Cultural Disenchantment In A Postwar Climate Illustrated In Virginia Woolf’s Novel Mrs. Dalloway

2129 words - 9 pages

One of the principal themes in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway is the English people’s collective loss of confidence in the state of the British Empire after the First World War. Set in London in the June of 1923, the novel opens at the close of a global war that lasted only four years but cost the United Kingdom more than 100,000 lives and permanently shifted the political boundaries and social world order of its people. Each of the novel’s many characters represent a different aspect of the English citizens’ disenchantment with established, presupposed cultural values and worldview brought about by the unexpected lack of glory in victory or dignity in the dead and wounded multitudes. The world Woolf creates in Mrs. Dalloway is both a historical reflection and a social commentary, portraying how the atrocities of war trickle down through the many layers of experience and separation to become deeply ingrained in the country’s collective social consciousness.
Outwardly, Clarissa Dalloway is an ideal image of the nineteenth century English social elite, part of a constantly shrinking upper class whose affluent lifestyle was touched in ways both subtle and terrible by the war raging outside their superfluous, manicured existence. Clarissa’s world revolves around parties, trifling errands, social visits, and an endless array of petty trivialities which are fundamentally meaningless, yet serve as Clarissa’s only avenue to stave off the emotional disease and disconnect she feels with the society in which she exists. Clarissa’s experience of England’s politically humbled, economically devastated postwar state is deeply resonant in her subconscious and emotional identity, despite seeming untraceable in her highly affected public personality. Her entire life is lived within one day, a moment frozen in time, and the people and places she cherishes represent an idealized and glossed-over England greatly divergent from the harsh reality emerging from the ashes of an illustrious era. The frequent references to Big Ben, the houses of Parliament, London, the Prime Minister, and the Queen of England within Clarissa’s stream of consciousness connect the reader, through iconic images of England in the height of its bureaucratic and social greatness, to her world unsullied by the grit and horror of war. The Queen, who to many became a symbol of an outdated political class system and a dying monarchy, is still to Clarissa a figure of “the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state” (Woolf, 16). Clarissa’s struggle with self-realization and retrospection correspond closely with England’s own eroding national identity, and her grand party is the culmination of decades’ worth of wilted aspirations and undelivered promises. Formerly the greatest empire in the world with colonies on every continent, a flourishing intercontinental economy, and a reputation for being invulnerable on land and sea, England saw horrific losses in resources as...

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