Mrs Dalloway

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Themes and Colors
Privacy, Loneliness, and Communication Theme Icon
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Psychology and Perception Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mrs Dalloway, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Social Criticism Theme Icon

Though Mrs. Dalloway’s action concerns only one day and mostly follows a lady throwing a party, Woolf manages to thread her novel with criticism of English society and post-War conservatism. In Woolf’s time the British Empire was the strongest in the world, with colonies all across the globe (including Canada, India, and Australia), but after World War I England’s power began to crumble. England was technically victorious in the War, but hundreds of thousands of soldiers died and the country suffered huge financial losses. Mrs. Dalloway then shows how the English upper class tried to cling to old, outmoded traditions and pretend that nothing had changed. This is tragically exhibited through Septimus, as society ignores his PTSD. Septimus fought for his country, but now the country is trying to pretend that the horrors of war left no lasting traces on its soldiers.

The empty tradition and conservatism of the aristocracy is also shown in the characters of Lady Bruton, Aunt Helena, and Hugh Whitbread, who have traditional values and manners but are hopelessly removed from modern life. Richard works for the Conservative Party, which is portrayed as outdated, stuffy, and soon to be replaced by the Labor Party. All the characters are still preoccupied with social class, as when Clarissa snobbily avoids inviting her poor cousin Elsie to her party. Even the poor Doris Kilman is endlessly bitter towards Clarissa for her wealth and charm. The futility of classism and outdated conservatism then culminates in the figure of the Prime Minister. He is first mentioned as Peter’s critique of Clarissa (that she will marry a prime minister and so become a useless appendage to a role rather than the partner to a man) and then his “greatness” is discussed by people in the street, but when the Prime Minister actually appears in person he is ordinary and almost laughable. The Prime Minister belongs to the old order of Empire, repression, and classism, which Woolf shows must be discarded so that England can survive in the modern era.

Social Criticism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Social Criticism appears in each section of Mrs Dalloway. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Social Criticism Quotes in Mrs Dalloway

Below you will find the important quotes in Mrs Dalloway related to the theme of Social Criticism.
Section 1 Quotes

How he scolded her! How they argued! She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Peter Walsh (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prime Minister
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Clarissa is recalling her early relationship with Peter Walsh, who once asked her to marry him, but also grew frustrated with her and critiqued her with words that Clarissa recalls in this passage. Marrying a Prime Minister is, in Peter's consideration, a grave insult: he associates such leaders with the stuffy, antiquated past of the English empire, a past that can only be embarrassing to continue to prop up. "Perfect hostess" is also an accusatory insult, suggesting a lack of depth and a contentment with superficial things in life. Ironically, Clarissa is remembering these words as she rushes around London, doing all she can to be an ideal hostess for her party that evening (which the Prime Minister will attend). But her recollections also underline just how little Peter was able to express how he really felt for Clarissa without descending into frustrated insults, even if they had a real social basis.


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Section 2 Quotes

“Look, look, Septimus!” she cried. For Dr. Holmes had told her to make her husband (who had nothing whatever seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts) take an interest in things outside himself.
So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty… Tears ran down his cheeks.
It was toffee; they were advertising toffee, a nursemaid told Rezia.

Related Characters: Septimus Warren Smith (speaker), Lucrezia Smith (Rezia) (speaker), Dr. Holmes
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

An airplane has spelled out an advertisement for "TOFFEE" in sky writing, and Lucrezia Smith is drawing Septimus's attention to it. The first part of this passage satirically underlines the shocking (to a modern audience) disregard that many at the time - even doctors - showed towards people suffering from PTSD, a severe condition rather than a mere sign that Septimus was "out of sorts." Still, Lucrezia's cry to her husband does touch Septimus, even if in an entirely different way - one that he cannot communicate to Lucrezia.

Immediately after Septimus's sense of beauty and near-mystical communication, however, we learn what exactly the airplane is communicating: rather than a powerful, symbolic message, it is simply a profit-driven stunt, part of a modern world where material progress and wealth are ruthlessly pursued. The juxtaposition of the advertisement for toffee and Septimus's silent meditation is not just ironic, then, but also a sign of the tragic difficulty of real, profound communication that also, at least in this novel, is a part of modern life.

