The Theme of Gender in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway

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Words: 1692 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 1692|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Woolf is recognised as a prominent writer in modernist literature as well as a leading figure of 20th century literary feminism. Indeed, critic, Elaine Showalter writes that Woolf was one of the first female authors to capture the ‘fitful, fretful rhythm of women’s daily lives’ (Showalter, 1977, pp.198), exquisitely presented throughout Mrs Dalloway. I propose that through the theme of gender in Mrs Dalloway, in relation to the female role in a post-war society and the attitudes towards mental health in the relative context, Virginia Woolf presents the reader with a feminist text that seeks equality and explores the damage caused by a patriarchal society. In order to argue this, I will refer to feminist critics such as Linda Ruhemann, Carol Ann Duffy, and Woolf’s own diaries.

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I believe that gender is at the heart of Woolf’s writing and Mrs Dalloway is a fascinating example of feminine writing. Her modernist approach and stream of consciousness style, render the text more fluid, rhythmic and lends a certain sense of freedom in comparison to the traditional, patriarchal style of novel, such as the works of Charles Dickens, which seem far more serious, controlled with a clear structure. Woolf threw all the rules of structure and punctuation out of the window, mirroring the new possibilities and freedom for women during the wartime society. Some sentences run on for half a page, for example when Clarissa describes how ‘fresh, how calm…the air was in the early morning like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave’ using only semi colons to break the sentence up. The fluidity of the line lends a stunning natural rhythm, relating to sounds of nature and making the reader feel fully immersed in the surroundings. Critic and poet Carol Ann Duffy emphasises how Woolf’s ‘lyric intensity allows her, and us as readers, to stand inside the lived moment’ in my opinion this is exactly what epitomises Mrs Dalloway as a representation of feminine writing that goes against the conceptions of the patriarchal, traditionalist style of novel. Linda Ruhemann argues that we get sense of Woolf’s ‘feminine-ness’ through her ability to ‘create shape and design out of apparently random detail’, a quote that confirms Woolf’s unique structure and style lends a certain sense of femininity to her work.

Woolf already addresses the subject of the female role in a patriarchal society in the eponymous title of ‘Mrs Dalloway’. The title itself, through the lack of her first name, is suggestive of the fact that she is defined by her marriage and has lost her own identity. Clarissa’s feeling of loss is perfectly encapsulated as she describes herself as ‘this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more, this being Mrs Richard Dalloway’, the slow rhythm and commas used in this sentence create a feeling of resignation and loss. Clarissa has reached the menopause, and in this time of patriarchy, in which the primary job of a woman was to get married and have children, one gets the sense that she has lost her purpose in life as well as her identity. The loss of sexual identity is apparent as Clarissa says she ‘felt like a nun’, this sense of being withdrawn from life and no longer being a sensual woman heavily affects her. We are told that ‘narrower and narrower would her bed be’, the repetition creates an effect of the spiralling and increasing lack of intimacy with her husband as she ages. The fascinating aspect of this character is that we see her from different perspectives, on the one hand her mind expressed these wonderful moments of being, but we also get a view of her exterior personality in which she plays the hostess and trivially worries over flowers for her party, exclaiming ‘What a lark!’, a line which Elaine Showalter says perhaps makes it ‘easy to see her as superficial and slight’ (1977) . Even Woolf herself, expressed concern and self-doubt in her own diary from 1923, worrying that Clarissa may be ‘too stiff, too glittering and tinselly’ and therefore not relatable enough. However, I would argue that Clarissa’s external ‘stiffness’ only enforces the society’s negative effect on women; how patriarchy acts as a metaphorical corset and prevents the female voice being heard.

The character of Sally Seton must be discussed in relation to gender as she fights back against the restraints of patriarchy and represents a new possibility for women: freedom mentally, physically and crucially, sexually. She is introduced as ‘the wild, the daring, the romantic Sally!’, a bold young woman of the ‘roaring twenties’ who is perhaps representative of the restlessness of women after the war changed ideas about the female role. More importantly, Sally seems to be the one true love of Clarissa. We are drawn into the stunning moment of being in which Clarissa describes her passion as being ‘an illumination; a match burning in a crocus’, an incredibly insightful, unique, and powerful view of female sexuality. Critic, Suzan Harrison, quotes that this attraction between women ‘and the connection of that attraction to the artistic imagination not only suggests a critique of compulsory heterosexuality and the sacrifices it requires of women but also challenges the mainstream modernist construction of creative inspiration as requiring a male artist and a female muse’. The patriarchal regulations on sexuality prevent their pure and passionate relationship developing, ultimately causing Clarissa’s feeling of loss and lack of identity, Sally is Clarissa’s inspiration; the epitome of sexuality, pure love and freedom. In Woolf’s essay, ‘Professions for Women’ (1931) she talks of killing the ‘Angel in the House’ a concept ‘borrowed from Coventry Patmore’s poem celebrating domestic bliss’ and I believe that Sally Seton is a step towards killing this image of the perfect sacrificial wife in her worldliness and bold attitude towards sexuality. However, the contrast of female characters: Clarissa representing the negative effect of patriarchy on women and Sally representing the possibilities for future women, in my opinion, is what renders Woolf such an intelligent and relevant author. Her ability to create these powerful and contrasting female characters simultaneously makes Mrs Dalloway a product of its time as well as a work that critiques society and ignites change in the societal role of women.

