Mrs. Dalloway: A Criticism of Social Uniformity

Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanyan once said, “To conform is to lose one’s identity.” In other words, adhering to social norms often entraps people in a mentally uniform society. Similarly, in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the author continuously draws subtle criticism to the nature of social conformity through the perspectives of her characters. Woolf parallels her two primary characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, to chastise the strict heterosexual mindset of the time and advocates for a change in social class mentality through Clarissa and Miss Doris Kilman, both of whom relinquish themselves to social class superficiality.

Party hostess Clarissa Dalloway and war veteran Septimus Smith both portray the failures of heterosexual marriage through their relationships with their partners and their struggles of balancing passion with social expectation. While Clarissa reflects on her relationship with Richard, she notes that he often gives her space and, though a positive quality in her opinion, her distant marriage mirrors the dispassionate aloofness between the two lovers. This rapport contrasts Clarissa’s relationship with Sally, with whom Clarissa shared deeply amorous moments, such as a kiss during her youth which, like her relationship with Sally, was interrupted by a man. Hence, Woolf characterizes a lively and passionate friendship between Clarissa and Sally as definitive of a natural (though disrupted) pairing while that of Clarissa and Richard as a detached union that is built upon the expectation of heterosexual marriage. Likewise, Septimus constantly experiences struggles between duty to the self and duty to normality. For instance, when he sees that Rezia has taken off her ring–a symbol of their marital bond–Septimus feels reviled, as though a great weight has been taken off of him, depicting the almost forced nature of their union. As Clarissa’s relationship with Richard contrasts that of her’s with Sally, Septimus’ deep sentiments towards Evans, with whom he served in the army, oppose those which he feels towards Rezia. In one scene, as Septimus, who suffers from an mental instability, walks with Rezia through the city park, he hallucinates images of Evans (who in fact is just Clarissa’s old friend Peter Walsh). With consideration of Septimus’ hallucinations, it is clear that the intense friendship he once felt with Evans resonates much more powerfully within him than does his intimacy with Rezia. Thus, the author uses the dichotomy between social expectation and natural instinct, with deep inquiry into human mind, to argue her case against this controlling societal rule and the expectation of heterosexualism that erodes the prospect of natural love.

Social class, as depicted by Woolf, engenders a superficial mindset controlled by social norms. Indeed, Clarissa epitomizes the basic upper class life–she throws lavish parties which she prioritizes over actual worldly issues, such as the Armenian Genocide. For example, Woolf writes, “[Clarissa] cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians,” reflecting upon Clarissa’s short-lived guilt for not feeling as concerned about the victims in southern Transcaucasia as she does about her party. Though Clarissa exhibits some concern, as shown by her brief moment of sanity, she chooses to ignore and suppress this natural instinct of empathy–which also parallels her suppression of natural instincts in love, and by quickly moving on from this brief consideration she demonstrates her self-concerned attitude in face situations that do not directly affect her. Clarissa therefore highlights the frivolity of the typical upper class people who are too caught up in their social lives. Class status, in essence, serves as a barrier that protects some like Clarissa against the atrocities of war while exposing others like the Armenians, who were at that time considered an inferior race in the Ottoman Empire, to the abuses of conflict and discrimination. Yet, the rigid mindset and consideration of only the self are not only embedded within the upper class. Miss Doris Kilman, who tutors Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, often attempts to use her less privileged background to elevate herself among the upper class. In one scene, as Elizabeth and Kilman have tea together, Kilman continuously illuminates her secondary status to make others feel inferior. For instance, in an effort to ingrain her own thoughts into Elizabeth, she claims that not everyone was full of patriotism during the war. Thus even for matters like the war, whose terminance should be celebrated, Kilman manipulates her status to wield Elizabeth towards her own sentiments–an act which ultimately drives Elizabeth away. Ultimately, Kilman’s need to push others into her same mentality portrays the same sort of superficiality illustrated through Clarissa–the one-dimensional view that most, if not all, folk epitomize in regards to their respective social classes.

Woolf, without a doubt, berates the conventions of social uniformity, whether by means of a forced heterosexual pairing–as depicted by Clarissa and Septimus–or the warped rigidity by which people in each social class think–as detailed by Clarissa and Kilman. Perhaps the solution to a mentally broader society lay in campaigning for expression of individuality, or perhaps it is just human nature to conform–to desire acceptance by others.

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