Mrs. Dalloway Background

About Mrs. Dalloway

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In Jacob's Room, the novel preceding Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf works with many of the same themes she later expands upon in Mrs. Dalloway. To Mrs. Dalloway, she added the theme of insanity. As Woolf stated, "I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side." However, even the theme that would lead Woolf to create a double for Clarissa Dalloway can be viewed as a progression of other similar ideas cultivated in Jacob's Room. Woolf's next novel, then, was a natural development from Jacob's Room, as well as an expansion of the short stories she wrote before deciding to make Mrs. Dalloway into a full novel.

The Dalloways had been introduced in the novel, The Voyage Out, but Woolf presented the couple in a harsher light than she did in later years. Richard is domineering and pompous. Clarissa is dependent and superficial. Some of these qualities remain in the characters of Mrs. Dalloway but the two generally appear much more reasonable and likeable. Clarissa was modeled after a friend of Woolf's named Kitty Maxse, whom Woolf thought to be a superficial socialite. Though she wanted to comment upon the displeasing social system, Woolf found it difficult at times to respond to a character like Clarissa. She discovered a greater amount of depth to the character of Clarissa Dalloway in a series of short stories, the first of which was titled, "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street," published in 1923. The story would serve as an experimental first chapter to Mrs. Dalloway. A great number of similar short stories followed and soon the novel became inevitable. As critic Hermione Lee details, "On 14 October 1922 [Woolf] recorded that 'Mrs. Dalloway has branched into a book,' but it was sometime before [Woolf] could find the necessary balance between 'design and substance.'"

Within the next couple years, Woolf became inspired by a 'tunneling' writing process, allowing her to dig 'caves' behind her characters and explore their souls. As Woolf wrote to painter Jacques Raverat, it is "precisely the task of the writer to go beyond the 'formal railway line of sentence' and to show how people 'feel or think or dream...all over the place.'" In order to give Clarissa more substance, Woolf created Clarissa's memories. Woolf used characters from her own past in addition to Kitty Maxse, such as Madge Symonds, on whom she based Sally Seton. Woolf held a similar type of affectionate devotion for Madge at the age of fifteen as a young Clarissa held for Sally.

The theme of insanity was close to Woolf's past and present. She originally planned to have Clarissa die or commit suicide at the end of the novel but finally decided that she did want this manner of closure for Clarissa. As critic Manly Johnson elaborates, "The original intention to have Clarissa kill herself 'in the pattern of Woolf's own intermittent despair' was rejected in favor of a 'dark double' who would take that act upon himself. Creating Septimus Smith led directly to Clarissa's mystical theory of vicarious death and shared existence, saving the novel from a damaging balance on the side of darkness." Still, the disassociation of crippling insanity from the character of Clarissa Dalloway did not completely save Woolf from the pain of recollection. Woolf's husband and close friends compared her periods of insanity to a manic depression quite similar to the episodes experienced by Septimus. Woolf also included frustratingly impersonal doctor types in Bradshaw and Holmes that reflected doctors she had visited throughout the years.

As the novel focused mainly on the character of Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf changed the name of the novel to Mrs. Dalloway from its more abstract working title, The Hours, before publishing it. Woolf struggled to combine many elements that impinged on her sensibility as she wrote the novel. The title, Mrs. Dalloway, best suited her attempts to join them together. As Woolf commented, "In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense." Furthermore, she hoped to respond to the stagnant state of the novel, with a consciously 'modern' novel. Many critics believe she succeeded. The novel was published in 1925, and received much acclaim.