Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925) has long been recognised as one of her outstanding achievements and one of the canonical works of modernist fiction. Each generation of readers has found something new within its pages, which is reflected in its varying critical reception over the last ninety years. As the novel concerns itself with women's place in society, war and madness, it was naturally interpreted differently in the ages of second wave feminism, the Vietnam War and the anti-psychiatry movement.
This has, of course, created a rather daunting number of different readings. Michael H. Whitworth contextualizes the most important critical work and draws attention to the distinctive discourses of critical schools, noting their endurance and interplay. Whitworth also examines how adaptations, such as Michael Cunningham's The Hours, can act as critical works in themselves, creating an invaluable guide to Mrs Dalloway.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Virginia Woolf’s remarks in ‘Modern Novels’ (April 1919) about the story ‘Gusev’ by Anton Chekhov could equally well apply to the novel she would publish six years later, Mrs Dalloway. Without a plot in the conventional sense, and without chapter divisions, it lacks the conventional scaffolding of the novel as it was then understood; this, and the richness of its prose, allow readers great freedom about where to place the emphasis. Although the novel’s focus on its titular central character makes Mrs Dalloway easier to discern than the crepuscular scene imagined by Woolf, readers have disagreed about the relative importance of Septimus Warren Smith and Peter Walsh; although readers have appreciated the clarity of temporal structure created by the chimes of Big Ben, they have recognized that clock time is an artificial structure.
Michael H. Whitworth

Chapter One. Early Responses

Abstract
Woolf’s earliest reviewers were mostly writing for daily newspapers or for weekly reviews that combined political commentary with critical reviews of the arts. They were concerned to place Mrs Dalloway in relation to other works, to explain to their readers what kind of work it was, and to indicate where the centre of interest might lie. They were not, on the whole, concerned to make interpretative statements, though some reviews anticipate later critical concerns; nor were they particularly alert to the politics of the novel.
Michael H. Whitworth

Chapter Two. Recovering Woolf: Criticism in the Era of Second-Wave Feminism

Abstract
Crucial to the revival of interest in Bloomsbury, and therefore Woolf, was Michael Holroyd’s 1967 biography of Lytton Strachey. However, Holroyd presented Woolf in terms that were severely limiting to anyone who wished to take her seriously as a politically engaged writer.
Michael H. Whitworth

Chapter Three. Woolf and Philosophy

Abstract
Even during Woolf’s lifetime, critics disagreed about whether her works could or should be fruitfully related to a ‘philosophy’, either one of her own devising, or one derived from other thinkers. The unconventionality of her novels, and in particular their avoidance of conventional portrayals of character and action, led some critics to detect a philosophical atmosphere to them. However, to connect her works to a philosophy is potentially to reduce them to it, and to fail to engage with their qualities as works of art. Relating her works to a philosophical background may have the benefit of bestowing an intellectual seriousness upon them that counteracts the myth of an unintellectual and aesthetic Virginia Woolf, but it potentially makes her dependent upon a canon of philosophers whose ways of thinking were alien to her.
Michael H. Whitworth

Chapter Four. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Abstract
The readings of Mrs Dalloway seen in the previous two chapters based their claims to its value on it, or its author, possessing a politics or a philosophy. While many of these readings display sensitive attention to the fine details of the text, their primary focus is on what the novel means rather than how it makes meaning; they are interested in hermeneutics rather than poetics.1 Moreover, they assume that a coherent singular meaning or philosophy can be found. The rise of structuralist literary criticism, and, immediately succeeding it, post-structuralism, created alternative emphases. Literary structuralism begins in the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913); it also drew on the later structuralist anthropology (notably the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss [1908–2009]) that had taken inspiration from Saussure’s notion of a science of signs.
Michael H. Whitworth

Chapter Five. Woolf and Psychoanalysis

Abstract
Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway have attracted psychoanalytic critics from early on: Woolf because of her history of mental illness and because of the role of the Hogarth Press in publishing the works of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939); Mrs Dalloway because of its concerns with madness, mourning and sexuality. Developments in the field have occurred as additional biographical information and previously unpublished texts have become available, and because of developments in the field of psychoanalytic literary criticism. There was a brief outburst of interest in the 1950s in the pages of the journal Literature and Psychology, preoccupied with the questions of whether Peter Walsh’s pocket knife could be treated as a Freudian symbol.1 The only lasting value of these articles lay in their uncovering a previously neglected letter from Woolf in which she had said that she was acquainted with psychoanalysis ‘only in the ordinary way of conversation’, and eliciting a further clarification from Leonard Woolf about Virginia’s knowledge of Freud’s work:
We only began to publish psycho-analytic books in 1924 and I don’t think my wife had read any of Freud except perhaps the Psycho-pathology of Everyday Life before she wrote Mrs Dalloway. Also, I very much doubt whether my wife ever used symbols in quite the way that you think she used them in relation to the knife. She never read much of Freud and I don’t think she ever read the Interpretation of Dreams.2
Michael H. Whitworth

Chapter Six. Sexuality and the Body

Abstract
In the late 1970s and 1980s a number of critics began to find a space in criticism for the idea that seemingly natural categories such as ‘the body’ and heterosexuality were in fact culturally produced and embedded in their history of their times. Feminist critics sought to reclaim and revise the notions of eroticism and of lesbianism itself. The work of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich was particularly influential, and is often cited by Woolf critics in the 1980s and 1990s. Lorde’s lecture ‘The Erotic as Power’ (1979) is central to Blanche Wiesen Cook’s pioneering article on Woolf, ‘Women Alone Stir My Imagination’ (1979).1 For Cook, Lorde returns the erotic to its roots in ‘love’, and distinguishes between ‘the truly unnatural separation of love from physical sensation as that which distinguishes the erotic interests of women from the pornographic queries of men’ (733). Properly understood, the erotic should be a source of power for women, one which displaces patriarchal power: ‘once women experience that power we will connect with the basic source of our strength, and it will be clear that we derive it from ourselves, not from men, not from any outside place’ (739).
Michael H. Whitworth

Chapter Seven. Historicist Approaches

Abstract
As Woolf’s cultural moment has receded from our own, it has been increasingly necessary to return her works to their historical context in order to understand them, whether that understanding takes the form of resolving ambiguities or restoring them. Of course it may be a mistake to speak of ‘our’ own as if present-day readers stood in a singular relation to Woolf: readers in her own time separated by class culture or national culture may already have found some elements of her work difficult to decipher.
Michael H. Whitworth

Chapter Eight. Mrs Dalloway and The Hours

Abstract
At the end of the 1990s there appeared three creative responses to Mrs Dalloway: Marleen Gorris’s film adaptation (1997); Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998), a novel which takes Woolf’s as its starting point; and Robin Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway (1999), a sequel. Cunningham’s novel was itself adapted into a film by Stephen Daldry, with a screenplay by British playwright David Hare, released at the end of 2002. Responses such as these are creative works, but they are also acts of criticism. They have the power to refocus attention on parts of the original text previously neglected; remediations such as film adaptations can focus attention on what the original medium was uniquely capable of, while adaptations such as Cunningham’s can focus attention on the distinctive qualities of Woolf’s narrative method. However, as they are acts of criticism not written in the conventional language of criticism, careful attention is required to clarify what they have said.
Michael H. Whitworth

Conclusion

Abstract
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.
Michael H. Whitworth
Additional information