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The Manly Hostess and the Womanly Mad Man: Critical Analysis of Mrs. Dalloway

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‘Love between man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare”(Woolf 97). Virginia Woolf published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925. The Modernist monumental work was written in the wake of the atrocities that happened during the first world war. The story presents the reader with Clarissa Dalloway, a member of London’s high society, who spends a day in 1923 preparing for a party later that evening. While doing so, she is preoccupied with her past and questioning her decision of marrying her husband, Richard Dalloway. The entire day is spend reminiscing about her old friend and lover, Peter Walsh, and a kiss she shared with her dear friend Sally Selton. Simultaneously, Septimus Warren Smith, a traumatized soldier, roams around London with his Italian wife, whom he does not love. All day he is pestered with terrifying visions of his dead army commander. Throughout the modernist novel the paths of the perfect hostess and the shell shocked soldier never cross but are always connected. There seem to be invisible ties between the two characters. To this end, this paper will focus on Septimus Warren Smith and Clarissa Dalloway as doubles by means of their homosexuality.

To commence, it is necessary to examine the society’s stances on homosexuality in 20th century England. According to Tamange, the author of “A History of Homosexuality in Europe,” homosexuality was seen as a disorder, but a curable one. However, there seemed to be a fine line between treatments and punishment. This resulted into trauma and physical suffering. In the aftermath of the First World War, there was an association between “homosexual disorder” and treason. “Homosexuality was not only a crime against the army, but a crime against England“ (30-33). Consequentially, homosexuals kept their sexual orientation hidden since “the homosexual person, at least the male, had become the subject of legal, medical and psychological categorization” (Barret 148). Women were supposed to impart high moral standard of behavior which definitely excluded homosexuality. Lucy Delap explains that, being a gay woman was not criminalized, as sex between women, did not carry the same threat to family, morals and society as sex between men. But, this did not make being a lesbian acceptable, as some gay women lost custody of their children (117). There were undoubtedly homosexuals who managed to build a life together in the 20th century, though because of the juridical, religious and social institutions in society it would always have to remain hidden.

Next, Clarissa becomes Mrs. Dalloway by marrying Richard Dalloway, throughout the novel she is reminiscent of her younger years. She takes the reader back to a time, where she was Clarissa instead of Mrs. Dalloway, she was courted by Peter Walsh and fell in love with Sally Selton. This blatant confession of love for another woman, given the circumstances, is what makes her extremely intriguing. Clarissa foregoes her true feelings for Sally to yield to the social norms. As Deleuze writes, “Woman is an infinitive, a process or event, a speaking position, perhaps but not an identity.” (Qtd. in Driscoll 2000). The title of the novel, Mrs. Dalloway, shows exactly what Clarissa is. She is a middle-aged, upper-class hostess and foremost the wife of Mr. Dalloway.

Further, Adrienne Rich argues in Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence that Clarissa is part of a society that enforces heterosexuality upon individuals. And that “women have married because it was necessary, in order to survive economically and not suffer of social ostracism and to remain respectable. Heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure and duty” (654). Compulsory heterosexuality is an ideology formed by society where individuals must only be in heterosexual relationships. Mrs. Dalloway’s marriage with Richard is devoid of passion. Throughout the novel there is not a single moment where Clarissa feels passionate for Richard in the way she does for Sally. According to Peele in “Queering Mrs. Dalloway”, Clarissa her feelings towards men are of a material kind. She recognizes Richard Dalloway as a means of financial stability. Clarissa knows that her future is based on finding a man who can provide for her (208). This is made clear when the couple is faced with the age old romantic gesture of giving flowers. They remain unable to say “I love you” to each other. Furthermore, her choice for Richard over Peter was not based on love but on her wish to continue to be independent. On the contrary, her love for Sally is strong, as she still thinks about the kiss they shared many years ago. Clarissa remembers it as “the most exquisite moment of Clarissa’s whole life” (Woolf 38). In an interesting take on the subject Peter Childs argues that “We are told of Clarissa’s pleasure, which is like a man’s, when kissing Sally Selton (Childs 111). Clarissa must hide her desires for women through marriage and lead a life that correlates with the social norms of her time and place. At the end of the novel we are confronted with the effect of compulsory heterosexuality and the weight of societal expectations as the once mischievous and rebellious Sally Selton is now married.

Consequentially, Septimus’s identity seemed to be that of a shell shocked soldier beyond repair. Yet, some critics refute this identity as a solely shell shocked soldier, and connect his frantic state to a suppression of his homosexual feelings towards commander Evans. Mitchell Leaska, quoted in “Inconsequence: Lesbian representation and the logic sexual sequence”, claims that there is no evidence in the novel that explains his state as the result of shell shock (90). Leaska contends that Septimus’s “psychic paralysis is the result of the taboo nature of his love for Evans” (90). Nonetheless, Leaska goes on that, of course,” no sense in which the possibility of Septimus’s post-war trauma cancels the possibility of his homosexuality” (90). The post-war society where Septimus comes back to is, as been addressed before, not one where homosexually was tolerated. There is a clear parallel taboo between shell-shock and homosexuality in this society. Both were associated with treason and “being unmanly”. Furthermore, both conditions were to be treated. Septimus is under immense pressure which results in alienation, anxiety, paranoia and a sense of loneliness. These are valid reasons to keep a façade of heterosexuality up (Peele 206). This explains his loveless marriage with Lucrezia. His interest in her seems (identical to Clarissa) social rather than emotional.

