How does Woolf consider the ideas of identity and the ‘self’ in ‘Mrs Dalloway’?

The exploration of the self and one’s cultural and personal identity was a subject that fascinated Woolf as well as some of her contemporaries such as Faulkner, Joyce and various members of ‘The Bloomsbury Group’ that are now considered Modernist writers and theorists. It filled the pages of her posthumously published diaries and many if not all of her other works to some degree. Mrs Dalloway is perhaps not her most autobiographical work that clearly belongs to To The Lighthouse with its inclusion of time spent with both her parents at St Ives. Mrs Dalloway does however show itself to be Woolf’s most personal work through its expression of deeply private emotions arising from both her own and the characters’ psychological vitality despite dark periods of their lives. Woolf started writing Mrs Dalloway after finishing Ulysses by Joyce, a lengthy novel based on the exploits of Leopold Bloom through the streets of Dublin on a single day in June, encountering situations and characters reminiscent of Homer’s The Odyssey. Mrs Dalloway in many ways could be seen as the female reply to Ulysses; however it transcends the use of multiple narrative voices by positing the reader into both the conscious thought and the unconscious emotions of the characters.

Woolf synthesises actual human perception of the everyday which the reader experiences through the consciousness of the characters that unconsciously associate what they are experiencing in the present with emotionally evocative moments from the past. This is apparent from the first page of Mrs Dalloway which opens with a sense of ephemeral confusion of sensations and experiences;

“a morning- fresh as if issued to children on a beach…What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air…stiller than this of course, the air in the early morning”

Clarissa associates the morning and the squeak of the door in her house with that of her memories of the French windows at Bourton and connects this with the sensation of plunging into the open air in London. The stream of consciousness style allows Woolf to submerge the reader in the chaos of emotions of her main characters; Lucrezia and Septimus Warren Smith, Peter Walsh and Clarissa Dalloway. Woolf uses this writing style because it approximates the principles of mind function in man; we are all products of our experiences and memories and our perception of the present will, whether consciously or not, be associated with similar moments from our past. It also brings us closer to the characters’ projected or “public” identity; by this we mean Clarissa’s air of dignity and serenity whilst hearing of a young man’s suicide or Peter’s haughty unconcerned attitude, which masks his deep resentment and enduring love for Clarissa. This is the unity of their fragmented selves combined to project an impression of themselves to the world around them. Richter agrees with this point when she says, “The view of personality achieved [relatively early on in the novel] is that the self is shown as a bundle of divided and disparate parts, which the outside world views (mistakenly) as a single person…” The idea of the self though necessarily intangible and fluid being also fragmented into multiple facets is something that both Woolf and Clarissa’s character are very aware of, “That was herself when some effort, some call on her to be herself, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different [she was]” This theme of multiplicity is present from the consciousness of the characters to their relationship to each other and arguably is a microcosmic statement on Western culture with its mindless expostulations of truth, liberty and equality whilst forcing its men to be massacred for the sake of an oppressive empire that invades and warps other cultures.

In Mrs Dalloway Woolf perfected her now famous “tunnelling process” which enabled her to relate the narrative through instalments in order to “dig out beautiful caves” behind her characters. This replaced the traditional sequential structure by replacing the importance of time with emotional depth; Woolf really believed that a person’s emotional experiences were more important in shaping their identity than the linear physical events of their life. The importance of emotional bonds is clearly underlined by Clarissa’s relationship with Sally Seton. Though the kiss they share in the past at Bourton is important to Clarissa as the emotional voice of the novel describes it as, “the most exquisite moment of her whole life” and a near religious feeling, it is less the act of being kissed and more the emotional legacy the kiss leaves with Clarissa that is of importance;

“The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; and there she was alone with Sally. She felt she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it- a diamond, something infinitely precious…”
Woolf uses an unconscious process to create an unconscious style. We have difficulty identifying this process because it submerges us in the flux of consciousness that make up the “organic nature of her work”, because they exist on the peripheral of our own consciousness we do not give these methods of conveying the chaos of emotions we experience every moment of our lives a second thought as they “interrupt our sense of living”. This not only connects the main characters through their alienation from the people around them but also serves to make us question our own psychological motives and processes in order that we may better understand our own sense of ‘self’. Harvena Richter supports this argument that the self is constantly in a state of rapid evolution as it adapts to the immediate present when she says;

“[Woolf’s] interior world is one of constant transformation, for experience is never static. Even the prose rhythms reflect the flux and flow of certain emotional patterns. As the reader gets caught up in the shifting world of time and motion, of sense and sensibility, in which personality itself is in a constant state of change, she achieves the illusion of the characters very growth and development.”