Section 7 Quotes

Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.

Related Characters: Septimus Warren Smith, Miss Isabel Pole
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

In this part of the novel, we learn some of the backstory of Septimus Smith, who before the war was an idealistic young man in love with Miss Isabel Pole, a teacher and Shakespeare scholar. This passage suggests that Septimus had very little idea of why he went to war or what England was fighting for. His notion of "England" was composed of the small amount of experiences he had, and these two examples are meant to underline the limits and partial nature of these experiences. But the passage also implies that it was not Septimus's fault to have gone to war for such reasons: instead, a whole country went to war for various reasons, many of which were just as random or partial - and suffered a great deal as a result.

“So you’re in a funk,” he said agreeably, sitting down by his patient’s side. He had actually talked of killing himself to his wife, quite a girl, a foreigner, wasn’t she? Didn’t that give her a very odd idea of English husbands? Didn’t one owe perhaps a duty to one’s wife? Wouldn’t it be better to do something instead of lying in bed? For he had forty years’ experience behind him; and Septimus could take Dr. Holmes’s word for it – there was nothing whatever the matter with him.

Related Characters: Dr. Holmes (speaker), Septimus Warren Smith, Lucrezia Smith (Rezia)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Septimus is recalling his conversations with Dr. Holmes after Rezia sent for him, growing upset and angry at Septimus's coldness and inability to feel after the war. Here, Dr. Holmes shows himself to be the epitome of the clueless, conventional Englishman stuck in the Victorian past. He may have 40 years of experience as a doctor, but he is cheerfully unaware of the massive crisis caused by World War I, and seems entirely uninterested in taking Septimus's PTSD seriously. Perception, this passage says, is not necessarily a matter of trial and error, time and experience, such that someone who has lived longer would be better able to see things as they are. Instead, this book understands the Great War as a violent tear in history that has changed the very ways of experiencing the world, even while many people continued to refuse to understand that things had changed so drastically.

Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced… that it was half-past one.

Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

Rezia is thinking about how frustrating the consultation with Sir William has been, how annoyed she became at his unwillingness to listen and his insistence that Septimus conform to expected social categories and modes of being. Now, everything that Rezia perceives around her is filtered through this specific element of her consciousness. The "clocks of Harley street," in one sense, are the same for everyone - their chiming and striking divides the day equally in a standardized way, according to the modern social definition of time.  At the same time, though, this passage reminds us that the "mound of time" can feel entirely differently and mean very different things for different people. It may be "half past one" for everyone on Oxford Street, but for Rezia the equal divisions of clocks are at one with the submission and authority that she feels suffocated by, as a result of the consultation with Sir William. In such a way, time is shown to be not standardized at all, instead dependent on individual perception and affected by individual consciousness.

And Richard Dalloway strolled off as usual to have a look at the General’s portrait, because he meant, whenever he had a moment of leisure, to write a history of Lady Bruton’s family.
And Millicent Bruton was very proud of her family. But they could wait, they could wait, she said, looking at the picture; meaning that her family, of military men, administrators, admirals, had been men of action, who had done their duty; and Richard’s first duty was to his country…

Related Characters: Richard Dalloway, Lady Bruton
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

As Richard is leaving the luncheon, he lingers over the portrait of Lady Bruton's ancestor. According to the way this passage understands portraits, they are firmly located in the past: they record and celebrate past events so as to fix them in memory. Although the general and other members of Lady Burton's family were once "men of action," they are so no longer - they "had done" their duty and now are no longer relevant to the action that is going on now. Lady Bruton seems perfectly complacent with this reality, but the novel as a whole is more critical of what she and her family represent - making clear that a new reality needs to replace the old one, which is now only relegated to dusty portraits in wealthy apartments.

Really it was a miracle thinking of the war, and thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle. Here he was walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.

Related Characters: Richard Dalloway (speaker), Clarissa Dalloway
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard has bought a bouquet of flowers to give to Clarissa, as he thinks - too rarely, he chides himself - of how he loves her. In this passage it occurs to him in particular that he is lucky since so many other young men, with their whole lives ahead of them, had these futures destroyed when they died in the war, and are no longer able to enjoy love and companionship like he is. Of course, it is ironic, then, that Richard's luck occurs to him randomly and rarely, rather than being a natural part of his daily life. Richard does acknowledge the tragedy of the war, but it only crosses his mind occasionally, and remains relevant to him largely as a contrast to his own good fortune.

