A View through the Window:

Virginia Woolf's Portrayal of the Mind in Mrs. Dalloway


Stephanie Coartney


     I have been sleeping over a promising novel.  That's the way to write. I'm ruminating, as usual, how to improve my lot; and shall begin by walking, alone, in Regent's Park this afternoon (Woolf 177, emphasis mine).  For Virginia Woolf, withdrawing into the privacy of her own mind to begin the construction of a novel was both an exhilarating and exhausting process.  This excerpt from one of her diary entries demonstrates how, although she felt the need to reflect alone on the concepts she was entertaining for a novel, Woolf knew that completely isolating herself from the outside world was not the answer to her attempts at capturing life in writing.  Instead, she recognized the challenge of breaking through the barriers to the human mind and presenting the chaotic, fragmented state of each separate individual as one tries to interact with others.  Thus, on her walk through Regent's Park, Woolf was separated from other Londoners by the barriers that her own mind imposed upon her; however, she realized the potential connection that could exist between them when united by some everyday occurrence or feeling.

     One of her most famous masterpieces, Mrs. Dalloway, presents a picture of life in which Woolf uses her outside observance of the real world in conjunction with her own reflections on the human psyche to exhibit this rift between self and society. Throughout

several of her works, Woolf is very conscious of the tension existing between the individualized world of the mind in contrast to the theme of connectedness she often tries to convey in writing by creating a moment of harmony or unity between her characters.  Emphasizing the essential purpose of her writing, to 'examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day' (287), Woolf illustrates the extreme beauty and complexity of the solitary mind, yet at the same time, she also expresses frustration with the struggle to communicate fully with others, to find a chink in the wall that separates one individual personality from another.  

     At the same time as life is composed of a series of separate moments experienced individually and reflected upon within the minds of separate people, Woolf uses Mrs. Dalloway to show that life also involves moments when the long-sought-for unity with others is achieved.  In an excerpt from her work "Moments of Being," she states, "It gives me a great delight to put the severed parts together" From this I reach what I might call a philosophy...that we- I mean all human beings- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art" (13).  Mrs. Dalloway represents this work of art that Woolf describes, encapsulating not only the simultaneous beauty and isolation of life as experienced within the confines of one's own mind, but also the union of souls that can be achieved through simple events or even through the poignancy of one character.

     Woolf's exploration of the character Clarissa Dalloway stands as one such example of her focus on the beauty of the solitary mind.  For instance, one of the first glimpses of independence the reader senses within Clarissa exists in the freedom she enjoys in her marriage with Richard.  Although she continues to reflect on her possible marriage to Peter Walsh throughout the day, Clarissa notes that with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable she had to break with him or they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined (8).  While Peter's need to be in constant communion with her thoughts threatens her sense of identity and privacy, her relationship with Richard is more concrete in that they each retain their own minds, which, instead of seeking to merge, merely exist side by side.  Woolf describes the sacredness of this mental gulf that separates people through Clarissa's eyes as she watches Richard leave the room and says to herself,

            There is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a

            gulf; and that one must respect, though Clarissa, for one would not part with it

oneself, or take it, against his will, from one's husband, without losing one's

independence, one's self-respect- something, after all, priceless.

     In this way, Woolf portrays the solitariness of the mind as something that Clarissa cherishes and feels is the essential right of every individual.  Literary critic Caroline Webb sheds further light on their relationship and the level of connectedness they share in her statement, with Richard the connection is simply felt, in a way that defies the barriers of judgment and of language, that great connector and divider (286).  Whereas Peter constantly sought to know Clarissa's complete inner self, she and Richard allow each other the space to lead individual lives, and their connection lies in what is not necessarily spoken.  A prime example of this kind of silent understanding that exists between them occurs when Richard comes home with a gift of roses for her, and although he cannot vocalize his feelings of love, "she understood without his speaking; his Clarissa" (118).  By contrasting their private minds with the innate appreciation they feel for each other, Woolf captures the simple yet profound beauty of the mind as a being not fully known to those around it, but capable of reaching out to others in silence when words are inadequate.

