Mrs Dalloway


Virginia Woolf

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Mrs Dalloway: Metaphors 7 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Section 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Open Air:

As Clarissa Dalloway sets out in the morning to buy flowers for her party, she recalls the feeling of setting out for the day when she was 18 and still living in Bourton. As she thinks about how "fresh" the morning air always feels to her, the narrative uses auditory and tactile imagery to metaphorically compare going outside to "plung[ing]" into refreshing water:

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. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, [...].

The "squeak of the hinges" emphasizes Clarissa's departure from the stuffy, pent-up environment of her home, calling attention to the fact that she has decided to go buy the flowers herself instead of sending someone else to do it. There's almost a sense of adventure to this moment, as she feels like she's "plung[ing...] into the open air" like she used to when she was a young woman. This metaphorically ties leaving home to the idea of jumping into refreshing water, which is "chill and sharp"—that is, somewhat shocking and bracing, even if it's also revitalizing and exciting. The combination of auditory and tactile imagery with metaphor in this passage thus frames Clarissa's outing as a rejuvenating experience and, in doing so, spotlights her strong appreciation for the beautiful world around her.

Explanation and Analysis—Leaden Circles:

In this passage, the narrative metaphorically presents the reverberations of Big Ben's gongs as heavy "circles" that stretch out over London but slowly fade away:

Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.

The word "leaden" emphasizes the heavy, strong nature of this sound, but it also hints at the fact that time is always slipping away, since even these "leaden circles" gradually "dissolve[] in the air."  This aligns with the novel's interest in how memories of the past work their way into everyday life—Clarissa's memories about Peter Walsh, for instance, are distant and quite removed from her current reality, but they're still with her; they have, in other words, "dissolved" into her life. 

In this way, this metaphor used to visually present the reverberations of Big Ben ultimately speaks to Woolf's examination of time in a broader sense. Although the sound of Big Ben striking the hour is very real and tangible for all of the characters making their way through London, the novel suggests that everyone is living with an unavoidable sense of impermanence. Time, the narrative implies, is always "dissolv[ing]" in the air, and though this metaphor presents readers with a somewhat tangible image of circles stretching out from the clock, the image itself is appropriately abstract and difficult to fully envision, thus conveying the slippery nature of time itself.  

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Section 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Ripple:

When Clarissa is out buying flowers, a car cuts through the congestion of Bond Street, and because everyone thinks somebody important is inside it, the car itself changes the entire atmosphere along the street. To express this palpable change in Clarissa's immediate environment, the novel uses a metaphor comparing the car's influence to a "ripple":

The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street.

The word "ripple" normally refers to a small wave on the surface of water, suggesting that the car has created a slight—but noticeable—disruption. Clarissa, for her part, seems to think that the Queen of England must be inside the car, so there's the suggestion that the mere presence of high-status people can alter the entire atmosphere of certain social environments—an idea that resurfaces later in the novel, when the Prime Minister attends Clarissa's party and, despite his underwhelming appearance, profoundly changes the general feeling in the room.

In this moment, though, the passing car is just a mere suggestion of power and status. To that end, even though everyone feels the change that has just passed through the street, the narrator describes it as "something so trifling" that "no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration." This, however, doesn't mean the tremor of curiosity that runs through Bond Street in this moment is imperceptible to humans, who are keenly attuned to such "ripples" in the social fabric of everyday life. This metaphor thus speaks to just how sensitive people are to even the smallest transformations of public spaces, where certain things—like the Queen driving by—can alter the way people go about their day. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Fading Rockets:

Wanting a break from her husband's nonsensical ravings, Lucrezia Smith steps away from him in the park and tries to admire the fountain. But she can't, because she compares it to a fountain in her home city of Milan, and it pales in comparison. She says, "'For you should see the Milan gardens,'" but there's nobody around to hear her. The narrative then uses a simile that accentuates her feeling of loneliness:

There was nobody. Her words faded. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and towers; [...].

This simile compares her unheard words to a rocket that has faded in the sky, most likely referring to fireworks and the way they "fade" into darkness after briefly igniting. In turn, her words are presented as incandescent and bold, suggesting that simply speaking aloud in this moment is a very emotional thing for her to do—she needs, it seems, to express herself, but she has nobody in her life who will truly listen. 

This simile also subtly becomes more of a metaphor, as the narrator expands on the comparison and talks about the "sparks" of a rocket "surrender[ing]" to darkness, which "pours over the outlines of houses and towers." The night itself (and darkness) thus takes on some metaphorical significance, since the mention of "houses and towers" hints at a certain widespread feeling of unacknowledged sorrow. The city is full, in other words, of private woes. The idea here is that there are many private sentiments that go unheard or unacknowledged, though this doesn't mean the feelings don't still exist—like explosions in the sky, private feelings ignite and expand within people, but then they're swallowed by the world at large, which, like the vast and all-encompassing darkness of the night's sky, makes people like Lucrezia feel all the more isolated and alone.

