Woolf’s Explores Women’s Consciousness

Virginia Woolf, already recognized as having made a stylistic break with the past, made a powerful statement about how women perceive themselves and society in her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway.

Summary of Event

Virginia Woolf was born into a family noted for its literary achievements. Her father, Leslie Stephen, Stephen, Leslie is best known as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, the standard against which biographical dictionaries have long been measured. The Stephens have often been cited as the model Victorian family, with the loving if gruff father and the doting mother providing a supportive home environment. The appearance of such a family situation was almost entirely a facade. Leslie Stephen not only disassociated himself from the problems of his children (his parental concern was mostly expressed in letters to his wife) but also demanded an exaggerated level of attention for himself. [kw]Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway Explores Women’s Consciousness (1925)[Woolfs Mrs. Dalloway Explores Womens Consciousness (1925)]
[kw]Mrs. Dalloway Explores Women’s Consciousness, Woolf’s (1925)
[kw]Women’s Consciousness, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway Explores (1925)[Womens Consciousness, Woolfs Mrs. Dalloway Explores (1925)]
Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf)[Mrs Dalloway]
[g]England;1925: Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway Explores Women’s Consciousness[06280]
[c]Literature;1925: Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway Explores Women’s Consciousness[06280]
Woolf, Virginia
Woolf, Leonard S.
Duckworth, George
Bell, Vanessa

Virginia’s mother was Leslie’s second wife, Julia (née Jackson) Duckworth. They were married March 26, 1878, and had between them five children from their former marriages. They were to have four of their own as well, of which Virginia was the third. By the time Virginia was old enough to be aware of her surroundings, Laura, Leslie’s daughter from his first marriage, had been confined to a separate section of the house because of her emotional problems. Although Laura may have been of less-than-normal intelligence, it appears that her real crime was willfulness—completely unacceptable in a Victorian daughter and to be curbed by virtually any level of force needed. Laura’s fate was a powerful message about the importance of conformity for the other daughters in the Stephen family.

Worse emotional traumas were to follow. Virginia’s half sister Stella Duckworth Duckworth, Stella was not protected from the exuberant courtship of J. W. “Jack” Hills, and although the young woman was certainly frightened and possibly raped, Hills was not excluded from the house. No child could feel protected. Further, after the death of Julia Stephen in 1895, Stella was forced into the role of wife and mother and was expected to run the house and tend to the needs of Leslie and the children. There are hints, although no hard evidence, that her wifely functions included sex with her stepfather. She eventually married Hills in 1897 only to die of peritonitis shortly after returning from her honeymoon. It is quite possible that her illness was the result of an injury that occurred during sexual intercourse.

Nor were Leslie and Julia’s own children safe and secure. Both Virginia and her elder sister Vanessa were sexually abused by their half brothers George and Herbert Duckworth. In an autobiographical fragment, Virginia recalls the first incident: She was about six, and George Duckworth put her up on a shelf outside the family’s dining room and felt her genitalia. The abuse expanded in nature and continued through her teenage years. It is not surprising, then, that Virginia never found much pleasure in heterosexual activity or that she suffered from bouts of depression throughout her life. During her teenage years, these resulted in periods of reduced activity and reductions—which she resented bitterly—in the already limited education the daughter of a Victorian was allowed.

After the death of Leslie Stephen early in 1904, the Stephen children were left to fend for themselves. They eventually settled in the Bloomsbury section of London, where a literary circle formed around the family. This loose association, often called the Bloomsbury Group, Bloomsbury Group included Clive Bell (eventually Vanessa’s husband), Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, and Saxon Sydney-Turner. Bloomsbury, which came to include a number of other intellectuals such as Roger Fry and John Maynard Keynes, was known for a bohemian lifestyle and sexual freedom. It was as part of this group that Virginia began to write—she needed money—and met her husband, Leonard S. Woolf, who had spent a number of years as a colonial administrator in India. The wedding occurred in 1912.

Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, Voyage Out, The (Woolf) did not appear until 1915. Although she had already begun to make a name for herself as a critic and reviewer, the tension of waiting for reviews and the desire for success took an emotional toll. Her husband, who had not been prepared for the intensity of his bride’s emotional storms, got her the necessary medical help and saw to it that she had several months of rest until she recovered her equilibrium. This sort of breakdown, although not always as serious, accompanied the publication of most of her novels. Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist of Woolf’s 1925 novel, makes a brief appearance in The Voyage Out.

The success of her first book started Woolf on a career as a novelist. She began to develop a new style of novel that rejected the past, which she saw as represented by the works of Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells. Her novels were about everyday life, but they added layer after layer of symbolism and meaning. She wrote the essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924) “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (Woolf)[Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown] to set forth her ideas about what fiction should be.

Meanwhile, in 1922 she had decided to write two books at the same time—a novel and a book of criticism. These became The Common Reader: First Series (1925) Common Reader, The (Woolf) and Mrs. Dalloway. She hoped that this approach would help ameliorate the emotional disturbance that publishing a novel produced. Her expectation of critical comment about Jacob’s Room (1922) Jacob’s Room (Woolf)[Jacobs Room (Woolf)] had caused her significant difficulty. Although the projects were not connected, her reading of Greek classics for an essay titled “Not Knowing Greek”—she resented the lack of education for girls—clearly influenced the psychological symbolism in Mrs. Dalloway.

The character Clarissa Dalloway has been associated with Kitty Maxse, whose death in a fall in 1922 Woolf attributed to suicide. Woolf intended to write of the realities of English life: “I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system and to show it at work, at its most intense.” As is always the case in Virginia Woolf’s fiction, many symbols and meanings can be found in Mrs. Dalloway, but one theme in the book is Clarissa Dalloway’s effort to give her life meaning.