     In opposition to Clarissa's need for an independent mind in her interactions with others, her relationship with Peter displays the kind of intimacy which can pose a threat to one's individual identity.  Although she deeply cares for him, Clarissa views his presence as a kind of impertinent intrusion into the privacy of her own thoughts and inner self.  Interestingly enough, Woolf depicts their relationship from both of their perspectives and clearly shows the sacredness of one's own mind in relation to the destructive nature of forcing another person into deeper and deeper levels of intimacy.  Separate as they are from one another, Clarissa and Richard share an understanding that words do not express; however, Peter also claims that he and Clarissa "had always this queer power of communicating without words.  She knew directly he criticized her.  Then she would do something quite obvious to defend herself but it never took him in, he always saw through Clarissa" (60).  His comment on the depth of their connectedness takes on a kind of conceited tone as he describes his talent for being able to pin down all her thoughts, even going so far as to say "they went in and out of each other's minds without any effort" (63).  Clarissa, on the other hand, acknowledges Peter's influence over her moods and emotions, but rather than labeling it as evidence of "their exquisite intimacy" (46), she sees it as his attempt to intrude into the private domain of her mind and gain control over her view of herself.  "It was extraordinary how Peter put her into these states just by coming and standing in a corner," she thinks.  "He made her see herself; exaggerate.  It was idiotic" (168).  Through Woolf's portrayal of the complexity of each individual mind, the reader learns that Peter's beliefs regarding his ability to truly know Clarissa are actually unfounded; he merely has the power to influence her.  Furthermore, even Peter has to admit that his criticisms and attempts to label her were "the way their quarrels often began" (60), proving the detrimental consequences of pretending to fully comprehend another person's mind.  Woolf uses Clarissa's passion for preserving her own sense of self as well as her refusal to invade others" to illustrate the sanctity of those invisible barriers to the mind.

     Another instance in which the novel emphasizes the beauty of seclusion takes place in the revelation Clarissa receives as she observes the elderly woman in the house across the street.  The first time the reader catches a glimpse of her occurs when Clarissa is annoyed with Miss Kilman and Peter Walsh for claiming to comprehend the meaning of life.  She looks out the window thinking, "Love and religion!...How detestable, how detestable they are!" and calls them "the cruelest things in the world" for trying to convert people into believing a certain set of truths, for destroying "the privacy of the soul" (126-127).  As she laments the power of love and religion to crush one's own unique way of thinking, Clarissa sees her neighbor walking upstairs, and this simple action inspires her to discover her own meaning to life:

"Let her climb upstairs if she wanted to," Clarissa says, again reflecting that independence of the mind which she so values, "let her stop; then let her gain her bedroom, part her curtains, and disappear again into the background.  Somehow one respected that- the old woman looking out of the window, quite unconscious that she was being watched."

By catching her when she believes she is unobserved, Clarissa witnesses the woman's true self, untainted by society's expectations or the domineering influence of those who wish to convert her thoughts to suit their own.  As a result, she is deeply moved by the elderly woman's poignant representation of isolation coupled with freedom and individuality.  Clarissa realizes that "the supreme mystery which Kilman night say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn't believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another.  Did religion solve that, or love?" (127). 

     Critic Caroline Webb also focuses on the importance of this scene in her article discussing the parallels between Clarissa Dalloway's view of herself and the readers' ability to see beyond allegory.  Noting the existence and necessity of maintaining the privacy of the mind, Webb explains that "the window that separates [Clarissa and the old lady] represents the unbridgeable gap between human beings that yet provides individuality" (285).  She goes on to say that, for Clarissa, the impact of the revelation inspires her to view her party as no longer an aesthetic creation, but instead as an attempt to truly connect to others in a public setting (285).  While this scene is crucial to readers' understanding of Clarissa's appreciation of the solitary mind, its effects transcend her view of the party and, instead, apply in a broader sense to her impression of what life is.  Throughout the entire novel, Clarissa repeatedly thinks about death and her disbelief that a person with so many feelings and thoughts can suddenly cease to exist.  Here, however, she is contemplating life and, just a few pages earlier, tries to put into words what her party truly means to her: What she liked was simply life.  "That's what I do it for," she said, speaking aloud, to life (121).  By viewing her parties as an offering to life prior to observing the simple, yet meaningful movements of the elderly lady in her own room, Clarissa demonstrates her innate desire to bring people together without quite knowing why.  After she receives her revelation, she understands that life is both in the separation of individuals within their own rooms or, figuratively speaking, minds, and it is in the attempts at connection which she tries to achieve at her parties.  Thus, she recognizes the fact that there is something more to her party than just the joy of creating even before she notices the old woman across the street; this revelation merely helps Clarissa understand the beauty in bringing people together not for the purpose of penetrating into their inner selves, but rather to appreciate the separate rooms they each inhabit.

