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Identity in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Updated on November 24, 2011

The nature of identity is a major theme in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. The novel, written in 1925, explores the timeless question of whether we are ever able to truly understand the "self." Is it something ephemeral, fleeting, or vague, or a clearly defined entity? How do our surroundings, our physical environment and our human relationships impact the notion of self or personal identity? Can the self ever really be considered an individual entity, or is it inextricably intertwined with the outside world?

On a very basic level, the reflection our face in a mirror is comprised of lines, contours, depths and promontories. These are the images perceived by the eyes; it is our brains that create the more recognizable symbols of eyes, nose, lips, and cheekbones. Ultimately these symbols coalesce into a larger picture of a face, and not just any face, but our own. While it would be possible to gain some generalized understanding of our physical appearance through the sensation of touch, our reflection is necessary in conceptualizing our physical selves in their totality.

Cubo - Mirror Face
Cubo - Mirror Face | Source

Society as a Mirror for the Self

The mirror serves as a microcosm of a larger reality. In life, we cannot fully understand identity until we see it reflected back to us by the mirror of the “other.” Yet like the looking glass, the reflection generated by the community-at-large is composed of bit parts, small symbolic representations that only coalesce and become imbued with meaning once they have returned to us, to be digested and assimilated into our overall self-concept.

While the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway have only a limited understanding of one another, each creates a personal identity through his or her varied reflections in the eyes of others. Clarissa Dalloway exemplifies this idea, as throughout the course of the novel, the reader witnesses her identity develop in tandem with her contact with the outside world .

The Other as Caricature

It is clear that none of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway know much about one another. At one point the question is asked, “…for what can one know even of the people one lives with every day?” (188). It becomes apparent that what each knows of another is a compartmentalized version. Richard Dalloway sees Clarissa as “Mrs. Dalloway,” a charming wife with a delicate constitution. Clarissa’s servants help her to portray the image of the “gentle, generous-hearted” society wife (38), while to Peter she is a snob and the perfect hostess. It is Peter who, though at times depreciating, is most aware of Clarissa’s multi-faceted nature. “…She had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa” (76). Through these relationships Woolf posits that no matter how close we are other people, they will never exist as more than a rough caricature to us. The Other is fundamentally an alien identity, one which we are only able to understand through the context of our relationship with that person.

Virginia Woolf hinted at lesbian affairs for the women of Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf would go on to have a famous love affair with Vita-Sackville-West.
Virginia Woolf hinted at lesbian affairs for the women of Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf would go on to have a famous love affair with Vita-Sackville-West.

The Playing of Roles

Clarissa Dalloway plays many roles to many different people, appearing to be made up of many differing and even irreconcilable aspects. Woolf describes Clarissa getting ready for her party as “…collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself." There are three progressive images reflected in the mirror: the hostess, the woman, and the inner or core self. Clarissa, while aware of these dichotomies of self, seems relatively content with the schism between inward and outward nature until Peter makes his unexpected return. Facing Peter, someone whom she has known in another lifetime, as another version of self, causes her an inner conflict that forces her to reconcile her varying aspects of self.

The Process of Reflection

Woolf uses the metaphor of the party and its preparation to chart a journey towards the eventual assembly of Clarissa’s identity. If Peter is to be considered the catalyst towards redefinition, then the party itself exists as the epipany of understanding. The party is a figurative device in which all of Clarissa’s personality aspects come together at once. It is telling that as the party begins, Clarissa describes a sense of erasure of personality. Her identity has not yet been glimpsed in the mirror and hasn’t yet undergone the process of exterior reflection. As the party progresses and Clarissa moves from guest to guest, she is able to reassemble the sense of self that has been deconstructed by the appearance of Peter. The party guests and the distinct relationship Clarissa has with each reflect back to her the many facets that make up her total self, just as the mirror at the beginning of the day reflected a tri-part identity: the hostess, the woman, the self.

