In what ways, and how successfully, does Mrs Dalloway illustrate Woolf’s intention to use her novel to ‘criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense’? (Woolf, A Writers Diary, 1923)
Woolf’s novel is a critique of post war society to the very fabric of its pages. She uses a variety of tools such as the varying perspectives of characters, which after the First World War, have come to see how fatally flawed the British Empire is. There are those who outwardly champion English tradition, such as Aunt Helena and Lady Bruton, yet Woolf insinuates that blame falls upon all who blindly accept the system, after discovering that Septimus has taken his life, Clarrisa who often herself feels oppressed by society believes that, “Somehow it was her disaster-her disgrace.” Within this essay I will look closely at the characters and techniques Woolf uses to depict the flaws within this early nineteenth-century society, interpreting if even the protagonist of the of the novel Clarissa, is as guilty as the oppressors of the novel, for tolerating and abiding by there class conformities.
The First World War brought about the disillusionment of the British Empire, Woolf’s novel set in 1923, shows that post war society is at war within itself. The people of Britain are torn, many wishing to destabilise the forced class structure, which only benefits a small number of people. Woolf leaves a firm impression within the novel that although the war is over its conscriptions and authorities are still in place. As Michael H Whitworth says in his book, Virginia Woolf, ‘The novels three main characters, Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter are all, to different extents and in different ways, outsiders, all resistant to the patterns imposed by authority.’ As the quote suggests, these three main characters are all subject to a constructed social conformity, this illustrated clearly within Woolfs relation of Septimus’ suicide. The description, ‘now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.” These two quotes, coerce and define the argument, that many after the war felt the oppression of authority more heavily upon there shoulders. Septimus’s character suggests that true happiness can be found not only in death, but in the freedom that it gives from conformity and oppression.
Septimus is a tool Woolf uses to convey the more intense and flawed aspects of the British post war society. His suicide is a reflection not only upon William Bradshaw, but also on a social class, which condones, and lives within a world that allows oppression and cruelty to go unchallenged. Although conscription has been abolished, and the war is over, Septimus is still expected to conform to the expectations of a society, he no longer believes in. On the surface it may seem that Woolf’s novel is speaking to the effects of ‘shell shock’ on an ex solider, yet Septimus is a victim of naivety and neglect. His doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, wishes to “convert” him into a man that he deems appropriate for his society. Woolf often uses Septimus as Clarissa’ double, both are oppressed, Septimus a working class man under the dictatorship of Bradshaw, and Clarissa although belonging to a higher social class is under the oppression of both her circumstances and gender. The treatment of Septimus at the hands of Bradshaw is a direct critique of the post war mentality, yet are characters such as Clarissa and Peter Walsh not equally as guilty. They both understand that life after the war has altered the British Empire permanently, former social constructions are crumbling and yet they live within a society that is blind to these necessary changes. By contributing to this flawed society, are they guilty by association. Making it possible that Clarissa Dalloway herself is a critique of the social system.
Bibliography: Moran Patricia: Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Trauma (New York ; Houndmills, Basingstoke and Hampshire : Palgrave Macmillan 2007 1st ed.)
Snaith Anna, Whitworth Michael: Virginia Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place (Published Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan 2007)
Whitworth Michael H: Virginia Woolf, (Oxford, New York, Oxford University press, 2005)
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