     Contrary to the poignant images Woolf uses to illustrate the sacredness of the private mind, she also portrays it in such a way that laments the human inability of adequately expressing itself to others.  The loneliness and frustration in this kind of interior isolation is most evidently personified in the character Septimus Warren Smith, but it is also a recurring thought in the minds of Clarissa and Peter.  As a result of Septimus' insanity, for instance, he believes there are voices around him telling him profound truths which he must relate to the rest of humanity; however, he cannot find the means to articulate these ideas.  He describes himself as "alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth, to learn the meaning," (67) of what, though, he cannot fully grasp.  Listening to the way Woolf draws out his scattered thought patterns, readers can hear the agony of Septimus' arduous attempts at communicating the full scope of himself to those around him: "He muttered, gasping, trembling, painfully drawing out these profound truths which needed, so deep were they, so difficult, an immense effort to speak out" (67).  In an article on the notion of identity in Mrs. Dalloway, literary critic Ban Wang suggests that Septimus suffers from schizophrenia, through which he argues, "Septimus finds himself merging into nature [and experiencing] moments of ecstasy, moments of tremendous joy and epiphany" (183).  While this statement is true in that Septimus does find extreme beauty in merely watching a leaf blowing in the wind (69), he notes that "real things were too exciting.  He must be cautious.  He would not go mad" (142).  Without any way of expressing the epiphany he feels he has received and must articulate to others, Septimus' ecstasy in losing himself in nature falters and gives way to fear and frustration as he tries to "interpret [his message], with effort, with agony, to mankind" (68).  In this way, Woolf demonstrates how the walls surrounding the human mind can make expression of one's fragmentary thoughts and emotions extremely difficult.

     Along with Septimus, Clarissa is also conscious of this inability to articulate what lies in the deep recesses of the mind.  She experiences the same "effort" in drawing "the parts [of herself] together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman" (37).  Paralleling Woolf's description of life itself as a series of moments (122), Clarissa exemplifies this definition of the solitary mind as a collection of fragments, which must somehow be assembled coherently for the world to understand.  After she learns of Septimus' death and retreats to a separate room, she feels this need to pull the pieces of herself together in order to return as the hostess of her party.  In fact, the last statement that the reader hears Clarissa utter to herself in the novel is that "she must assemble. And she came in from the little room" (186).  She returns from the seclusion she needed to join society once again, this time content in knowing that although one can never get beyond the barriers of communication, an understanding between souls can still form even after one of them has died. 

     In another scene, this time from Peter Walsh's memories, Woolf sheds more light on her depiction of the isolation of the mind and its separation from others around it.  Clarissa and Peter debate how anyone can ever truly know another person or be known by others, and consequently, they lament the notion of death, which has the power of crushing the beautiful intricacies of the mind without the world ever learning the full scope of them.  Theorizing on the nature of the mind, however, Clarissa proposes the possibility that "the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death" (153).  She wants to believe that she will at last achieve unity with the things she associates herself with after the death of her body; that the "unseen part" of her, in other words her mind, will continue to live in "the trees at home; [be a part] of the house there; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best" (9).  Although Clarissa values the beauty of the solitary mind, which can never fully express itself to others, she is frightened by the thought of death erasing all traces of its existence and the intensity of the feelings one experiences in life.  Woolf uses this concern to illustrate another side of life, a more permanent aspect, in which a kind of unity with others is possible when one discovers a portion of his or her own inner self existing in another.

