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Alexa Porter, 2023 1st Place Critical Analysis

Submissions for the Critical Analysis category should critically evaluate or analyze a piece of literature, a theatrical performance, a work of visual art, a historical moment, a philosophical argument, a social movement, etc. Submissions should not exceed 20 pages. Alexa Porter wrote the 1st place submission in the Critical Analysis Category for the 2023 President’s Writing Awards.

About Alexa

Alexa Porter

Alexa Porter is a junior in Boise State University’s Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication Program. She enjoys cultural and historical research and has focused on that in her most recent work. When she isn’t writing, she can be found watching movies, seeing concerts, or eating Boise’s best food.

Winning Manuscript – Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf: A Biographical Perspective

Virginia Woolf’s work explores the social history of England and individual’s relationships with life, death, and the world around them. She was a significant contributor to the modernist literary movement and explored the importance of personal development, selfhood, and current events. Although many Modernist writers, according to the Norton Introduction to Literature, tried to separate their art from their personality or their real lives, through a biographical lens it is clear Woolf’s personal experiences were carried into her fiction. In Mrs. Dalloway, she elaborates on her social experiences in a realistic imagination of London.

The events of Mrs. Dalloway are told in a stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Everything that takes place in the novel unfolds within a single day. The third-person narration explores the thought processes of different characters, and perspectives shift (often without warning) from person to person, allowing for a free flow of organic thought specific to each individual character. Throughout the novel, many of the characters experience a deep sense of self—one that Virginia Woolf shared with them. “Among Woolf’s characters, there are some in possession of a strong sense of selfhood, aware of different senses of temporality, absence/presence and a world-to-mind or mind-to-world fit while there are others who miss these characteristics,” writes Saghar Najafi in “A Phenomenological Study of Selfhood in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves”. Woolf’s characters in Mrs. Dalloway may represent different facets of Virginia’s past and personality and how they fit into the world. From a biographical perspective, it seems easy to compare the fictional cast, the events they experience, and their internal monologues to the life and writing of Woolf. This exploration of Virginia Woolf’s personality and how it manifests itself in her characters defies the average gendered biological criticism that could be used to differentiate importance between the genders of the characters. One of the most striking parallels between Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf’s own life lies within the structure of the main character’s social circle; every character in the protagonist Clarissa Dalloway’s social circle has a mind and a voice of their own, and Woolf’s peers were each intellectual pioneers in their own right.

Although Virginia had always been surrounded by people of high social status and education all her life, she came into her own social and intellectual group with her sister and brothers as they sought education for themselves, according to Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf: A Biography. This collective was called the Bloomsbury group, named for the Bloomsbury area in London where Virginia’s sister Vanessa and her husband resided, and where the group would frequently meet (Britannica). In the novel, Clarissa Dalloway’s party invitees and friends are mostly men and their respective wives. This mirrors the list of people who were a part of the Bloomsbury group; according to Mrs. Dalloway: Mapping Streams of Consciousness by David Dowling, this group included writers E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, and several others, alongside Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard Woolf (3).

Because both Clarissa Dalloway and Virginia Woolf were active in groups that were largely male-dominated (Britannica), it makes sense that there are so many important male characters alongside Clarissa whose lives are explored in the novel. These men have character equivalents in Mrs. Dalloway, if we choose to equate them; Peter Walsh, Hugh Whitbread, Richard Dalloway, and many other characters that act as guests to Clarissa Dalloway’s evening party play important roles to the progression of the events of a single day. Clarissa’s relationship with nearly each person is explained through personal history, and the amiable respect they have for each other resembles that which existed in the Bloomsbury group (Britannica). However, not all of the characters of the novel could or should be compared to separate people.

Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith act as two narrative sides of the same story, beyond the boundaries of the Bloomsbury group and within London’s polite society. Septimus plays an interesting role in the novel. Although he was not invited or involved with Clarissa Dalloway or her party directly, as the other characters go about their separate lives in London, Septimus and his wife Lucrezia Smith are the periphery of Dalloway’s daily tasks and events. From a biographical point of view, and with the abundance of writings Virginia Woolf left behind after she passed, it becomes clear her social life and her personal struggles were intertwined. These struggles were separated into two distinct characters. The stream-of-consciousness narrative style allowed both sides of the perspective their own sprawling flow; Clarissa’s expressed love of life and Septimus’s horror and fear of it are simultaneously explored freely, despite their stark differences. There are traces of Virginia Woolf’s own experiences in the narratives of each character, but most notably in Clarissa’s perspectives.

