Mrs. Dalloway, written by Virginia Woolf, is a piece of modernist literature that many regard as one of the most groundbreaking feminist works ever composed. Utilizing a stream of consciousness approach, the novel endeavors to explore the complexity of the human consciousness and its internal conflicts, particularly through the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, and her daily endeavors. The plot follows Clarissa as she prepares for a party in her home, which to her, serves as a monunetous opportunity for social interaction, a beloved custom of hers. The occasion also serves as Woolf’s platform in displaying the convoluted connections between the thoughts and conflicts of each character. However, throughout Clarissa’s journey, Woolf exposes readers to the inner workings of Clarissa’s mind, and in doing so, paints a tragic picture of the identity conflicts that women were facing at the time. Woolf even ventured as far as to conflude the novel through a male perspective, which, at face-value, seems an anti-feminist sentiment. However, as a bold decision of literary genius, this conclusion serves to show that women found their individuality only in the features that men assigned them. Ultimately, female identities during the early 20th century existed solely in the delegation of characteristics attached to women by men, as demonstrated in Clarissa’s lack of personal identity, Peter’s function as a delegate of the female identity, and the effect of patriarchal society upon feminist motives.
First, Woolf exposes the tragic reality of the 20th century female identity through the nonexistence of Clarissa’s individuality, largely forced upon her by her male counterparts. As the novel opens, the very first line shares of one of Clarissa’s first errands in preparation for her party, reading, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (Woolf, 1). However, it is immediately obvious that any personal identity Clarissa may have for herself was entirely abolished by her male-assigned title of “Mrs.” This implies that her only acceptable identity lay in the existence of her husband, a tradition enforced by fathers, brothers, and husbands alike. Clarissa, who found her name itself erased, was degraded to a simple extension of her husband, an atrocious insult to the entire feminine faction, and yet, a practice that was notoriously commonplace. Later in the novel, Clarissa reflected on her decision to reject Peter, a rather controlling old flame, and his attempts for her hand in marriage, saying that, “For in marriage… a little independence there must be” (Woolf, 6). Clarissa did seemingly desire some sort of power over her own situation, and she proceeded to marry a man who would award her with such. However, in doing so, it becomes evident that the independence Clarissa identified with was simply a privilege granted to her by her husband, eliminating yet another part of her personal identity. Freedom that must be earned is not freedom at all, and it is clear that Clarissa and other women of her time suffered from the lack of freedom to form their own identity, a fundamental requirement of equality.
Furthermore, Woolf demonstrates the traditional female struggles for personal identity in Peter’s conventional male approach towards women. As Peter himself reflected upon Clarissa’s rejection, he wondered, “Why make him think of it again? Why make him suffer, when she had tortured him so infernally? Why?” (Woolf, 30). Peter felt personally victimized by Clarissa’s spurn, largely because he, alongside the rest of society, assumed that women existed to be wed. His entitlement to her hand in marriage was a very ordinary sentiment, and he only perpetuated the idea that female identity lay solely in marriage, a relationship in which men held the power. Peter even attempted to justify the rejection and dismiss his passion for Clarissa, as if the only value that she held lay in her relationship status. Woolf proceeds to conclude the novel in Peter’s perspective, who was pondering his thoughts of Clarissa, thinking, “What is this terror? What is this ecstasy… it is Clarissa” (Woolf, 139). Peter, who was reflecting upon his emotions while in attendance at the party, again assigned Clarissa characteristics that she had no freedom to sway. He is a prime example of the male delegates who utilized their superior social position to unfairly attach identities to females, robbing them of any individuality. Even to the last line of the novel, Woolf resonates this idea, attempting to awaken women to their illusory identities and to fight against the men that assigned them. Neither Peter, nor any other man, had the right to attach concrete identities to women that have no power to escape them, leaving them no other choice but to carry out a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Additionally, the deplorable actuality of feminine identity in the early 20th century is highlighted in Woolf’s portrayal of the drastic effects of patriarchal society upon feminist identities. During a moment of internal reflection, Clarissa admitted her envy for a rebellious childhood friend, who possessed a “beauty of the kind she most admired… as if she could say anything, do anything” (Woolf, 24). Again, Clarissa expresses her underlying desires for freedom, as well as for an identity of her own. However, she lives her life as essentially the opposite, an incarnation of the feminine identity so often promoted by men in her society. This causes a deep internal conflict within Clarissa, who is both complaisant with her role as well as a subdued feminist at heart. She regrets not living as the woman she wants to be, and yet crumbles into the stereotypical female as a result of societal pressures. Further, Clarissa expressed that “she had the oddest sense of being invisible… no more marrying, no more having of children… not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (Woolf, 8). Patriarchal society dictated that women must find purpose in fulfilling identities as wives and mothers. Clarissa did not wish to be victim to such a tragedy, which does attest to the seed of feminist independence in her heart. However, as a woman, she lacked the advantage to lift herself from her position, and was unwilling to suffer the wrath of the patriarchy to forge her own identity. The crushing power of the patriarchy exhibited in Mrs. Dalloway demonstrates just how difficult it was for 20th century women to establish any true sense of themselves. Even women with feminist motives in their heart, such as Clarissa herself, found themselves faced with the nearly insurmountable expectatons of a society ran by men, who held the power in every aspect, social, political, and emotional.
In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf demonstrates through Clarissa’s illusory identity, Peter’s role as an identity delegate, and the crushing pressure of the patriarchy that the only identities women held were those that were assigned by men. Throughout the entire novel, Woolf essentially screams this fact as a rallying cry towards women in her time, whom she saw as ignorant and acquiscent in their positions. By exposing the reality and illusion of the feminine identity, Woolf appealed to women to establish their own individuality, apart from the male dictation of what female should mean. Only by forging their own definition of female would women rise from their inferior social positions, and only by abandoning tradition would women have the freedom to do such. Woolf could perhaps be credited with planting the seeds of the modern feminist movement, a war that rages on even today, as women fight for what it means to be a woman.