     Several fairly minor events that take place throughout the novel become one way in which people find themselves unified through thought or observation.  For instance, the first of these scenes takes place when a motor car backfires in the street, gaining the attention of passers-by and inspiring a feeling that the vehicle is carrying some member of the royal family.  Woolf writes that "for thirty seconds, all heads were inclined the same way" (17), and "in all the hat shops and tailors" shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire" (18).  Similarly, critic Ban Wang remarks that "the traveling car exerts a tremendous emotional impact on the people in the streets, and for a moment seems to unite them in a spiritual communion" (180).  Because the novel takes place soon after Britain experienced a war, the people have come to regard the British royalty as a symbol of stability and strength for the country; therefore, the sense that "greatness was passing" (18) inspires similar feelings of reverence in those that observe the passing car.  Another instance that creates unity among individuals exists in the attention the aeroplane creates among people in various places in London.  Although Wang describes the change in scenes as "a case of ironic deflation of solemnity to triviality" (182), the aeroplane draws strangers together as they ponder what the letters spell out.  This scene shows that even ordinary events in which individuals are contemplating the same subject can serve as a means of unity among them merely because their focus is directed towards one object.

     The main event around which the entire novel is centered takes shape in Clarissa's party and the unity she herself creates by physically bringing people together.  Regarding it as something much deeper than a simple gathering, Clarissa explains knowing people in separate towns, for whom she feels "what a waste; and what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it" (122).  She searches deep within herself and finds that her parties are an offering to life itself.  In her eyes, life is an intensely personal experience in which one is never fully understood because, like a separate room, the mind also has walls that impose barriers to communication.  Despite the necessity of such privacy for the development of an individual identity, there exists also a deep human yearning to be united with others on a level that goes beyond merely the external; it is a longing for spiritual connection.  Clarissa is acutely aware of the tension which both of these states create in her life; thus, she brings her guests together to allow them to satisfy this rift between people as well as to gain a sense of permanence for herself.  Noting her feeling at parties that "every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another," Clarissa recognizes the impact of the event on her guests in that "it was possible to say things you couldn't say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper.  But not for her; not yet anyhow" (171).  Once again, Woolf uses the word "effort" to describe the great difficulty in escaping the isolation of the mind long enough to find some kind of connection or shared piece of one's own identity within another person.  The party provides an opportunity for this to occur between people.  For Clarissa, however, parties symbolize something even more profound than associating with people; they help her to shake off her fear of death.  Like the ripple of awe and reverence people on the street feel from the glimpse of royalty in the motor car, the party allows Clarissa to have the same effect on those around her in that she herself is the

impetus for connection.  In this way, she becomes larger than life, more than just a secluded mind which is completely erased when death takes it; instead, for a moment, she becomes a source of commonality in her own fragmentary being, uniting the very dissimilar individuals at the party.

     In accordance with specific events, the personality or aura of one person also has the power to bind seemingly unrelated people and places together.  For example, Clarissa proves not only through the creation of her party, but also through other characters thoughts about her that even her presence is a connecting force for them.  Individuals such as Peter, Richard, Miss Kilman, Elizabeth and even extremely minor characters like Scrope Pervis all think about Clarissa at some point throughout the day; therefore, they share a unique bond with each other simply because their thoughts, like their paths, frequently cross without their knowledge.  Like Peter's awestruck declaration of "It is Clarissa. For there she was" (194), the moot point for all of them is Clarissa herself, not what she does or says, but who she is and what she represents for them.

     Closely paralleling her throughout the novel, Septimus Warren Smith is another character who acts as a connecting force, joining his own identity to Clarissa's through his death.  An interesting observation lies in the fact that Septimus is introduced and exits the novel during moments of unity with others, namely the motor car incident and then at Clarissa's party, while all of the in-between time he spends trying to connect to reality and repeatedly failing.  Literary critic Liesl Olson asserts that Septimus is "unable to see life after the war as simple or pure [and therefore] cannot maintain his connection to ordinary things...His suicide prompts Clarissa to reconnect with life" (57).  During her

party, Clarissa withdraws to a separate room by herself to contemplate the news of Septimus' death.  This act of momentarily breaking the connection she has created with others again demonstrates the need for mental and even physical isolation at times in order to sort one's own thoughts and assemble the pieces.  As she sifts through a myriad of questions on how Septimus could have willingly embraced something she has long feared, Clarissa once again observes the old woman in the room across the street.  Like the previous instance in which she has glimpsed her unaware, the tone of her thoughts immediately changes, and she receives a sort of revelation regarding life.  This time, however, instead of watching the woman without her knowing, Clarissa declares, "Oh , but how surprising!- in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her!" (185-86).  In a scene of poignant contrast, Clarissa stands watching her moving about, quietly preparing for bed while at the same time, she can still hear the laughter from her party in another room (186). 