As for Buckingham Palace (like an old prima donna facing the audience all in white) you can’t deny it a certain dignity, he considered, nor despise what does, after all, stand to millions of people (a little crowd was waiting at the gate to see the King drive out) for a symbol, absurd though it is; a child with a box of bricks could have done better, he thought… but he liked being ruled by the descendant of Horsa; he liked continuity; and the sense of handing on the traditions of the past.

Related Characters: Richard Dalloway (speaker)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard is fully comfortable in his position as a member of London's upper class, but he does possess enough self-awareness to be able to think about it critically and from a distance. Buckingham Palace, he thinks, is valuable mainly as a symbol - he acknowledges that it may even be silly when judged objectively. Richard shows a certain condescension in thinking that the value of Buckingham Palace is in its powerful symbolism for the crowds, the "little crowd" who lack the ability - like his own - of artistic discernment.

At the same time, though, Richard aligns with this very crowd in admitting that he too enjoys what the palace stands for. The past to Richard is not something overwhelming, painful, or even very complicated: rather than recurring in cyclical ways or moving at disjointed speeds, time to him is important for the traditions that it held, and for the ways these traditions carry forward to the present. In other words, Richard believes in straightforward continuity, in a stream of time in which there are no breaks or interruptions and in which everyone can find his or her proper place rather easily.

The cruelest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot, domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion. Had she ever tried to convert any one herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? And she watched out of the window the old lady opposite climbing upstairs. Let her climb upstairs if she wanted to; let her stop; then let her, as Clarissa had often seen her, gain her bedroom, part her curtains, and disappear again into the background. Somehow one respected that – that old woman looking out of the window, quite unconscious that she was being watched. There was something solemn in it – but love and religion would destroy that, whatever it was, the privacy of the soul.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), The old woman across the way
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Clarissa is, first, thinking about how much she dislikes Doris Kilman and her earnest, aggressive Christianity. Then Clarissa watches an old woman in the house opposite her own climb up the stairs, and this scene, while seemingly totally separate from the previous one, ultimately fits in with Clarissa's frustration (especially given that so much of the novel's scenes are inflected by the consciousness of the person who experiences, perceives, and reflects upon them). In some ways, the old woman's solitude underlines how alone we all are in the world.

While the "privacy of the soul" has previously been cast in a negative light at times, here the aloneness of the old woman is something that Clarissa finds powerful and meaningful. Her privacy is something that, at least in the confines of her room, cannot be touched, and it gives her a certain dignity that is challenged to a greater extent in the social world. Nonetheless, Clarissa acknowledges how fragile such privacy and solitude are. "Love and religion," for Clarissa, are two things that involve other people, and so necessarily involve sacrifice and claims on one's own independence. At least in this passage, Clarissa disapproves of such claims, prizing the old woman for representing the opposite. Of course, we should remember that Clarissa is watching the old woman - as are we readers - which should make us question to what extent true privacy and solitude are possible at all.

But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings – what did they want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.

Related Characters: Septimus Warren Smith (speaker), Dr. Holmes, Mrs. Filmer
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Septimus has been told he must be sent away and institutionalized because he has threatened suicide. Here, he has decided to end his life on his own terms - even though he does not want to die. This expression seems to conflict with how Septimus has felt earlier, and yet can be understood in light of the immediately preceding moments of true, powerful reception and communication with his wife. (Whether those moments could have lasted is a question the book raises, but does not answer.)

This powerful passage mixes narrative development with Septimus's scattered but lucid and perceptive mind. On one level, we get his thoughts on the basic human instinct for survival, but mixed with a reference to Clarissa's oft-quoted line from Shakespeare about "fear no more the heat o' the sun." (Here it is "Life was good. The sun hot.") This turns the quote's meaning on its head (the heat of the sun is a positive, simple aspect of living, instead of a negative, simple aspect of living), and its appearance in Septimus's mind also provides an almost metaphysical connection between himself and Clarissa at the moment of his death.