Woolf uses the stream of conscious not only to contrast the minds of the characters but more subtly to show their similarities and create connections that they themselves are wholly unaware is even possible. The strongest case of this is between Septimus and Clarissa both are from different economic and cultural backgrounds, yet inexplicably are linked by a myriad of emotional circumstances that make them spiritual doppelgängers. Their shared personal alienation from the people around them is the most obvious facet of their dual natures. Septimus returns from the war spiritually and emotionally bankrupted from the horror of the First World War, he returns to civilian life no longer able to feel. Physically he has survived but he is consumed by self-loathing from having escaped from the massacre whilst others such as his friend, Evans whose apparition torments him, did not. His mental instability insulates him from society; this is partly true of Clarissa as well, as she is a victim of a psychological impasse caused by the want of female ties due to the death of both her mother and sister early on in her life and her insecurities about her decision to marry Richard. This causes a ripple effect through the major relationships she has with men throughout her life and leads to her nun like retreat into solitude, -“as though she was leaving a party”- because she is clinging to the possibilities of her youth, which like Evans haunt her sub conscious. Clarissa and Septimus also share a similar physical appearance; “beak-nosed Septimus” and Clarissa “with her ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird’s”. It is interesting to note that Woolf herself who was once delirious from sickness experienced birds singing to her in Greek which also happens to Septimus is Regents Park. There are a number of ways of interpreting this, yet the most persuasive seems to be a further piece of evidence that Mrs Dalloway is one of Woolf’s most personal novels as Septimus and Clarissa can be seen as facets of her own personality.
Though from different cultural backgrounds both Septimus and Clarissa think of the same line of verse from Cymbeline in different parts of the novel, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/ Nor the furious winter’s rages”. For Clarissa this is about coming to terms with her own nature and the passage of time which has taken certain choices from her but for Septimus it is about escaping from life because of its harsh treatment of the individual. Clarissa ultimately is able to deal with her conflicted psyche because of the human connections which support her, such as the memory of Sally but also the overlooked Richard, “Even now if Richard had not been there reading The Times…she must have perished” Septimus on the other hand, because of his mental fragility, is unable to connect and so perishes. This is one of the major concerns of the novel; that the importance for human ties is a basic necessity even for those like Clarissa who are by nature and circumstance intensely private people.
Whilst alone at the party Clarissa thinks of Richard which abruptly and definitively terminates the
memory of Sally, pivoting Clarissa’s conscious thoughts from past to present, the mood from grief to joy, “it was due to Richard that she had never been so happy”. It is the final echo of Peter’s interruption at Bourton which interrupts Clarissa’s female comradeship with Sally and is then repeated and inverted when Elizabeth walks in an interrupts Peter’s climactic moment with Clarissa. The final stage of the developmental narrative is one of positive release for Clarissa due to Septimus’s suicide which prompts her to look forward to her future with Richard. The situations of Septimus and Clarissa are finally resolved and both characters find ways of overcoming the darkness which haunts their conjoined consciousness. This begins with Clarissa literally re-joining the party and symbolically embracing the new possibilities of life, whilst Septimus who acknowledges the joy in life cannot assimilate as without the ability to forge connections and more importantly being persecuted for this inability he commits suicide to escape his tormented loneliness. Clarissa leaves the party to think about Septimus’s fate and it is here we see through her vicarious experience of his death the resolution of the developmental impasse that was created by Peter’s psychological intrusion into the female bond Clarissa shared with Sally thirty years before. Elizabeth Abel supports this argument when she says, “Septimus enables Clarissa to acknowledge and renounce [the past’s] hold and to embrace the imperfect pleasures of adulthood more completely”
The novel ends with Clarissa’s party which acts as a psychological termination of her anxieties about the relationships of her youth and a rebirth that can allow her to envision a positive future.
Woolf uses the First World War as a historical metaphor for the dominance the patriarchal society has over the women of the novel; “fingers of the European war, so prying and insidious” that they “smash a plaster cast of Ceres” which is symbolises the power and destruction of the feminine bond through war and certainly necessarily for psychological progression, through marriage. No character is more affected than Lucrezia Warren Smith in the masculinity of the post-First World War of Mrs Dalloway; married in Milan shortly after the war, Rezia is displaced in a similar way to Clarissa from the mythologised feminine pre-war world to the pervasively masculine present in the novel and retains no link with this past life. This mirrors both Clarissa’s and Rezia’s grief over the lack of female bonds and increases the insular natures of their existences in London’s centre with Big Ben, “striking the half hour with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumbbells this way and that”. Rezia’s history like her name, is abbreviated yet her progression throughout the novel is strikingly similar to Clarissa’s though it does not share the mythical psychological connection that exists between Septimus and Clarissa. Though Milan is an urban setting through Septimus’s memories it is pastoralized by the association of Rezia’s home with her sister, “flowers in tubs, little tables in the open, daughters making hats” and by her retort to the English women, “you should see the Milan gardens!” Her relationship to her sister, her displacement from the mythic pre-war feminine dominion unites them as collateral damage of a patriarchal society that cannot understand the power of this bond. This is also shown through Clarissa and Rezia’s shared dream-like memories of stepping through windows into gardens; “opening long windows stepping out into some garden” and “[Clarissa] burst open the French windows and plunged” After Septimus’s suicide Rezia disappears from the novel having fulfilled her narrative function of echoing Clarissa’s need for female connections and grief over the departure from the secure pre-marital feminine world they were raised in.
Miss Kilman’s pernicious nature and certitude in her own piety allows her to judge Clarissa on outward appearances of triviality, much in the same way that Peter struggles to define Clarissa’s identity and instead retaliates by labelling her as, “the perfect hostess (she had cried over it in her room), she had the makings of a perfect hostess”. Miss Kilman on the other hand because of her own deluded sense of spiritual superiority has a pathological hatred of Clarissa and so seeks to subtly demean and undermine her;