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Section 7
Explanation and Analysis—The Ramrod:

In its satirization of 1920s upper-class British society, Mrs Dalloway frequently focuses on Lady Bruton and highlights her sense of self-importance. Lady Bruton has invited Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread for lunch, but she gets impatient because she wants to stop talking about what she sees as "trifling" matters so that she can get to what she really wants, which is for Hugh to write a letter about emigration to the London Times on her behalf. The narrative uses a metaphor to both show how important the issue of emigration is to Lady Bruton and to poke fun at her obsession with a topic that isn't all that pressing:

She was getting impatient; the whole of her being was setting positively, undeniably [...] upon that subject which engaged her attention, and not merely her attention, but that fibre which was the ramrod of her soul, that essential part of her without which Millicent Bruton would not have been Millicent Bruton; [...]

Referring to emigration as the "ramrod of [Lady Bruton's] soul" metaphorically presents her commitment to the cause as a stiff rod that is usually shoved down the barrel of a gun to tamp down the charge. The intensity of such a comparison draws attention to the absurdity of just how much she cares about a relatively unimportant—or at least not pressing—matter. To that end, the narrative satirizes her self-importance when it finally specifies what, exactly, she wants to do: help "young people of both sexes born of respectable parents" move to Canada so that they can have "a fair prospect of doing well." What's absurd about this is that Lady Bruton apparently cares so much about helping "respectable" people move to Canada—after all, the fact that she's only interested in aiding "respectable" people suggests that she exclusively wants to help people who are already fortunate and well-off. The cause that is the very "ramrod of her soul," then, isn't even all that altruistic, since it mainly focuses on people who probably don't need much help in the first place.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Thin Thread:

After Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread leave Lady Bruton's luncheon, she lies down to take a nap, and the narrative metaphorically focuses on what happens to their relational connection as she sinks into sleep and the two men recede into the distance:

And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London

This metaphor suggests that Richard and Hugh are "attached" to Lady Bruton by a "thin thread" that becomes progressively "thinner"—or weaker—the farther they get from her house. This is an illustration of the way certain experiences feel like they slowly fade away after ending, lingering in the minds of the participants but progressively becoming less and less immediate or relevant. What's more, the idea of being "attached" to somebody after having lunch with them aligns with the novel's interest in the characters' social associations. According to this metaphor, sharing lunch with people in this social context (British upper-class society in the 1920s) is like forming an attachment to them.

To that end, the passage goes on to use a simile that cements the idea of relational connections as actual physical attachments:

[...] as if one’s friends were attached to one’s body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, [...]

The passage also uses some auditory imagery, saying that this "thin thread" slowly becomes "hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service"—a description that emphasizes the fading feeling of connection while also hinting at the "hazy," satisfyingly faint feeling of nodding off to sleep. After all, this entire image of Richard and Hugh being connected to Lady Bruton by a thread ultimately comes from Lady Bruton's half-asleep mind, and the passage begins to reflect the strange, highly figurative ways that people tend to think when they're drifting out of consciousness. In keeping with this, there's yet another simile that reminds readers that all of these thoughts are playing out in Lady Bruton's sleepy mind:

[...] as a single spider's thread is blotted with rain-drops, and burdened, sags down. So she slept.

Basically, the whole progression vividly puts readers into the feeling of falling asleep, a state in which it's possible to continue thinking about something that has just happened before inevitably losing hold of the entire thought and "sag[ging] down" into a full slumber.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Flowering Tree:

After the psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw insists that Septimus should go by himself to convalesce in the countryside, Lucrezia privately promises her husband that, regardless of what Bradshaw has said, she will come with him. She also refuses, when Septimus asks, to burn the papers containing many of his wild, hallucinatory writings, saying that some of them are actually quite beautiful. Filled, it seems, with appreciation, Septimus then sees her as a beautiful tree:

She was a flowering tree; and through her branches looked out the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a sanctuary where she feared no one; not Holmes; not Bradshaw; a miracle, a triumph, the last and greatest. Staggering he saw her mount the appalling staircase, laden with Holmes and Bradshaw, men who never weighed less than eleven stone six, who sent their wives to Court, men who made ten thousand a year and talked of proportion; [...]

This is a dense, rather confusing metaphor, but it makes sense given Septimus's troubled and often hallucinatory state of mind. Lucrezia is metaphorically portrayed as a "flowering tree," perhaps suggesting that Septimus takes great comfort in his wife's beauty and, in turn, appreciates her ability to shield him from men like Dr. Holmes and Bradshaw. He is, in other words, in a certain "sanctuary" because of her protection, as if branches are hanging down and separating him from these experts who don't seem to actually have his best interest in mind. Indeed, Septimus sees Lucrezia as an element of nature "triumph[ing]" over petty men like Holmes and Bradshaw, doctors who lead lavish lives but hypocritically tell people like Septimus to scale back and approach life with "proportion." 

This strange metaphor therefore helps convey the novel's satire of the supposedly sophisticated circles of British society in the 1920s. It also underhandedly suggests that people like Septimus are, despite their mental health struggles, perhaps capable of recognizing beauty in life more than the supposedly learned doctors who treat them.

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