Septimus ends his life with an unanswerable question - what do human beings want? - as well as with an attempt at communication, throwing himself out of a window in a way that suggests a violent desire to transcend the boundaries of one's own confinement. Septimus's death is not just metaphysical, however: it also has social implications, since it is so telling that Septimus considers death better than the institutional confinement that is the only way people at the time can imagine dealing with problems like his PTSD. But the last moments of Septimus's life also pay homage to the power of perception that coexists with the depths of loneliness and fear.

Section 9 Quotes

Nobody looked at him. They just went on talking, yet it was perfectly plain that they all knew, felt to the marrow of their bones, this majesty passing; this symbol of what they stood for, English society. Old Lady Bruton… swam up, and they withdrew into a little room which at once became spied upon, guarded, and a sort of stir and rustle rippled through every one, openly: the Prime Minister!
Lord, lord, the snobbery of the English! thought Peter Walsh, standing in the corner. How they loved dressing up in gold lace and doing homage!

Related Characters: Peter Walsh (speaker), Lady Bruton
Related Symbols: The Prime Minister
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

The Prime Minister has arrived at Clarissa's party, and here we see the guests' reactions, filtered through the perspective of Peter, who looks on from afar quite skeptically. Although the Prime Minister has been mentioned with awe earlier in the book, here Peter sees him as a small, plump, unassuming-looking man, unworthy of all that attention - and indeed, representative of a bygone age. Peter is already feeling alone and isolated, so he is inclined to view everything he sees around him rather negatively. However, his isolation also allows him to become acutely attuned to the hypocrisy that can be seen in the way everyone acts, trying to be casual but actually over-excited by their mere proximity to this important figure.

Lady Bradshaw (poor goose – one didn’t dislike her) murmured how, “just as we were starting, my husband was called up on the telephone, a very sad case. A young man (that is what Sir William is telling Mr. Dalloway) had killed himself. He had been in the army.” Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Lady Bradshaw (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Bradshaw and her husband, Sir William, have just arrived late to the party, and Lady Bradshaw explains to Clarissa why this is the case. We see once more how the narrative strains involving Clarissa and Septimus intersect in brief, glancing ways. Here, however, Clarissa will be more deeply affected than in previous scenes, even if initially she seems to be simply surprised more than moved or distraught. Clarissa is fully in her social-hostess mode, and it takes her a moment to adapt to the news - and yet she is also not entirely surprised, given that death seems to intrude in the way she thinks about daily life every day. That is, once again Clarissa notices and remarks upon the strangeness of trying to live one's everyday life with the looming reality of death, and without an overarching meaning.

The way Lady Bradshaw describes Septimus's death also underlines the British upper-class cluelessness regarding the true state of veterans suffering from PTSD. "He had been in the army" is a straightforward reason that Lady Bradshaw gives for Septimus's suicide, suggesting an awareness that one led to another, and yet this causal connection is neat and pat, allowing other characters to avoid responsibility or full awareness for Septimus's complex mental situation.

She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away… A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Septimus Warren Smith
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, at the climax of the novel, Clarissa withdraws from the party and is able to see the connections to her double - the character through whom, though they never met, similar possibilities and limitations of perception and solitude are explored throughout the book. Here Clarissa contrasts her own frivolous, superficial life with the profound and meaningful act of communication that Septimus embraced - even if, paradoxically, this great moment of his life is what ended it. While Clarissa throws things away every day - a shilling into the Serpentine, for instance - she has never thought to fling away her life, even if she does treat it as something unimportant and expendable. 

Clarissa attempts to locate a center of life, of existence, though it is only vague for her - a "thing" that can be "defaced" or "obscured," or in Septimus's case "preserved" - but which ultimately moves away and "evades" all people. And once again, Clarissa considers the paradox of solitude and communication in death. On the one hand, Septimus's death is a kind of communication, but on the other it definitively cuts one off from everyone else. He has perhaps communicated something powerful to the world, but he can now receive no answering communication in return. Still, Clarissa considers even this act of isolation as a potentially powerful one, creating a kind of "closeness" if only because it becomes mutually clear how impossible true communication is.