Symbolism in Mrs Dalloway | Mrs Dalloway Symbols

Symbolism in Mrs Dalloway | Mrs Dalloway Symbols

Symbolism in Mrs Dalloway


Symbols are words which in their use are connotative as well as emotive and evocative. They convey the meaning of the writer; besides they have a heritage of rich associations and emotions. Symbols enhance the expressiveness of the language and enable the writer to suggest what cannot be conveyed by the ordinary resources of the language. Stream of consciousness novelists have employed symbols to convey complex mental conditions and states. Vague sensations and fleeting emotions that pass through the human consciousness are to be depicted by them and this task is not so easy as it appears. Mrs. Dalloway looks inward more than most of the other novels of Virginia Woolf’s day; hence symbolism sweeps through the very design of novel. Symbols help the novelist in two ways : to translate the psyche of her characters and to convey her scathing denunciation of a spiritually hollow civilization.

Symbolic Significance of Characters

Various characters embody various aspects of the cotemporary western civilization. The Dalloways symbolize the outward frame-work, the external glitter, the outward pomp and show of a civilization which, by and large is shallow, superficial, hollow and rotten from within. Externally it is all culture and refinement and polish; it is characterized by peace and comfort to all outside appearances; but on looking deeper into it we find that there is hypocrisy, neurosis, insincerity, dissimulation and total spiritual bankruptcy prevailing in it. The outward glitter of this civilization is symbolised by Clarissa, the “perfect hostess”, with her chain of repeated parties staring at the stars and welcoming everybody with joy : “How delighted to see you.” Septimus Warren Smith is her double, as such he concretizes her spiritual state. He stands as a severe indictment of contemporary civilisation, which through all its horrors of war and ruthless competition, produces neurosis, restlessness, nervous breakdown and insanity.

Symbolism of Satire on Religious intolerance

Through Doris Kilman the novelist in Mrs. Dalloway exposes the corrupt religiosity and possessive love” of the present day English society. She symbolises all that is worst in religion, religious fanaticism, intolerance and bigotry. We do not find in her the elements of love and religion. She is frustrated from within, which makes her embittered from within, and is filled with an inveterate hatred for those who are more fortunate and enjoy all the good things of life. She does not love Elizabeth, but she wants to dominate and possess her soul in order to take revenge upon her mother. She eats greedily which means that she has a spiritual appetite for domination, and her external ugliness and shabbiness are but symbols of her inner ugliness.

Modem life abounds in complete distortion of values. Pompous fools like Hugh Whitbreads, who, having little job at court, in the words of Sally Seton, “have read nothing, thought nothing and know nothing.” symbolise veneration for the existing order and represent toadism (fawning before greatness) and snobbery of the English Middle-class life. The Bradshaw stands for a passion of law and order and ruthless domination of the souls of others.

Symbolism of Social intolerance

Peter Walsh, Sally Seton and Septimus, stand for the visionary, the unconventional and the adventurous. Sally Seton is unconventional and progressive. She has an ardent passion for reforming the world. Persons like her are not liked by the society and they are forced to surrender. She is forced to marry a rich industrialist, leads a conventional life and is changed into a conventional mother, who has “five big boys at Eton”. The gray colour of Dr. Bradshaw’s car, of his furniture and of his dress symbolises his cold and calculating nature which is deficient in the warmth of human feelings.

Symbols of Nature and Flower

The rhythms of nature, perceived by the senses, are a manifestation of the process of becoming and the very essence of the novelist’s concept of time. In Mrs. Dalloway, she has derived her symbols from the world of leaves and flowers. The “calm, fresh morning, like the flap of a wave, the kiss of a wave, chill and sharp”, stands for the morning of Clarissa’s life, her happy girlhood at Bourton. Flowers and green fields symbolise the state of peace and contentment in the novel. Lucrezia thinks of fresh fields and newly-born flowers when she is dreaming of her happy life at Milan. Rose is a symbol of love and fulfillment. Roses are brought by Richard Dalloway when he expresses his love for Clarissa. The beautiful cloudscape with its lights and shades, seen by the youthful and gay Elizabeth, symbolise the alternating joys and sorrows of life.

Symbols of Alternation of Day and Night

The alteration of Day and Night as a symbol of the manifold meanings which it conveys, recurs in all the novels of Virginia Woolf. It represents the image of the mind, alternating rhythmically between darkness and light, concentration and dispersal, attention to lite and to the outside world. Day with its light, giving shape and colour to objects, suggests the creative presence of the universe, as it is reborn at every dawn. Day represents life with all its richness and splendour, and the dazzlement which it brings forth, on the one hand, and its multiplicity, disorder and confusion on the other. Ralph and Katherine invoke the night to help them in clarifying the uncertainties confronting them. There is a ring of sincerity and romanticism in their appeal to night. The world opens its true significance to Clarissa and Mrs. Ramsay in the heart of darkness.

