In the 1925 novel "Mrs. Dalloway," navigates her dual identities: "Clarissa" or "Mrs. Dalloway." (Liveright)


The Clarissa inside all of us: A literary analysis of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

Virginia Woolf proves that, even after 100 years, we still struggle to understand each other and accept ourselves.
<a href="" target="_self">Emily Li</a>

Emily Li

November 13, 2023

I have been told quite a few times that my creative writing style is somewhat reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Although I have only read her first published story, “The Mark on the Wall,” during American Idea class, Woolf’s experimental employment of the human consciousness has left a memorable imprint in my mind. Thus, I was excited to further explore and learn from her literary techniques when our Modernist class prepared to read “Mrs. Dalloway.”

While the novel’s constant transitions in point-of-views (from omniscient third-person to a close third-person that takes the form of the characters’ thoughts) and references to settings and people without explanation (who is Durtnall? What is “the Park” supposed to refer to?) puzzled me at first, I connected with Woolf’s detailed portrayal of people’s thoughts rather quickly.

Just like how the world was beginning to recover from a period of trauma, chaos and disease in the early 1920s, present-day 2023 confronts a similar situation in a post-pandemic state, when many habitually communicate through social media or the internet and grow reluctant to connect with others face-to-face.

Despite a 100-year gap between the book’s setting and the present day, people’s frequent failure to truly understand each other persists. Under pretenses, whether in obligation of social class in “Mrs. Dalloway” or displayed on today’s social media, we cannot reach a deeper connection, both with others and with ourselves.

To that end, “Mrs. Dalloway” is a treasure whose applications remain eternal; through the novel, I can uncover the raw and flawed truths about the human mind and explore the turbulent struggles of identity that all people share, regardless of location and time.

On a casual and humorous level, Virginia Woolf vividly captures how our consciousness embarks on tangents, even when communicating with others. Clarissa’s mind during a morning conversation with Hugh Whitebread, for instance, was “oddly conscious at the same time of her hat.” Humans are prone to distracting thoughts, and we are too preoccupied with our presentation to others that we ultimately cannot establish a sincere connection with them.

In today’s digital age, this phenomenon also occurs daily on various social media platforms. Someone posts a series of pictures that they have taken hours to prepare and select, hoping to garner likes, comments, and shares; a deluge of dramatic compliments followed by emojis from that person’s followers (who, most of the time, does it because they have mutually commented on each other’s posts for a while now and it would be impolite to stop this streak) pour in; finally, the person who posted the pictures replies to their comments and gives compliments back to all of their followers.

Although these actions sound superficial, time-consuming and unnecessary, I have witnessed (and perpetrated) them so often that this method of communication on social media has become a habit. While Mrs. Dalloway is aware of her hat, people today are always conscious of their online presence during a casual chat: Is that user scrolling through my posts and story highlights on my profile page? Do my pictures look cute?

Furthermore, the profiles we create online are not reflective of our true selves; they are carefully curated to demonstrate our perfect selves and happy life, similar to the reputation and responsibilities that the title “Mrs. Dalloway” holds for Clarissa. It was Clarissa whose “dress flamed” and “body burnt” (96) when she received the news of Septimus’ death.

Privately in a “little room where the Prime Minister had gone with Lady Bruton,” Clarissa resonated spiritually with Septimus and dwelled, painfully, in her moment of existential dread. Has Clarissa ever thought of ending her own life, as she recalled, in her memories, the words “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy”? But other people will never know because Clarissa “must assemble” — she must put back on the mask of “Mrs. Dalloway” and regress to her party once more. The party must go on.

Yes, the party must go on. And what a party it was! In the brightly-lit Dalloway house where “the beautiful silver, the brass fire-irons, the new chair-covers, and the curtains of yellow chintz” all await their esteemed guests, clusters of high-class families greet each other on this festive evening.

Mrs. Dalloway greets all of her guests with the words “How delightful to see you!” but she is “effusive, insincere.” One can say that this party is merely upper-class frivolity, a superficial gathering where all guests put on a mask to hide their honest thoughts, which is similar to the meaningless exchange of compliments and greetings that has become a norm on social media.

Yet, we also cannot deny the utility of such a platform, even after 100 years; Hugh Whitbread, for instance, is “talking to the Portuguese Ambassador” and seizing the opportunity to establish more connections with esteemed politicians during the party. Likewise, people nowadays still attend similar gatherings to expand their social circles. LinkedIn — a digital version of such a resource — has become popular for seeking connections useful to individuals.

Although many years have passed since the publication of “Mrs. Dalloway,” its portrayal of the human psyche remains relevant. In this era filled with distractions, information, and lies, we protect ourselves in a polished cocoon, engaged in conversations or activities that only reside superficially. We rarely ask each other and ourselves, “How are we really feeling?”

Clarissa Dalloway is representative, to varying degrees, of all individuals. On the outside, we are Mrs. Dalloway, striving to present our best selves to others because that is inevitable; when we are just Clarissa, however, we are vulnerable and flawed. By extricating this facet of human nature, Woolf has made “Mrs. Dalloway” a timeless piece of literature.