Mrs Dalloway also addresses the theme of gender in relation to the treatment and attitude towards mental health in a patriarchal society. Woolf suffered herself with mental health issues and her own voice seems to rise very close to the surface of the book through the character of Septimus, a soldier suffering from PTSD. She explores how patriarchy affected men too, as mental illness was most often associated with women, who were seen as delicate and susceptible to hysteria, in turn, the men who suffered from disorders such as PTSD were ignored and it was assumed that they would recover from their ‘funk’ on their own, as presented through the doctors in the novel. Dr Bradshaw says that ‘we all have our moment of depressions’ and follows it up by saying all he need is ‘rest,rest,rest; a long rest in bed’, ridiculously unconcerned by Septimus’ symptoms, the repetition emphasises that this is all he has to offer in terms of advice. This lack of concern aggravates us as readers as we see the torment in Septimus’ mind as he states that the ‘world has raised its whip; where will it descend?’. This line is perhaps where we see Woolf herself rise to the surface of the narrative as she explains in her diary from 1925, an accident that she witnesses affects her terribly as she explains that ‘a great sense of brutality and wildness of the world remains with me’ (1953), the link between the suffering of Woolf and Septimus becomes apparent, as well as the frustration due to the lack of knowledge and attention towards mental health disorders at the time. Gabrielle Myers argues that Woolf ‘depicts Septimus as overwhelmed by disparate emotions; he feels too much all the time, and envisions patterns in seemingly random and quotidian objects’ (2011), these actions and feelings were commonly associated with being very feminine by the patriarchal society, hence the lack of interest in addressing them when apparent in a male. The drastic patriarchal views on gender appropriate characteristics, led to dangerous situations in which post-war men, such as Septimus, were left ‘naked, defenceless…exhausted’ and ultimately were driven to suicide. The mirroring suicide of Woolf herself displays the lack of correct treatment for mental illness in women too, and one cannot help but think that Septimus’ suffering was perhaps her own cry for help.

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In conclusion, Mrs Dalloway, is a unique and insightful critique on patriarchy through the exploration of gender. In my opinion, what truly makes this a feminist book that seeks equality and doesn’t solely push for the repression of women to be recognised is that she also challenges the treatment of men. Clarissa and Septimus are products of their time: a time of male dominance, in which both of them are affected negatively. Woolf has used these characters as a representation of the negative effects and limitations of patriarchy while simultaneously giving us a glimpse of a brighter future in the daring and adventurous character of Sally Seton.


  1. Duffy, C.A. (2012). Introduction. In: Woolf, V. (2012). Mrs Dalloway. United Kingdom: Penguin Random House, pp. 1-3.
  2. Harrison, S. (2003). ‘Playing with Fire: Women's Sexuality and Artistry’ in Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs. Dalloway' and Eudora Welty's 'The Golden Apples'. Vol. 56, No. 2, Mississippi: Mississippi State University, pp. 289-313
  3. Myers, G. (2011). ‘‘SPREAD LIKE A VEIL UPON A ROCK’: SEPTIMUS AND THE TRENCH POETS OF WORLD WAR I’ in English: Journal of the English Association, pp.212-228 [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Dec. 2018].
  4. Patmore, C. (1887). The Angel in the House. London: London Cassell and Co.
  5. Ruhemann, L. (1995). ‘Virginia Woolf as a ‘Woman Writer’’ , The English Review, April, p.38
  6. Showalter, E. (1977). A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing. Princeton N.J. : Princeton University Press.
  7. Woolf, V. (1992). Mrs Dalloway. London, The Strand: Penguin Books Ltd.
  8. Woolf, V. (1931). Professions for Women [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Dec. 2018].
  9. Woolf, V. (1953). A Writer’s Diary. St. Albans, Herts: Triad Panther, pp. 66-76.  
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The Theme Of Gender In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
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