“it was not the body ; it was the soul and is mockery which she wished to subdue; make her feel her mastery. If only she could make her weep; could ruin her; humiliate her; bring her to her knees crying…But this was God’s will, not Miss Kilman’s, it was to be a religious victory”

The way religious belief effects the self and identity is an ambiguous topic with in the novel as in the previous passage it is described as a weapon against the pure enjoyment of life which Miss Kilman so despises Clarissa for, yet when Sally kisses Clarissa at Bourton it is described as a “religious feeling” of ecstasy. This maybe showing that religion is open to perversion but faith is a universal and not necessarily Christian method of channelling deep emotion that even people like Clarissa can experience, given that she is so suspicious of anything tampers with the privacy of the soul. Elizabeth is used as a battle ground between her teacher and her mother yet by the end of the novel this particular struggle is unresolved as Elizabeth does ignore Miss Kilman’s refusal to attend on principle, but Clarissa also knows that Miss Kilman’s spiritual attack on her daughter will continue.
Clarissa is married to Richard, attracted to Peter and carries a deep admiration for her childhood friend Sally around for many years showing the reader the complex emotional life of adulthood and the impossibility of generalising social or sexual roles. Clarissa conforms to Woolf’s own idea about the flexibility and the fluidity of the human psyche and ultimately the problems in trying to define identity which by its nature is constantly evolving.

Peter interprets the parties Clarissa hosts with the attendance of the upper classes as a trivial vocation and to some extent this Is true, being Mrs Dalloway is a very socialable role but Peter cannot understand the hidden meaning of the parties that are also offerings and celebrations that bring people together out from the gulf of silence that separates them. The last line of Mrs Dalloway “For there she was” spoken by Peter, suggests the metaphoric importance of Clarissa’s presence throughout the novel, she reaches a state of enlightenment about the very nature of life to the point where she can objectively weigh the value of life and even be attracted to the idea of leaving it, as Septimus does. The ending of the novel may not inspire complete satisfaction of Clarissa’s developmental process to such a healthy psychological state in such a short space of time, but it does demand acceptance both of Clarissa’s character and of the novel as a success in capturing the reality of the self through the view of consciousness Mrs Dalloway allows. Woolf attempts to render in fiction a realist external world narrated by her characters intricate inner world of perception, consciousness and experience that make up the self which is implicit in the process of building one’s identity, which is never stable but a constant process of building and reshaping.

The last moments of the novel that we the reader spend in Clarissa’s narrative stream of thought, we see she is positive about sacrificing female intimacy from her mute exchange with the old woman who she sees again through the window, a theme recurrent throughout the novel which constantly seems to reflect the desires of the character looking through it. In this instance it suggests Clarissa’s positive progression into old age and of change itself. Richter sees the novel as “Woolf’s attempt to understand her own multi-levelled relationship with reality. One might say that each new voyage landed her on the same shore- that of herself”.

Abel, Elizabeth, Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis (US: The university of Chicago Press, 1989)

Rosenthal, Mike, Virginia Woolf (London:Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979)

Richter, Harvena, The Inward Voyage (US: Princeton University press, 1970)

Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway (1925) Vintage