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Traditional and Modern Values in Dalloway

By HIDDENintheIVY Nov 28, 2010 2338 Words
How far would you agree that the central concern of the novel is the conflict between traditional and modern values?

Virginia Woolf uses her novel Mrs. Dalloway to express the idea of the conflict between traditional and modern values of the time. Throughout the novel we see the almost tug-of-war between the two different values with one side trying to cling to the old ways and customs and the other side, the newer generation, pushing the limits and breaking free of these traditions.

This idea of Modernism and its values taking the place of the traditional values is shown through the two symbols of the car and the airplane. The car represents the traditional values of the time of conformity and all people acting and thinking as one, enforcing the idea of controlling the populace and forcing everyone into the same image of what it means to be an Englishman/woman. This is shown in the image of authority, used to describe the reaction of the people towards the car, with “her eyes bandaged tight and her lips gaping wide” emphasizing the idea of the people’s bind patriotism and close-mindedness. Also the fact that all the people who view this car think that “greatness was seated within” shows the lack of variation in thinking. They are uniform in their belief that a figure of Royalty who resides in the car, emphasizing the conformity of thought of the time. However, this idea is then contrasted with the symbol of the airplane which represents Modernism and modernist ideals. The plane is not bound to the set roads on the ground (like the rigid traditional rules of society) but is free in the sky as it “soared straight up, curved in a loop, raced, sank, rose” with nothing tying it down or trying to control it. This emphasizes the modern values of liberation. Also, in contrast with the unity of thought shown towards the car, we see a variety of different ideas as to the meaning of the plane’s smoke-trail message. Mrs. Coates thinks it spells “Glaxo” whereas Mrs. Bletchley believes it to be “Kreemo” two very different words sprung from the same image. This emphasises a freedom of thought and the idea of individuality as opposed to grouping people into a generalisation.

We can see the presentation of these two symbols one after the other as they attract the attention of the populace as a suggestion of the traditional and modern values both being set in front of the people and left for them to decide on which will dominate the other. The car appears first, emphasising the people’s continued faith in their country but when the plane is introduced, the car is quickly forgotten, shown in the parentheses “(and the car went in at the gates and nobody looked at it)” which suggests an afterthought, emphasising its diminished importance in the face of the ‘new’ and highlighting the prevailing Modernism idea and how it is taking over the traditional values as the times change.

Woolf shows the conflict between the two sets of values through the women in the novel. The character Lady Bruton represents the traditional England. She is a “pedigree” woman whose patriotism seems to exceed the abilities of her gender (where the women of the time were not educated beyond a governess’ teachings) so that she cannot even write a letter to the Times to express her political ideas. She stands for the British Empire and how the traditional ways seek to control and compel the people into the ideal; this is shown in her obsession, the “ramrod of her soul”, of her immigration “project” which highlights the idea of organising the grand populace into manageable generalisations and ignoring the individual. Lady Bruton can be contrasted with Sally Seaton, who represents modern values. Sally represents rebellion and defiance of the social norms. We see her “smoking”, “sitting on the floor” and “running down the passage naked” all acts that were considered unladylike and unconventional at the time. Sally is literate (unlike Lady Bruton who had to rely on Hugh to write her letter) which means she is able to express her ideas and she too writes a letter concerning social issues, however Sally’s letter is about “abolishing private property” and thus freeing people, the opposite idea to the intention of Lady Bruton’s letter. So we see the two conflicting sets of values with one trying to repress and the other trying to liberate.

Clarissa, the protagonist of the novel is a perfect example of the traditional values of upper-class women. Her life is briefly described through Peter’s thoughts as a procession of “visiting, leaving cards, being kind to people…” the way these acts are listed in quick succession emphasises the triviality of traditional life, making it seem superficial and frivolous. However one can compare Clarissa to her daughter Elizabeth, who is a part of the next generation where the changes and deviations from traditional conventions are more pronounced. Elizabeth is shown to have more opportunities available to her in her future, shown in the line “law, medicine, politics, all professions are open to women of [Elizabeth’s] generation” this emphasises the changing of values between generations and the swing from traditions to Modernism.

Critic Paloom expresses the idea that the style of the novel is an expression of Modernism, stating that the novel “has no action in the traditional sense…the action is internalised in the thoughts and impressions received by characters.” The plot of the novel is controlled and regimented by Big Ben, the striking of the hour propelling the action of the people thus conveying the traditional values of unifying and repressing (as Big Ben is a symbol of traditional England and its values.) However, as Paloom says, the plot is minimal (simply a day in the life of Clarissa) so the influence of traditional values is overshadowed by the idea of Modernism (which is the internal action of the characters) expressed in the very style of Woolf’s writing. Another key aspect of Woolf’s expression of Modernism through her writing style is the way she delves into the consciousness of her various characters and explores them in what she calls the “tunnelling process” which she stated in her diaries, gives them “humanity, humour and depth.” So that her characters are not painted as either essentially good or essentially bad as were the characters of the traditional novels, but were shown to be ‘human’ in a sense that we see their merits and flaws and are encouraged to judge them for ourselves and not simply agree with the narrator’s view of them. This emphasises the modern values of individual thought and freedom of expression and how the ideals are changing and moving away from the traditional conventions.

