Social Oppression in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway

Social Oppression in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway

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The physical and social setting in "Mrs. Dalloway" sets the mood for the novel's principal theme: the theme of social oppression. Social oppression was shown in two ways: the oppression of women as English society returned to its traditional norms and customs after the war, and the oppression of the hard realities of life, "concealing" these realities with the elegance of English society. This paper discusses the purpose of the city in mirroring the theme of social oppression, focusing on issues of gender oppression, particularly against women, and the oppression of poverty and class discrimination between London's peasants and the elite class.

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"Social Oppression in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway." 22 Aug 2019

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The theme of oppression against women in Clarissa Dalloway's society is very common among English literary texts set in the 20th century ( ). However, more than just an illustration of oppression against women, "Mrs. Dalloway" also highlights how oppression is deeply embedded in the English psyche that it became an acceptable and expected behavior among the English people.
In the novel, oppression has become a way of life for Clarissa. After the War, she has intentionally chosen to live her life as a wife of a member of the government, and gracious hostess to her friends and elite English society. Her choice of lifestyle is also a sign of her choice to marry Richard Dalloway instead of her former boyfriend Peter Walsh. Clarissa's choice demonstrates how deeply-rooted her awareness is to her English society: "…what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. (Woolfe, 124)".
This passage illustrates Clarissa's decision to lead her life as expected of her as a woman in English society (Kostkowska, 190). The line of thought, "did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely…did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?" shows her self-reflection, wanting to justify her deliberate choice to become part of the English society, to blend in it, and to fit the "stereotype" of what people expected her to be. Clarissa's uncertainty uncovers the oppression she feels, despite the fact that she belongs to the privileged class of her society. Just as she had stated, it is "inevitable" that she be subjected to specific forms of prejudice or discrimination simply because of the fact that she is a woman (Woolf 116). Clarissa's acceptance of her fate as the wife of a respected English man is haunted by the fact that she herself does not have an individual identity, and has not a way to express her feelings and frustrations in life, not just as a woman, but as a human individual.
It is also significant that in her thoughts, Peter Walsh surfaces as a major figure. In the same manner that she questions her chosen life as a married woman, she also wonders whether she made the right decision when she married Richard instead of Peter. The difference between Richard and Peter demonstrates what Clarissa willingly chose: Richard as the embodiment of English society, and Peter as the individual who despised Clarissa's classy parties and remained detached to English society. It is then in the city that Clarissa found the comfort that she needed in order to justify her decision to marry Richard and remain a member in the English society. In the process, Clarissa consciously allowed herself to be subjected to English society's conservative attitude and behavior, accepting its culture, while at the same time, continuously questioning the occurrences in her life (which later became one of the events that lead her to commit suicide).
Throughout "Mrs. Dalloway", London was embodied by the elite class of the English society. London was described with excitement and heroism despite all the occurring tragedies and hardships. Clarissa's life in the city is illustrated as a "normal" one, but another side shown in the novel is the persistence of poverty, which remained and intensified in the society during the post-war years. The wide margin between the privileged and the poor became obvious with this harmless, yet vivid passage from the novel, stressing the persistence of class divisions in English society:
"A small crowd meanwhile had gathered at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Listlessly, yet confidently, poor people all of them, they waited; looked at the Palace itself with the flag flying; at Victoria, billowing on her mound, admired her shelves of running water, her geraniums; singled out from the motor cars in the Mall first this one, then that; bestowed emotion, vainly, upon commoners out for a drive… (Woolf 134)".
Victoria and the poor people represented the existence of extremes in London's environment. Along with wealth in Buckingham Palace is the preponderance of the commoners, poor people whose loyalty to the Queen once again states the fact that social oppression has become an accepted norm in English society. Woolf's illustration of this event in the novel is a reflection of the "disenchantment" that society experienced as most English civilians lived their post-war life in poverty and distress because of the War. According to Panichas (2004), "Mrs Dalloway portrays the acute physical and psychic effects, and the sundry consequences of disenchantment in the post-1918 years…how, in short, they "coped," or failed to cope, with the realities and demands of the society" (237). This look into the oppression in Woolf's novel speaks true of the author's intentions, making readers realize that women oppression is just one of the many social problems English society had to confront. The gradual breaking down of the social structure in England is mainly accredited to the recently concluded World War. Clarissa is shown as one of these individuals in the English society who experienced this disenchantment as she dealt with internal conflict between right and wrong. She was confused of her place, status, and role in society. Another evidence of how the "city" was used to "cloak" the hard realities of the underprivileged English society is embodied by the character of Septimus Smith. He is a casualty of the Great War; a victim of shell-shock.Septimus was a soldier who fought in the war. The war took a toll on him and he became depressed and could not cope with life and this eventually lead him to commit suicide . It is also in the city's surroundings that readers encountered the sad reality of post-trauma experienced mostly by the English soldiers who fought the war. In the midst of the "bloom" of London lies the harsh truth that England has been affected severely by the war. As Panichas observed:
"London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith; thought nothing of fantastic Christian names like Septimus with which their parents have thought to distinguish them. Lodging off the Euston Road, there were experiences, again experiences, such as change a face in two years from a pink innocent oval to a face lean, contracted, hostile. But of all this what could the most observant of friends have said except what a gardener says when he opens the conservatory door in the morning and finds a new blossom on his plant:—It has flowered; flowered from vanity, ambition, idealism, passion, loneliness, courage, laziness, the usual seeds, which all muddled up (in a room off the Euston Road), made him shy, and stammering, made him anxious to improve himself…" (Panchias 176)
"Flowering" as utilized in this passage pertains to society's bitterness of life in England, which was full of "vanity, ambition, idealism, passion, loneliness, courage, laziness" (Woolf 162). Symbolic of the social change occurring in English society, Septimus, Clarissa, as well as Peter, all embodied the English individual who have come to a point wherein s/he "must…come to terms with his past, his present, and his future" (Weiss, 218). In as much as the city hid England's harsh realities, it also became the beginning, through which social change was applied, no matter how tragic Woolf's characters' lives turned out to be.

Work Cited
Goldman, Jane. "The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post- Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual". Cambridge, U.K., New York, NY: Cambridge, 1998. 100-115.
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