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A quintessential symbol that is used through the entirety of the book are flowers. Flowers and important events seem to be inseparable. Especially, the rose as image for the link between “war trauma and the trauma inflicted by rigidly heterosexist standards”, which is explained by Burian (80). The flowers express traumatic realities that are felt by closeted people. Burian points out that roses are objects of desire and expressions of love. Evans sends Septimus roses picked in “the fields of Greece” (Woolf 102). Greece is a country that has had a long history of being an open minded society concerning homosexuality. Therefore, the flowers express “a man’s sexual desire for another man”(73). Thereafter, Septimus describes that he did not feel anything when Evans died. Paul Fussel, quoted in “Woolf in the Real World”, illustrates in “Soldier Boys”, that if Septimus and Evans were lovers, rather than fellow soldiers, this numbness felt by Septimus “may be intensified beyond survivor guilt, becoming guilt over sexual desires that the society of his day condemned as perverse”( 83-84). Septimus Warren Smith could be described as a man that is oppressed by guilt and society.

Finally, Septimus serves as Clarissa’s double. Even though they never meet in the novel, the story of his suicide penetrates Clarissa’s revelry. When confronted with the tragedy, “she does not pity him” (Woolf 205). The most self-evident argument for their figurative twinship is Clarissa’s unaccountable and intuitive understanding of Septimus’ s death. She is able to reconstruct exactly what happened with Septimus without being informed.

“He had killed himself –but how? Always her body went through it, when she was told, first, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, het body ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. Then he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain and then a suffocation if blackness. So she saw it.“ (Woolf 202).

If we regard both as oppressed by societal standards of sexual conduct, then Clarissa’s intuitive understanding of his despair suddenly makes perfect sense (Durian 83-84). Woolf portrays Clarissa and Septimus as two characters that have to conceal their true identity and find resort in the safe harbor of marriage. Both feel “displaced or too restrictively placed within the social order of the time” (Rutledge 7). Virginia shows us how the characters had to conform to the ruling principles of heterosexuality that were installed in the rather rigid post-Victorian British society. Septimus’s and Clarissa’s homosexual desires and passions are confined to the spaces of their minds. In Queering Mrs. Dalloway, Thomas Peele says, “Clarissa and Septimus finds themselves in postwar London, then, disengaged from the culture in which they live because of the pressure to maintain the secret of homosexual desire” (206). This displaces them mentally from their social spaces.

In summation, societal imposition of heterosexuality and blatant rejection of homosexuality have united the two seemingly contrasting figures. It is in their suppression of emotions, desires and feelings in their cultural context where they find each other as equals. “Even allowing for their considerable differences (age, gender and class), the character in Mrs. Dalloway most like Septimus is Clarissa” (Jagose 90-91). They differ in the way they carry the weight of their secret. One gets crushed, the other covers the silence by hosting parties.

Works Cited

  1. Barret, Eileen. Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. New York: New York University Press, 1997. Book.
  2. Burian, Cornelia„Modernity’s Shock and Beauty: Trauma and the Vulnerable Body In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.” Kukil, Karen V. Woolf in the Real World . Massachusetts: Clemson University, 2003. 70-75. Selected Papers.
  3. Delap, Lucy en S. (Eds.) Morgan. Men, Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain. Bassingstoke: University of Cambridge , 2013. Document.
  4. Driscoll, Catherine. The Woman in Process: Deleuze, Kristeva and Feminism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Book.
  5. Jagose, Annamarie. Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence. London: Cornell University Press, 2002. Book.
  6. Peele, Thomas. „Queering Mrs. Dalloway.” Meyer, Micheal. Literature and Homosexuality. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. 205-218. Book.
  7. Peter, Childs. Modernist Literature: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum Books, 2011. Book.
  8. Rich, Adrienne. „Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs (1980): 631-660. Article.
  9. Tamange, Florence. A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Vol. I & II: Berlin, London. Paris : Algora Publishing, 2004. Book.
  10. Thais, Rutledge. A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN: SPACE, TRAUMA, AND SEXUALITY . Master thesis. Texas: Texas State University, 2017. Document.
  11. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Penguin Books, 1992. Book.

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The Manly Hostess and the Womanly Mad Man: Critical Analysis of Mrs. Dalloway. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
“The Manly Hostess and the Womanly Mad Man: Critical Analysis of Mrs. Dalloway.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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