Pessimism, Skepticism, and Despair in Early 20th Century England — A Reading of Mrs. Dalloway

The early part of the Twentieth Century saw England as the major super power in the world. During this time, England ascended to the height of its imperial powers, with its grasp and influence worldwide. A phrase was even coined in recognition of this fact: “The Empire on which the sun never sets”. And yet despite England’s great power, its citizenry was undergoing a dramatic paradigm shift on several fronts: religious, psychological, and epistemological, to name a few. Post World War I, life in England would never be the same as people came face to face with not just the imagery of war, but also living with its aftermath: the mentally and physically wounded. Writing from this era reflected the changing and uncertain nature of this time. Mrs. Dalloway showcases this conflict on both social and individual levels. From disenchantment of social expectations to the inability to see the good in humanity, Virginia Woolf demonstrates the loss of meaning through the internalization of the self, a literary process that confines the “knowing” aspect of the self to what lies behind the senses. In doing so, none of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway are able to find any transcendent meaning beyond themselves, instead succumbing to an anguish and lethargy which ultimately consumes them.

The notion of a lost self is readily immanent in Woolf’s story, for she titles the book, “Mrs. Dalloway”. Woolf’s purposeful omission of Clarissa’s first name in the title makes a clear statement on how Clarissa sees herself and how she has lost her autonomy as a person. She is exhibited as an addendum; a reference to her husband. In two short words, Woolf establishes the link between Clarissa’s role as wife and how that role defines her throughout the novel. Woolf’s choice of “Mrs. Dalloway” or “Mrs. Richard Dalloway” illustrates the loss of self that Clarissa has suffered (Forbes 39). To help elucidate, this short passage drives home the point: “She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown “¦ this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway 10-11). The last act that Clarissa makes as a fully-autonomous person was her refusal to marry Peter Walsh (Woolf 46).

The commentary in Mrs. Dalloway on the self is not restricted to its inability to act upon the world, but also looks at how the self, both by its inability to project itself on and in the world, suffers from isolation and despair. Perhaps the most tragic character in the novel is Septimus Smith, who is tortured by his wartime experience. Having seen the realities of war up close, Septimus’ view of humanity has become dark. Once an aspiring poet, he now sees human nature as bankrupt and cruel. However, the most unique aspect about Septimus’ view on human nature is its active observation. For Septimus, human nature is not a passive enterprise. It is, as he states, “Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a postcard, human nature is on you.” (Woolf 92). The viewpoint being expressed here, though dramatized through Septimus’ mental instability, sees human nature as not just predatory, but separate from humans themselves. According to Septimus, human nature is an entity unto itself, stalking man, and waiting for an opportunity to pounce. His character drives home the perception that the self is wholly separate from its environment and even from itself (human nature).

Woolf’s setting also articulate an atmosphere of isolation and solitude. This sentiment is expressed as a doom: “and yet “¦ feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen” (Woolf 3). The preceding quote is in the opening dialog that is going on inside Clarissa’s head. It speaks to the isolation as expressed by Clarissa as well as Septimus, who feels, “quite alone” (Woolf 92). Often, this despair of isolation is expressed through the disjointed thoughts and ramblings of Clarissa. In one such passage, Clarissa begins by recollecting a time that she and Peter Walsh went in to London together but injects mid-thought, “It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; no knowing people; not being known” (Woolf 152). The same paragraph strays into thoughts about transcendental theories and how her soul might come to, “haunt certain places after death” (Woolf 153). This disjointed narrative style, reinforcing the isolation that Clarissa and the other characters experience, echoes what Erich Auerbach says about Woolf’s prose: “[It] is often something confusing, something hazy “¦ [a] vague indefinability of meaning” (Auerbach 551). I will next demonstrate how Woolf’s stream of conscious contributes to the sense of pessimism and despair in Mrs. Dalloway.

Virginia Woolf’s narrative style, stream of conscious, does not simply serve to provide an alternate form of writing dialog. It has a very precise purpose, namely the continued deconstruction of reality throughout Mrs. Dalloway. What I mean here is that the prose goes beyond just illustrating the words that Clarissa is thinking. By mixing all of her thoughts together “thoughts that include the recollected thoughts of other characters or even the thoughts of those characters (Septimus is one example)” the reader is never able to firmly establish any sense of reality outside of the characters. Reality has become firmly contingent upon the interlocutors’ circumstances and tonality, not, as Auerbach describes, “on form” (Auerbach 535). I see this as another literary technique to further distance the self from the world. In writing about twentieth-century art, Bryan Appleyard writes in his Understanding the Present, regarding this subject: “The symptoms of this lethargy are all about us. The pessimism, anguish, skepticism and despair of so much twentieth-century art and literature are expressions of the fact that there is nothing “big” worth talking about anymore, there is no meaning to be elucidated.” (Appleyard 11). What I take from Appleyard’s observation is thus: Woolf’s characters, while differing slightly from Appleyard’s observation (talking incessantly), are unable to come to any “continuity of action” (Auerbach 552); their dialog is helpless to affect or impact their world in such a way as serving any of the characters’ needs. What we are left with, as the reader, is only, “an appreciation of the multiple enmeshments of the motifs” (Auerbach 551).