Woolf uses the character Peter to emphasise the changes in society. Peter has had a five year period away from England and so has not been around for the gradual changes, and thus we see a more drastic change from the traditional conventions as he compares the past with the present. The way women are permitted to behave in public has changed, Peter notes how girls were seen to “take out a stick of rouge, or powder-puff, and making up in public” and he saw a young couple who were not married “carrying on quite openly” this emphasises the gradual liberation of women and the steady change of their role in society. He also observes the change in women’s fashions, he notes “the slimness; the elegance…the universal habit of blush” this suggests the change in the traditional view of women and how they are gaining more freedom and respect from their society. So through his thoughts, the reader’s attention is drawn to these differences that, if seen to take place over time, would have been less dramatic but because Peter was absent for the gradual changes we are allowed a fresh look at England and how society is adjusting to more modern values.

The idea of the changing view of women is emphasised later in the novel at Clarissa’s party when Ellie Henderson observes the younger generation of women and how “girls wore straight frocks, perfectly tight, with skirts well above the ankles.” We see this as a drastic change from her generation in her thoughts of how “it was not becoming” and “girls…didn’t seem to wear white as they used to” so through her observations which hold her generation’s values and beliefs, we see how the fashions are becoming more modern and traditional values of girls in white, below-the-ankle dresses are being put aside.

The conflict between traditional and modern values is shown throughout this novel as one of the most important concerns explored by Woolf. However another important concern in the novel is of life, death and the wellbeing and freedom of one’s soul. She expresses this through the two characters Clarissa and Septimus. Woolf draws parallels between these two characters and uses Clarissa to represent life while Septimus is used to represent death. Clarissa has to struggle for the freedom of her soul against Miss Kilman, who represents religion (another important theme of the novel) and how religion was used to control people, we see Miss Kilman’s desire to control Clarissa’s soul in the lines “if only she could make her weep…bring her to her knees crying, You are right!” This emphasises Miss Kilman’s longing to convert and conquer Clarissa, to break her spirit and mould her to her will. Similarly, the character Mr Bradshaw is shown as wanting to control Septimus’ soul. Mr Bradshaw is a doctor who specialises in patients suffering from shell shock and he controls people through his treatments and supposed ‘cures’. We see his desire to control people when he refers to the idea of conversion as a “Goddess whose lust is to override opposition, to stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself”. So we see his desire to overpower Septimus’ soul and break his will. Woolf uses the different ways both Septimus and Clarissa resist being conquered to emphasise the themes of life and death and how life cannot exist without death. Septimus saves his by committing suicide where, in offering the doctors his body “I’ll give it you” he has prevented them from breaching the privacy of his soul. So he has saved himself in death whereas Clarissa resists Miss Kilman in life and by continuing to live in a way she believes to be right regardless of Miss Kilman’s views, demonstrated in throwing her party.

We also see that, after the news of Septimus’ death, Clarissa has an epiphany that helps her to embrace life and face Sally and Peter (an act she couldn’t do before) shown in the sentences “Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them.” This reoccurring Shakespeare quote expresses the idea that death is a comfort after life’s struggles and so by using this quote at this point, Woolf shows the readers how Clarissa has accepted the idea of death and because of this she is reborn in the sense that she now has the strength to face her past (Sally and Peter). By following the Shakespeare quote with “she must go back to them” we see that the knowledge and acceptance of death gives Clarissa the strength to continue living. Therefore, although the central concern expressed in this novel is the conflict between traditional and modern values, there are also other important concerns expressed that should not be overlooked as they are important to the dynamic of the novel and to the life views expressed by Woolf.

This novel explores the idea of change and how change is a crucial part of living. We see her characters change their minds and grow as people in a way that no other writer of the time could fully accomplish. Our view as the reader of these characters is also encouraged to change and fluctuate as their imperfections and virtues are revealed through their thoughts and the thoughts of others. Critic Walton Beacham expresses that in this novel, Woolf delves into the idea of “people's ability to deal with change, be it change of life, changes from war to peace, change of class or change of family life… describing the mysterious path of change which human relationships and personalities take over the passage of time.” In creating a modern novel supporting a modern style of writing and of looking at life, Woolf emphasises the idea of the swing from traditional values to modern values and the inevitability of this change as each generation passes. She has succeeded in conveying this sense of liberation in her ebb and flow of consciousness, her ‘tunnelling process’ and in the ever changing views and moods of her characters which seem to defy the factors set to control them simply by existing. And so to a certain extent we see this conflict between traditional and modern values as the central concern of the novel, however Woolf does voice other concerns throughout the text that were also important to the time the novel was written and that continue to be important today. The idea of life, death and the wellbeing of the soul are shown to resonate through her two key characters and the readers are encouraged to let these ideas broaden their minds in a way that traditional novels of the time did not. Bibliography

Source 1
Critic: Paloom
Article: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as a Modernist Novel Website: Time: 8:30pm Thursday 26th of February

Source 2
Critic: Walton Beacham
Article: Mrs Dalloway, Social Concerns/ Themes
Website: Time: 1:57pm Saturday 28th of February

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