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Symbol of Tree

The tree with all its appurtenances, the leaves, roots and the forests, is symbol which Virginia Woolf frequently uses. The forest symbol appears in The Voyage Out. It has a two-fold significance: it shelters the love affairs of Terence and Rachel and it expresses the vital impulse which is never absent from Virginia Woolf’s work. The tree is a real symbolic motif in Mrs. Dalloway. It symbolizes Clarissa’s life as well as Septimus and Rezia’s life. It represents the beauty and strength of all creation, which remains unmoved against all kinds of opposition and assault. In The Waves she tries to constitute the foam of life on the surface of the earth and they out-live the eternal flux. They are the first to catch the light and it is from them that the songs of joy of the birds first rises.

Symbols of Birds, Butterflies and Fish

Birds, butterflies and fish are other symbols which Virginia Woolf uses. They recur as secondary themes, but they appear again and again in her novels like so many reminders of a primordial aspect of reality. They emerge suddenly like the truth. The gull rocked by the wave or tossed by the storm against the glass of the lighthouse, the cloud of rocks, or starlings dropping on to a tree like a set and rising again to spread its meshes against the evening sky, are examples.

There are butterflies which clinging to flowers or beating against the window-panes, meet with a mysterious and tragic fate. They are like a lamp lost in the darkness of the forest.

The fishes cross pools or ponds as swift as an arrow. They explore submerged worlds and represent some obscure signs breaking into man’s consciousness.

All the three-birds, butterflies and fishe belong to Nature, and have such a significant part in Virginia Woolf’s cosmogony that they constantly provide a vocabulary to critics to explain the symbolic significance of her work.

Symbols Waves and Air

Virginia Woolf has an intimacy with water. This fact is reinforced by the images which she constantly derives from waternets, lines, diving, floatsam, jetsam, boat and sails. Air is a complementary element, and the two elements of water and air, being two fluidities between which we maintain our permanence, represent the universe. “……the stir in the air is the describable agitation of life”, says she. It is agitation and not development or change, which she refers to. It is the Air by which the face of the earth is stirred to emotion in a sudden and unexpected manner, it is through its stir that the grass and leaves are set on to a shivering sensation, the trees twist and shake, the rain lashes against the window-panes.

Symbols of Earth and Fire

The fluid elements are symbols of life, being and thought. The earth not the fertile earth, but the hard, permanent, the rock, in contrast to them, is a symbol of the impediment against which consciousness stumbles and the waves break. Jacob finds disillusionment in the world.

If fire, as such, does not have a prominent Virginia Woolf, light which is an associate of fire, has a significant part to play in them. Light is identical with day; it is the very soul of the day, and it is by the basic need of that it is multiplied. We have firelight in the hearth, candle-light, lights in solitary windows in the country, numerous lights in cities at night. They flash, get dim or brighten and die out. Like them life is flickering, ephemeral and momentary. The light-house is a symbol of lodestar and distant guide, intermittent and yet enduring, identical with Being (existence).

The Waves

The waves echo beyond the shores against which they strike and break. Amid the din of wind and rain that rage around the sleeping child, they go unnoticed. But in the radiant calm which pervades around the boat when Jacob and Timmy go sailing, they lash against the boat and break against the rocks with regular and dreadful solemnity. Like the perennial sea-swell life is lifted up, dropped again and threatened, but the whisper and the sign of the waves remain, and eventually it rises to merge into the sound of the guns, with which, as Destiny willed, Jacob is killed. In Mrs. Dalloway the image suggests peace, even if it is an anticipation of death. The waves symbolise the movement of life which is carried to the shore, irresistible, but on the whole beneficent in effect.

Symbolic Actions

There are some actions which are symbolic. Peter Walsh’s habit of fidgeting with a large pocket-knife which he always carries with him represents, “his silly unconventionality, his weakness, his lack of the ghost of a notion what anyone else was feeling.” He shuts the knife with a snap which implies his irritation at the thought that a conservative husband was bad for some women. He clenches his fist on his knife when he recollects his life full of rides, journeys, quarrels, adventures, bridge parties, Jove-affairs etc. This certainly brings into light the most adventurous side of his character. His paring of his nails with his pocket-knife and running his finger along its blade is a suggestion to make us understand that he is sharp enough yet to trim his life to his liking. In the end as he arrives at Clarissa’s party, “he opened the big blade of his pocket-knife”, which demonstrates that he prepares himself fully to endure the party.

Thus, it is seen that the use of symbolist technique is an important part of Mrs. Woolf’s novelistic art. There is an abundance and variety of symbols employed by her.


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