There are numerous consequences of retracting the self from the world. One such example as expressed in the novel is the delusion of the self. This self-deception is more than a fabricated lie that the characters tell themselves, but rather the process of deconstructing and diminishing the possibility of any external reality. Ironically, this process relies upon the very same external influences it is trying to deny, by mimicking them for appropriate such notions of reality. To help clarify my point I will provide a few examples from the text. As Clarissa stands by herself one night in reflection, she imagines herself, as Deborah Guth declares it, “a martyr” (Guth 35). In Woolf’s words, she describes Clarissa as, “a single figure against the appalling night” (Woolf 30). In another instance, Clarissa recalls an instance when she was feeding ducks at the lake, where she, “stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them [her parents], grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life” (Woolf 43).

Perhaps the best example to illuminate this point is the death of Septimus. Clarissa absolves her grief over Septimus’ death by proposing some noble cause in his suicide. Her question, “did he plunge holding his treasure?” (Woolf 184), does not find any reference in the words or sentiments Septimus uttered in the storyline. In fact, it is entirely plausible to say that Septimus had not truly wanted to kill himself: “He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot” (Woolf 143). I say all of this in support of this theory: the retracted-self, in being incapable of seeing itself as a part of the external world, will seek to create an image of itself through the process of self-invention, not self-discovery. Clarissa, pondering if Septimus took his treasure with him, has more to do with her fear of death and her attempt to ascribe meaning on to both life and death. In other words, Clarissa seeks to use Septimus’ death, through the process of self-invention, to transcend the lack of meaning she is incapable of finding in the external world.

The retracted-self of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway finds its perceptions of the external world increasing inhospitable and incompatible. Where Clarissa was once a student of poetry she hardly reads at all anymore, “except memoirs in bed” (Woolf 8). Likewise, Peter Walsh’s early fascination with eighteenth-century rationalists (Addison, Pope) has fallen by the wayside. Again, the most convincing example is Septimus. For a man whose life was literature, and whose guiding purpose in volunteering for the war effort was, “to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays” (Woolf 86). In their respective pasts, Woolf’s characters engaged their worlds and found some measure of meaning. In limiting their capacity to “know” whether self-inflicted, in Clarissa’s case, or through the misfortunes of war, in Septimus’, is not important “they lost the tools that gave their lives and purpose and meaning. Turning to Septimus again, we can see that, in his insanity, he “becomes little more than a compilation of literary fragments culled from his voracious readings” (Wyatt 440). Without engaging the world and finding some meaning to contextualize the self, Woolf’s characters will have no other choose to react as debased, rootless individuals, reduced to living half lives as social cripples.

Clarissa’s separation from the world is marked by retreating to an imaginative space. There are several allusions to this process in the course of the novel. However, one specific instance stands out strongest. It is the passage in which Clarissa has retreated to the upstairs of the house. She likens this experience as “a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower” there was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room” (Woolf 31). Clarissa’s steady withdrawal of her “self” from the world creates a context that separates her knowing mind from the external world. All acts of knowing are reduced to internal processes, as Clarissa notes, “The, for that moment, she had seen an illumination ” an inner meaning almost expressed” (my quotes) (Woolf 32). Indeed, the world takes on a dimness that enshrouds the three main characters of Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus. Retreated to a dimension that is incapable of providing the defining sustenance all three crave, their total actions fail to reach the world around them.

It is no coincidence then, after examination of the notes from Woolf’s diary, that we find Clarissa and Septimus sharing similar, if not identical values. Only their expressed methods differ. In fact, Woolf notes in her diary, that Septimus was created as Clarissa’s literary double (Leonard Woolf 56). The author even planned for Clarissa to kill herself (Samuelson 60) instead of the latter version, where Septimus takes his own life. This aesthetic technique sheds tremendous light on how and why Woolf made the two characters so empathetic towards one another. It also illustrates why both characters, possessing tendencies towards withdrawal from the world, share similar dilemmas of survival and finding meaning in the world. Both characters struggle with sanity: Septimus’ struggle being a public spectacle where Clarissa’s is internal, as demonstrated in Woolf’s notes. This duality of mental suffering is supported by Woolf’s above statement that both Septimus is Clarissa’s double. In the end, my case for both characters suffering from insanity is rooted in the aforementioned theory of self-invention. Essentially, neither character, despite unsuccessful attempts to innovate meaning, fall victim to a life devoid of any context and meaning.