     Immediately, her thoughts shift from pondering Septimus' actions and analyzing her own feelings to her statement of "[t]he young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him" (186).  The sight of the old woman reminds Clarissa of the illustration of life as a series of separate rooms in which everyone experiences his or her own mental isolation as well as the preservation of individuality.  As she listens to the sounds of her party below, however, Clarissa discovers that Septimus, closed off as he was from those around him due to his trauma, in the end achieves that goal of communicating the profound truths he attempts to articulate in life.  Just as Septimus physically leaps out of his room through the window, he simultaneously escapes the isolation of the mind, which Woolf chooses to associate with the notion of a room closed off to others.  Breaking down the walls of this room, he proves to Clarissa that connection to others is possible after death, that one's

identity is in fact deposited in people, places and even in the breasts of strangers, just as she had hoped it would.  Clarissa herself stands as living proof of her belief in the "unseen part of us" living on and "spreading itself wide" (153) because she is one of the recipients of Septimus' soul; "she felt somehow very like him- the young man who had killed himself.  She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away" (186).  In response to this scene, Olson notes that "it is essentially [Clarissa's] assertion of life over inwardness, trauma or death" (57); however, Woolf displays more than just a triumph of life over death.  Instead, Clarissa is able to overcome her fear of dying through his suicide, and her response to it is more of an acquiescence to the inevitability of death in the belief that it is powerless to consume that unseen part of us.

     With this reassurance of death's limited powers, she realizes that the beauty of the individual mind is preserved and is finally able to reach beyond the walls that separate each person from another.  Somehow, the old woman and Septimus are spiritually joined to Clarissa in this scene simply because they each have deposited a piece of their identities within her and have made it possible for her to no longer fear death.  While Septimus embraces it in his youth, the elderly woman accepts death in her old age, as witnessed in Clarissa's observation of "There! the old lady had put out her light! the whole house was dark now with this [the party or life itself] going on" (186).  The sight

of the woman staring straight back at her through the window acts as a visual representation as well of what Clarissa discovers through Septimus' suicide; people can still bridge the mental divide, communicating deep, meaningful parts of their souls to one another even after death.  In that way, they live on.

     Mrs. Dalloway stands as a unique artistic portrayal of the human mind and the struggle to express the deep parts of oneself to others.  Through Clarissa, Woolf is able to display both the beauty of the solitary mind with its many complexities that are never fully known to others as well as the frustration of searching for a mode of communication to adequately convey what is in one's mind.  Events such as Clarissa's party can unite people to one another momentarily, but Woolf demonstrates that a person's character can have the power to connect and inspire others even after death.  Rather than fearing the dissolution of her mind and all its components any longer, Clarissa discovers through Septimus' suicide that "Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically evaded them; closeness drew apart, rapture faded, one was alone" (186).  Woolf asserts that while one is ultimately alone in one's own mind, the power to express one's soul to another is possible, and the beautiful fragments of the mind are not destroyed in death, but merely spread wide.    

Works Cited


Olson, Liesl M. "Virginia Woolf's 'cotton wool of daily life.'" Journal of Modern Literature 26.2 (Winter 2002-2003): 42-65. Indiana University Press. Project  Muse. McKendree University, Holman Lib. 16 Apr. 2009 <http://wf2dnvr6.webfeat.org/>.


Wang, Ban. "'I' on the Run: Crisis of Identity in Mrs. Dalloway." Modern Fiction Studies 38.1 (Spring 1992): 177-91. Purdue Research Foundation. Project Muse. McKendree University, Holman Lib. 16 Apr. 2009  <http://wf2dnvr6.webfeat.org/>.


Webb, Caroline. "Life After Death: The Allegorical Progress of Mrs. Dalloway." Modern Fiction Studies 40.2 (Summer 1994): 279-98. Purdue Research Foundation. Project Muse. McKendree University, Holman Lib. 17 Apr. 2009 < http://wf2dnvr6.webfeat.org/>.


Woolf, Virginia. "Moments of Being." The Virginia Woolf Reader. Ed. Mitchell Leaska. Orlando: Harcourt, 1984. 144-150.


Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt, 1925.


Woolf, Virginia. A Writer's Diary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.