In Clarissa Dalloway’s memories, and in the reflections on her past, we see a number of similarities between the character and Woolf’s own history. We see vignettes of Clarissa’s youth, mostly from the perspective of herself and from Peter Walsh, and specifically from their time together at Clarissa’s family home at Bourton. It is assumed that this place is in the country and away from the polite society of London, although the characters return there during the present time. These vignettes show a young cast of characters full of life and act as a background to compare the current state of their lives in middle age. There is a striking comparison between Woolf and her protagonist in regards to Sally Seton, and the relationship that existed between her and Clarissa.

Sally Seton is likely based on Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had an intimate friendship and relationship with. The comparisons begin with their physical descriptions; Bell writes that “Vita was certainly a very beautiful woman, in a lazy, majestic, rather melancholy way, charming with a charm that was largely unconscious (Volume II, 115). Of the character Sally Seton, Woolf described her (from Clarissa’s perspective) as “an extraordinary beauty of the kind she most admired…as if she could say anything, do anything” (48). These characters both have intimate friendships, but based in different stages of their lives. While in Mrs. Dalloway, Sally and Clarissa’s relationship happens in their youth, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West were both in their middle ages and married to men when they met (Bell, Volume II, 116). Although Sally Seton is not the major spouse of the novel’s protagonist, she is the main romantic love interest; in Dalloway, Woolf writes that “She could see what she lacked…yet she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman…Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had that not, after all, been love?” (Woolf 46-48). This love mirrored that between Vita and Virginia. Bell writes of Woolf, “She was still in love with Leonard” but admitted that “The word ‘friendship’ has a coy look on this page and I would use the word ‘affair’ if I were perfectly certain of not being misunderstood.” (Volume II, 116). This ‘affair’ was an important inspiration for Woolf, as her affection for Sackville-West permeates through Clarissa Dalloway’s memory of Sally Seton.

Since Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925 (Dowling), it’s probable that the blooming relationship between Sackville-West and Woolf was the base for the intimate scenes in the book between Clarissa and Sally. “Although Woolf and Sackville-West were important to one another from 1923 until Woolf’s death in 1941, their love affair was at its peak between 1925 and 1928, and a strong friendship as late as 1934”, said scholar Louise A. DeSalvo in her article “Lighting the Cave: The Relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf” (197). Even some of the personality descriptions lend themselves to this comparison, particularly when Clarissa references Sally’s “way with flowers, for instance” (Woolf 49), given that Vita Sackville-West was a gardener and garden-designer (“Vita Sackville-West”). The nature of their relationship is clearly defined in the book, specifically Clarissa’s memory of “the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. (Woolf 52). This allusion to a passionate physical relationship makes their intellectual relationship all the more intimate.

Clarissa’s memories of her relationship with Sally especially reflect the relationship that existed between Sackville-West and Woolf in regard to their shared intellectual debates. This is explored in Mrs. Dalloway when, in past memories, “there they sat, hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world” (Woolf 49). As Sackville-West and Woolf were both self-educated and active members of the Bloomsbury group in their later years, it’s easy to imagine that the pair of women were partaking in conversations of the same kind. Louise A. DeSalvo writes they “would become, in time, as tinder and flint to one another, striking in each other and from one another the sparks of love, sexuality, support, friendship, and literary inspiration” (197). Although both relationships were impermanent in their romantic aspects, they made clear marks on the lives of both Virginia and her protagonist Clarissa Dalloway.

Several other details of Clarissa Dalloway’s family history and function resemble that which Virginia Woolf experienced. Her traumas are explored in obscurity in someone else’s memory of Clarissa; Peter Walsh references the death of a sister, thinking “to see your own sister killed by a falling tree (…) Clarissa always said, was enough to turn one bitter.” (Woolf 118). In childhood, Virginia Woolf’s blended family, with a total of four other siblings from both parents’ other marriages, experienced a number of losses (Bell). The event referenced in the novel has its base in an event that occurred in 1897, when Virginia was fifteen and two years after the death of her mother; her sister Stella Duckworth passed away (Bell). This was another difficult loss for Woolf after a number of difficult years struggling with mental illness.

