Perhaps the biggest reason that I love Virginia Woolf is that her novels call marriage and tradition into question. Such was the case with To the Lighthouse, The Years, and Orlando; such is the case with Mrs. Dalloway.
As Rezia, one of the minor characters, notes, “Every one gives up something when they marry” (99).
Of course, the titular character, Clarissa Dalloway is married and on several points throughout the novel, unhappy. However, the important point of Clarissa’s marriage to Richard is that it allows independence, which was Clarissa’s prime consideration when deciding which man she wanted to marry.
For in a marriage a little license, a little independence there must be between people living together day in and day out in the same house; which Richard gave her and she him. (10)
This theme of mutual independence and respect repeats throughout the book. When considering the notion of self-hood, Clarissa hearkens back to her early iteration of having room for independence:
“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.” (181)
This independence is the focus as Clarissa strives not to lose herself to her married identity, an endeavor largely exercised in throwing her parties. Parties, because Clarissa is fond of society and enjoys an opportunity to use her social intelligence. Parties, for Clarissa, represent life, and “What she liked was simply life” (183).
Counterposed to married, yet somewhat independent, Clarissa is her daughter’s history tutor Miss Kilman, “a woman who had made her way in the world” (200). While Clarissa Dalloway chose marriage as her mode of finding a vehicle for her independent spirit, Miss Kilman became a history tutor and spinster.
Miss Kilman comes off a bit like a Dickensian spinster; however, she serves an important purpose: to guide Elizabeth Dalloway into a life of options. Most specifically, Miss Kilman insists to Elizabeth:
“Law, medicine, politics, all professions are open to women of your generation.” (198)
The marriage moral of Mrs. Dalloway is that a woman can find within the limits of marriage an independence, but there are so many options beyond that open to women. To me, Virginia Woolf’s writing represents a definitive end to the limited options for women in the nineteenth century and the beginning of opening more social space for women to choose less traditional paths.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. New York, NY: Harcourt, 1953.