The Hours - Inspired by Mrs. Dalloway

The Hours
The Hours

Movie Version


Internalizing the Reflection

Though Woolf presents a construction of self that derives from the symbolic reflection in the unknown other, the final stage of this process is still internal. While the face may be reflected in the mirror, internal cognition, consciousness or subconsciousness is what interprets and assimilates the symbols presented as a face, and understands that face as the outward manifestation of self. Identity derived through relationship with the other and the outside world still needs the medium of the individual consciousness to assemble it. When Clarissa breaks from the party to watch the woman across the street through her window, Woolf is allowing Clarissa the necessary space to assimilate the self that has been pieced together out of the many roles she has played that night. The Clarissa that returns to the party is a different version that the one that has left; she has now reconciled and integrated the opposing factions of her identity.

The Unknown Within the Self

Clarissa at the window is the final scene in which the narration inhabits her thoughts. Just as when she pondered her image at the dressing-table mirror earlier in the day, there is again a mirror image in play. The anonymous woman across the street is the reflection of Clarissa: her mirrored image represents the unknown variable within Clarissa's own self. This unknown woman reflects the “other” within Clarissa, the part of herself that she can never truly understand, no matter how many epiphanies of self-understanding she undergoes. Woolf makes it apparent that while we can never really know another, neither can we ever fully know ourselves. In this absence of understanding and awareness, it is our experience and relationship with others, with the world, that act upon our inner core of being, however alien to us, to create something that we can understand or conceptualize as our own individual selves.


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    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 6 years ago from TEXAS

      Interesting. I notice that Edith Wharton touches on her characters' deeper identities and how or if they are accurately reflected by those around them. I'm not familiar with Virgina Woolf in general and not at all with the work highlighted here. I'm a bit more knowledgable about Edith Wharton and perhaps it is because in my teens I was fascinated with old New York stories about the Dutch aristocrats who settled and became the Old Guard. Her settings are there and depict the manners and pretensions of turn-of-the-century New York and New England.

      So I was curious as to how Wharton's and Woolf's lives and writing careers compare and/or overlap. Amazed to find that they were both snobs but Wharton disapproved of much that Woolf embraced, though she felt rebuffed that Woolf didn't defer to her age. She did depict characters and one can see them through her characterizations but she scorned "stream of consciousness " writing and considered modernism inept. Woolf apparently would have been happy if the old fogey had gotten out of her way. Their times on earth overlapped but they didn't actually ever meet. It's projected that had they met, it would have been a very cool and brief encounter.

      In 1925 each published a new book. "Mrs. Dalloway" was Woolf's. "The Mother's Recompense" was Wharton's. Their points of view were quite opposite. There were even some scathing words written by Woolf about Wharton and then some written by Whartonto a friend about Woolf. The writeup I found claims that their main difference was probably generational. Interesting hypothesis.

      After all, writers, even revered ones, are only human! lol

      I love your article. Now I must read Woolf!

    • Anaya M. Baker profile image

      Anaya M. Baker 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Wow, Nellieanna, you always manage to enlighten me! This dynamic between Wharton and Woolf is fascinating! Thank you so much for researching and sharing it...I haven't read Wharton in a long time, but in my late teens and early twenties I felt like I really connected emotionally with her writing and characters. I think I'm going to revisit her again...I haven't read The Mother's Recompense, and I think it would be quite interesting to look at it after spending a lot of time as of late with Woolf.

    • Kmilvet profile image

      Kmilvet 5 years ago from Akron, Ohio

      I encountered this book as a freshman in college a few years ago and it completely revolutionized the way I see the relationship between individuals and society. Your article highlights everything someone would need to know about reading Mrs. Dalloway for the first time. Two thumbs up.

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      ksinll 4 years ago

      Hi, I just read Mrs. Dalloway for our book club a couple months back. I was interested in the main character because she seemed to be so detached from everything even love and religion. It seemed that she was so against anything that restricted her freedom in anyway but at the same time she did everything she could to keep up appearances to the outside world. I found it interesting that when her husband brought her flowers that she was the one that could go through the motions more than her husband yet the husband was the one who felt the poignancy of the moment.

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      Algeria 21 months ago

      This article is inexplicably amazing! I like the way you based your analysis in relation to the Self. May you please tell me which passage exactly did you mean by "the anonymous woman"? Thank you for this inspiring article.

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