Mrs. Dalloway was met with significant critical approval when it was published. Although the book was not as widely regarded as a work of genius as To the Lighthouse (1927) To the Lighthouse (Woolf) and especially A Room of One’s Own (1929) Room of One’s Own, A (Woolf)[Room of Ones Own, A] would later be, it left few serious critics with doubt that Virginia Woolf was a major figure in modern literature. It was also, for a serious novel, a popular success as measured by sales. It further marked, perhaps coincidentally, the beginning of one of the longest periods of stability and happiness in Woolf’s life.

Superficially, the novel is the story of a day in Clarissa Dalloway’s life. She is planning one of her famous parties—giving parties is her only talent—and preparations bring her into contact with a number of friends and acquaintances. The unexpected arrival of an old flame, Peter Walsh, brings some complications and memories of youth. Woolf is brilliant in her ability to weave past and present into a seamless picture. Other than Mrs. Dalloway and her friends, the only significant character is Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked World War I veteran who is slipping into madness because of what he describes as an inability to feel, though his plight might be better described as feeling too much and too intensely. Smith’s friend Evans was killed at the end of the war, and in confusion and pain Smith married in search of comfort and support. He is unable to satisfy his wife’s demands for love and children, he is haunted by visions of Evans, and he feels guilt for being alive when his friend is dead. Ultimately, Smith kills himself.

On first reading, there might seem to be little comment about feminism in the novel. Clarissa, however, has found a way to escape some of the limitations placed on women in her society. In her parties, she brings together people from a variety of walks of life, even across class lines. Clarissa’s parties are experiments in communication, much as Virginia Woolf’s novels were for her. Clarissa has a consciousness of the potential for a unity in life in which divisions created by gender, class, and wealth disappear.

Freedom, as far as Woolf was concerned, came from successfully coping with the barriers one faced and from finding a vision such as Clarissa Dalloway’s. Miss Kilman, the teacher of Clarissa’s daughter, is the novel’s representative modern woman. She has a profession and much integrity—she lost her standing by refusing to condemn German friends as monsters during the war. Her consciousness of facts and logic leaves her, however, narrow and unfulfilled. Unlike Clarissa, she has no sense of transcendence. She is unhappy and unloved. Clearly, Woolf did not see the triumph of women as simply a matter of moving into the sphere that in the 1920’s was still regarded as that of the male; women could and had to be more than that.

Regrettably, but hardly surprisingly given her experiences, Woolf’s male characters do not fare particularly well. With one exception, they are inept at life and love. Richard Dalloway, Clarissa’s husband, upon hearing that Peter Walsh has returned, resolves to take his wife some flowers and tell her that he loves her. He manages only the flowers. Walsh, who has had trouble with women all of his life, is so governed by his passions that, although he follows a pretty girl around the city, he can never bring himself to approach her; he must be satisfied with his fantasies. The only admirable male character, Septimus Smith, is mad. He has a sense of transcendence, but unlike Clarissa, who remembers with longing the time another woman kissed her on the lips, he cannot cope with his homoerotic feelings. Ultimately, only Clarissa—who does not regret her almost total lack of education or her lack of productive employment and who has only the gift of party giving—has a sense of completeness.

It is easy to see in Virginia Woolf’s background the elements of life portrayed in Mrs. Dalloway. The sexual abuse had to leave her with a jaundiced view of men and heterosexual activity and must have produced feelings much like those described by Septimus. Woolf, unmoved by heterosexuality, found lesbian relations more fulfilling. Just as she was writing Mrs. Dalloway, she was developing a relationship with Vita Sackville-West that seems to have been the most sexually fulfilling of her life. Woolf never escaped the traumas of her childhood, and if, like Clarissa, she knew transcendence, like Septimus, she found it hurt too much to survive. In 1941, Virginia Woolf put a stone in her pocket and walked into the River Ouse to drown. Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf)[Mrs Dalloway]

Further Reading

  • Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972. Written by Woolf’s nephew, this book is filled with facts, some probably known only to the family. It should be noted that Bell tends to dismiss the traumas of Woolf’s childhood as of little importance. An important source, but should not be used without consulting the work of Louise DeSalvo (see below).
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Clarissa Dalloway. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. A collection of critical writings focusing on the character of Clarissa Dalloway. Brings together a variety of critical commentary from seven decades.
  • DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Depends on inference and comparison of Woolf’s comments about her life and problems with those of women who have chosen to speak openly of their experience of sexual abuse, but presents a powerful and convincing logic. No student of Woolf or her fiction can reasonably avoid reading this volume.
  • Kelley, Alice van Buren. The Novels of Virginia Woolf: Fact and Vision. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Focuses on Woolf’s recurrent theme of transcendence versus logic as a defining characteristic of personality. Well-written work of criticism provides important insights into Woolf’s understanding of consciousness. Includes a chapter about Mrs. Dalloway.
  • Rosenfeld, Natania. Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Examines Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s life together and its influence on the writings of both partners. Includes notes and index.
  • Woolf, Virginia. The “Mrs. Dalloway” Reader. Edited by Francine Prose. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2003. Includes the complete text of Mrs. Dalloway as well as the earlier short work Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, copies of journal entries and letters written by Woolf related to Mrs. Dalloway, and essays and commentary on the novel by critics and other authors.
  • _______. Three Guineas. 1938. Reprint (annotated). New York: Harvest Books, 2006. This work, written less than three years before the author’s suicide, is a statement of her views and anger about the mistreatment of women. One of the book’s working titles gives a sense of Woolf’s feelings: “On Being Despised.” Useful for anyone seeking to understand Woolf’s ideas about women and life.

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