In the ninety years since it was published, critical conceptions of how to approach Mrs Dalloway have been in constant flux. Many factors have coincided to bring about change. The broadest change, from an interest in Woolf as an experimental novelist aloof from worldly concerns to an interest in her as a politically motivated writer engaged with the immediately contemporary, partly parallels a wider change in the self-conception of literary criticism, as it moved from the formalist outlook of the New Criticism and similar schools to the politically aware outlooks of Marxism, feminism and post-colonialism. Within that broad change there have been other currents and counter-currents: for example, questions about how far the critic should make use of biographical and auto-biographical materials; or about how far the critic should make use of non-literary texts when discussing context, and what might count as ‘literary’ or ‘non-literary’. Some of the changes may be traced to the changing demographics of the university student body: around 1950, literary criticism very often silently embodied the assumptions and outlook of a white male middle-class group; the rising representation of women in higher education — at first, mostly white middle-class women — foregrounded questions of gender. Others, such as the emergence of sexuality as an area of critical discourse, derive from changing social attitudes.
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Michael H. Whitworth
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