixture in the English society, and bring confidence in herself that the decision she made is, indeed, the right decision. In the process, Clarissa consciously allowed herself to be subjected to English society's rigidly conservative attitude and behavior, assimilating its culture, while at the same time, continuously questioning the rightness of these events and occurrences in her life (which later became one of the catalysts that will lead her to commit suicide).

The City as a Cloak, Hiding the Realities of Poverty and Stratification

Manifested in the novel was London's gallantry and excitement, embodied by the elite class of the English society. Clarissa's life in the city is illustrated as a "normal" one, but another facet shown in the novel is the persistence of poverty and class stratification, which remained and intensified in the society during the post-war years. The wide margin between the privileged and the poor became apparent with this seemingly harmless, yet vividly descriptive passage from the novel, highlighting the persistence of class distinction in English society:

small crowd meanwhile had gathered at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Listlessly, yet confidently, poor people all of them, they waited; looked at the Palace itself with the flag flying; at Victoria, billowing on her mound, admired her shelves of running water, her geraniums; singled out from the motor cars in the Mall first this one, then that; bestowed emotion, vainly, upon commoners out for a drive

Victoria and the poor people represented the existence of extremes in London's environs. In the midst of the abundance of wealth in Buckingham Palace is the preponderance of the commoners, of poor people whose unwavering loyalty to the Queen once again reiterates the fact that social oppression has become an accepted norm in English society.

Woolf's illustration of this event in the novel is a reflection of the "disenchantment" that society experienced as most English civilians lived their post-war life in poverty and psychological distress because of the just-concluded World War. According to Panichas (2004), "Mrs. Dalloway [sic] portrays the acute physical and psychic effects, and the sundry ramifications of disenchantment in the post-1918 years...how, in short, they "coped," or failed to cope, with the realities and demands of the society" (237).

This insightful look into the dynamics of oppression in Woolf's novel speaks true of the author's intentions, making readers realize that women oppression is just one of the many social problems English society had to confront. The gradual breaking down of the social structure in England is mainly attributed to the recently concluded World War, and that the eventual disenchantment of its people is one of the direct effects of this social breakdown. Clarissa, as one of the disenfranchised individuals in the highly-stratified English society, experienced this disenchantment as she experienced internal conflict on the rightness or wrongness of her place, status, and role in her society.

Another evidence of how the city environs were used to "cloak" the hard realities of the underprivileged English society is embodied by the character of Septimus Smith. Echoing Panichas' observation of Woolf's use of setting to bring forth the message of social oppression, it is also in the city's surroundings that readers encountered the sad reality of post-trauma experienced mostly by the English soldiers who fought the war. In the midst of the "bloom" of London lies the harsh truth that England has been affected severely by the war, despite its attempt to return normality into the life of its citizens:

London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith; thought nothing of fantastic Christian names like Septimus with which their parents have thought to distinguish them.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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