A particular motif reoccurs throughout Virginia Woolf’s life and writing, and it makes itself known in Mrs. Dalloway. Water, and its correlation to wellness or misery, is a thematic symbol that is prevalent through Woolf’s work. Among the many books Virginia Woolf authored in her lifetime are works titled The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves (Dowling). The obvious nautical theme is repeated in Mrs. Dalloway several times. Dalloway’s daughter Elizabeth is once described as looking “pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned under water” (Woolf 134); Clarissa says to herself “we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship” (Woolf 117). Septimus Smith even says “‘Now we will kill ourselves’, when they were standing by the river”, as he and his wife were out together in London (Woolf 100). This symbol stands as a reminder of the author’s own struggles with depression during her lifetime, and her suicide by drowning in 1941 (Dowling).

Septimus Smith’s mental illness is understood to be shellshock; between his visions of his fallen friend Evans, to his grand prophetic statements about love and the universe, his experience of the world is fraught. In London in the early 1920’s, this would have been a common issue for the general public. Dowling writes that WWI “had left a legacy of disillusionment, resentment, and mental and physical illness” (7). The difficult experiences that Smith had endured were a common background for many adults making their way in London society at that time. Woolf’s understanding and exploration of this phenomenon was elevated by her access to relevant information about it; Dowling writes that of Woolf that “her own mental illness and Hogarth Press’s part in introducing Freud’s writing into English gave her an unusually intimate and advanced understanding of theories about the mind and mental disorders” (5). Woolf’s own personal experience is surely what made Septimus Smith’s internal narrative so vivid and compelling.

Woolf’s personal mental health issues affected her illustration of Smith’s struggles. The resistance Septimus held against doctors like Dr. Holmes and William Bradshaw reflected Woolf’s experience in the mental and medical institutions she visited in London around the same time. It’s widely believed that Woolf’s mental issues began after the death of her mother in 1895, when Woolf was thirteen, and worsened after the death of her father in 1904 (Dowling). She had a history of institutionalization by the time she was writing Mrs. Dalloway. Bell mentions she visited nursing homes and psychologists starting in 1912, before attempting suicide in 1913. He illustrates how vehemently she disliked her experience of institutionalization in his biography, saying that “A few weeks in bed in Jean Thomas’s Twickenham nursing home appeared to have cured her in 1910; it therefore seemed best, in spite of her own remonstrances, to repeat this treatment” (Volume II, 13). However, the results of this medical recommendation were more unfortunate than helpful. Bell mentions that “it separated Virginia from the one person who could now help her; the holiday in Somerset made it more difficult to restrain the suicidal impulse fostered by her seclusion at Twickenham”, and after being sent there again in the summer of 1913, “She left Twickenham shaky, desperate, and so intolerably driven that the temptation to end it all by suicide became acute” (Volume II, 13). With this information, it makes sense to a reader that the author would choose a death by suicide for her character faced with the threat of institutionalization. Another author may have chosen a less melancholy ending for their character, but considering Woolf’s personal experience, it would be unusual for her depiction to deviate from the truth she experienced and wanted to illuminate to others.

In the scene where Septimus Smith is about to be greeted by Dr. Holmes, Woolf writes “Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say “In a funk, eh?” Holmes would get him. But no; not Holmes; not Bradshaw.” (Woolf 226). Smith’s next action is to fling himself out of the window, in an act of suicide. In doing so, he escapes the troubling future that would lie before him if he allowed himself to be taken to a nursing home. Even Clarissa’s reflection upon hearing about the death of Septimus Smith reflects Woolf’s attitude toward suicide. She writes, “She did not pity him, with all this going on (…) She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad he had done it; thrown it away.” (Woolf 283). Even in Woolf’s portrayal of love for life she saw solace in death.

The biographical critical lens offers a unique and intimate look into the background and possible inspiration of the novel Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf explored her own history and personality through Septimus Smith, Clarissa Dalloway, and the social circles in which they orbit. Woolf specifically investigated her flourishing friendship and relationship with Vita Sackville-West and her own relationship with mental health and illness. Through an analysis of her biography, reactions and responses from other literary scholars, and the text of Mrs. Dalloway itself, it is clear that Woolf’s time in England before, during, and after World War I informed how she developed the characters and plot of the piece.

Works Cited

  • Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Bloomsbury group”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Feb. 2021, Accessed 4 May 2022.
  • DeSalvo, Louise A. “Lighting the Cave: The Relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.” Signs, vol. 8, no. 2, 1982, pp. 195–214, Accessed 4 May 2022.
  • Dowling, David. Mrs. Dalloway: Mapping Streams of Consciousness. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
  • Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Portable 12th Edition . W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
  • Najafi, Saghar. “A Phenomenological Study of Selfhood in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany, vol. 92, 2017, pp. 32–34. EBSCOhost,
  • “Vita Sackville-West.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed 1 May 2022.
  • Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1953.