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 Richard works for the Conservative Party, which is portrayed as outdated, stuffy, and soon to be replaced by the Labor Party.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 The futility of classism and outdated conservatism then culminates in the figure of the Prime Minister.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.
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Social Criticism Quotes in Mrs Dalloway
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.