Woolf’s claim that Septimus is the literary double of Clarissa, when examined from the context of the self separated from the world, is not without problem. What comes across to me is more of a parody, at times, than genuine similarities between the two characters. This brings me back to Clarissa’s grieving moment, when she hears of Septimus’ death. Woolf’s Clarissa projects a tragic sentimentality onto Septimus; a sentimentality he did not espouse. Again, I am brought back to the line, “Life was good. The sun hot” (Woolf 143). This seems to stand in contradiction to Clarissa’s, “did he plunge holding his treasure?” (Woolf 184). By ignoring Septimus’ admission that “life was good”, Woolf presents herself as ambivalent in regards to her desire in remaining aloof from the narration. In The World and the Book, Gabriel Josipovici states: “We have to ask, not: What do these words mean? but: What do these words when spoken by that person mean?” (Josipovici 21). What does these words mean to Woolf, who has omniscient knowledge of her characters? Clarissa claims to be cognizant of Septimus’ reality, yet, the above words do not reflect this. The conclusion I am left with is: cloistering of the “knowing self” leads to a lack of consciousness on the part of the characters’ surroundings in Mrs. Dalloway. I come to this conclusion through examining Woolf’s own statements, which attest to the duality between Clarissa and Septimus. A duality that I feel is at times duplicitous and unreliable. If Woolf’s literary aim was to state that one cannot extrapolate real meanings from the extant world, then she has succeeded. The results of such a cosmology support the theme throughout Mrs. Dalloway, that reality can only be observed, never outwardly experienced.
The fact that Woolf, a writer of some capacity, would choose to strip the characters in her novel of the means of defining themselves in the world, is as curious is it is fascinating. In his article, Dehumanized, Mark Slouka makes the argument for the importance of the arts and humanities in shaping and defining who we are. He sees the humanities as providing “a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value” (Slouka 42), a value that Slouka and Woolf would share, despite the decades that separate their lives. It cannot be coincidence then, that many of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway have purposely left those mechanisms which gave them meaning: Peter’s literate, Septimus’ poetry, and Clarissa’s reading and studies. The result is surrender to knowing anything about the world. Knowledge or affirmation is not a purely intern act. Incapable of finding joy or meaning in life, the cast of characters slides into a pessimism and a debilitating skepticism.

Accepting Slouka’s theory on “reckoning value”, I see no method for the characters in Mrs. Dalloway to adapt to the demands of a changing society. In this sense, Clarissa as well as many of the other characters in the novel, harbor hostilities to both change and tradition. For the latter, Clarissa’s opposed to tradition has stripped her of context and definition (Mrs. Dalloway versus Clarissa Dalloway). Similarly, for Septimus, the past is “an idyll contrasted with the present” (Wyatt 440). This further illustrates the defining force that literature had on Septimus. Without it, he is a simulacrum of his former self. For both characters, it is not the yearning for the past as much as it is a longing for pastoral themes or perceived images they conjure up. Change is also representative of the enormous challenge the characters face in their society. By accepting the validity that the self can only observe, and not affirm, Clarissa’s dilemma is that she is incapable of taking ownership of her own happiness. The result is a hostility towards those who possessed the ability to thrive, such as Hugh Whitbread, for who she stated had “the most extraordinary, the most natural, the most sublime respect for the British aristocracy of any human being he had ever come across” (Woolf 72). She began the soliloquy with, “Hugh she detested for some reason” (Woolf 72). This animosity concurs with Auerbach’s observation of Woolf’s literary style, in which he says that there is “something hostile to the reality which they represent” (Auerbach 551). I myself have also questioned Woolf’s literary motivations here, and in my conclusion, I can find no other viable alternative for the characters to act upon, given they have been put into a situation where the only outlet is something that lies between fatalism and nihilism. Examined in this light, Woolf’s transparency as an author, who seeks to withhold omniscient knowledge from the narrative field, begins to fail in light of her characters having few to no other options.

In conclusion, I find Wool’s writing to be highly explanative when seeking to understand many of the driving ideologies and popular philosophies of her time. Such philosophies have endured and have found their way into current forms of literate and popular discourse. The modern world still labors under the weight of truth and the search for meaning in life. Perhaps by examining in detail the writings and thoughts of earlier generations, we may find the necessary tools to answer these questions, if not for all humanity, at least of ourselves in our own time and space.


  • Appleyard, Bryan. Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
  • Forbes, Shannon. “Equating Performance with Identity: The Failure of Clarissa Dalloway’s Victorian “˜Self’ in Virginia Woolf’s “˜Mrs. Dalloway'” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 38.1 (2005): 38-50.
  • Guth, Deborah. “Rituals of Self-Deception: Clarissa Dalloway’s Final Moment of Vision” Twentieth Century Literature 36.1 (1990): 35-42.
  • Guth, Deborah. “‘What a Lark! What a Plunge!’: Fiction as Self-Evasion in “˜Mrs. Dalloway'” The Modern Language Review 34.1 (1989): 18-25.
  • Josipovici, Gabriel. The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971.
  • Samuelson, Ralph. “The Theme of “˜Mrs. Dalloway'”. Chicago Review 11.4. (1958): 57-76.
    Slouka, Mark. “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School.” Harper’s Magazine Sept. 2009: 32-40.
  • Woolf, Virginia, A Writer’s Diary. Ed. Leonard Woolf. New York: Mariner Books, 2003.
  • Wyatt, Jean M. “Mrs. Dalloway: Literary Allusion as Structural Metaphor” PMLA 88.3 (1973): 440-451.

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