This is the main course site for Early Twentieth-Century Fiction, Fall 2022, taught by Prof. Andrew Goldstone. It holds the course commonplace book (described on the Commonplacing page). For the commonplacing assignment, Group A students have last names beginning A–L; group B students have last names beginning M–Z.

Trauma in Septimus – Mrs. Dalloway

“Really it was only a barrel organ or some man crying in the street. But “Lovely!” he used to cry, and the tears would run down his cheeks, which was to her the most dreadful thing of all, to see a man like Septimus, who
had fought, who was brave, crying. And he would lie listening until
suddenly he would cry that he was falling down, down into the
flames! Actually she would look for flames, it was so vivid. But
there was nothing. They were alone in the room. It was a dream, she
would tell him and so quiet him at last, but sometimes she was
frightened too. She sighed as she sat sewing.” (Woolf 200 *online text)

I felt that this representation of lived trauma is extremely accurate to the experience; Knowing that Woolf was institutionalized herself lends to the intimacy and tragedy of Septimus’ predicament. The pain of being unable to help the one you love even though she is so closely tied to his emotional state paints Lucrezia as one of the more devoted characters in the text.


Hauntings of the Past

“He was right there. The last shells missed him. He watched them explode with indifference” (Woolf 143).

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. Harcourt Inc., 2005, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott, pg. 143

Septimus seems to be unable to escape his past from the war, thinking back to his to fallen comrade Evans, slowly going mad as interpreted by Woolf’s style of writing.

On Internal War in “Mrs. Dalloway”

“Since she was lying on the sofa, cloistered, exempt, the presence of this thing which she felt to be so obvious became physically existent; with robes of sound from the street, sunny, with hot breath, whispering, blowing out the winds” (Woolf 118).

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, Inc., 1925, pg. 118.

Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing style highlights the thought processes of a woman living in a time where one is expected to live solely for others. In this sense, women were, and still often are, at war with society. With this quote, Clarissa Dalloway defies the typical ways that women were expected to view life. An exceptionally personal and remarkably hopeful account is given as this thoughtful protagonist places herself on the front lines against societal forces.

The Constant Paranoia of Death Clarissa Faces from the Great War

“- one didn’t dislike her ) murmured how, ‘just as we were starting, my husband was called up on the telephone, a very sad case. A young man ( that is what Sir William is telling Mr. Dalloway ) had killed himself. He had been in the army.’ Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.” (Woolfe, 289)

Throughout the story, little sprinkles of war are directly mentioned, like in this quote where they say that Septimus was in the army. Or, more indirectly, like when Clarissa contemplates while watching the taxi cabs about how dangerous it is to live each day. Also when Clarissa demonstrates paranoia toward death when she stops and profoundly thinks about Septimus’s suicide and her life. In the quote, Woolf uses Clarrisa’s thoughts to portray how traumatized she is about the subject of death because at the end of the passage, she exclaims, “here’s death,” almost adding personification to the term. Like she is facing death itself.

Septimus’ Haunted Past

“He had not cared when Evans was killed; that was worst; but all the other crimes raised their heads and shook their fingers and jeered and sneered over the rail of the bed in the early hours of the morning at the prostrate body which lay realizing its degradation…the verdict of human nature on such a wretch was death.” (Woolfe 89)

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, 2002.

Septimus is deeply haunted by his past, though he punishes himself for being “unfeeling”. In turn, these very things that haunt him are themselves feelings, despite his past telling him that he is something inhuman. No one condemns Septumis more harshly than himself. It is easier for Septimus to believe he is devoid of emotion rather than succumb to the emotions that lie dormant inside him.

Reflection of the Past

“So Richard’s mind, recovering from its lethargy, set now on his wife, Clarissa, whom Peter Walsh had loved so passionately; and Richard had had a sudden vision of her there at luncheon; of himself and Clarissa; of their life together; and he drew the tray of old jewels towards him, and taking up first the brooch then that ring,” (Woolf 111).

Woolf, V. Mrs. Dalloway, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott (2005).

Reflection on his relationship with his wife overcomes him as he learns that her old love has returned to London. It seems that out of fear and disappointment in his past actions, Richard, wants to apologize by giving Clarissa a gift.

Mediocrity in the Aftermath of Service

To love makes one solitary, she thought. She could tell nobody, not even Septimus now, and looking back, she saw him sitting in his shabby overcoat alone, on the seat, hunched up, staring. And it was cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself, but Septimus had fought; he was brave; he was not Septimus now (Woolf 33).

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1925. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015013962207&view=1up&seq=1&skin=2021

Suffering from the aftermath of the Great War, Septimus has sought refuge from the horrors he has dealt with by retreating into his own mind. Despite coming back a victor, he has been reduced to nothing more than a shell of the man he once was. How does Woolf use Septimus’ POV to relate how the other characters interact with everyday happenings versus how he sees them? Why the criticism and hopelessness? How does his character add onto the experience of others?

Past in Mrs. Dalloway

“…and she couldn’t ask him, for he had changed. He was rather shrivelled-looking, but kinder, she felt, and she had a real affection for him, for he was connected with her youth…” (Woolf 184)

The notions of living in the past and being unable to cope with the evolution of human beings through time are established through the enduring relationships of the characters such as Clarissa, Peter, and Sally. The past and the present are repeatedly connected through the vivid memories the characters share at Bourton. The past life of their bonds is revived in their present thoughts made clear through the external narrator’s glimpses into the interiority of each character. This duality creates a tension in the novel by allowing the actions of the past to continue to influence the characters’ lives in the present.

“Mrs. Dalloway” The Great War’s Significance

“He could not feel. As he opened the door of the room where the Italian girls sat making hats, he could see them; could hear them; […] but something failed him; he could not feel” (Woolf 85).

Septimus’ past is illustrated as normal prior to the war and even during it, but afterward, as early as his stay in Milan after the signing of the armistice, he begins to feel different. The war is presented as having a desensitizing effect on Septimus, a man who enjoyed literature (Shakespeare in particular), and cared enough about England to go to France to defend it. This desensitization brings about a constant doubting of the reality of any given situation for Septimus- he felt he had a safe refuge among the Italian women making hats, yet in his next thought, he believes he cannot stay. The narrative’s illumination of his past is evidence of a then-newly-arisen sense of doubt and second-guessing of and in the world around him, including of the people in it.

Understanding the Past

“The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!- the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence,-the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light” (77).

Woolf, V. Mrs. Dalloway, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott (2005).

The story focuses a lot on past experiences and how they affect the characters in their present day. The beginning 92 pages deal a lot with mentions of the past and the characters attempting to come to terms with the outcome.

‘Mrs. Dalloway’ – How the Past Affects the Present

“For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John her favorite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven – over” (Woolf, 4).

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Hancourt, 2002.

Throughout the novel, we see how the past of the war catches up to the people of London, bringing back past traumas. At the beginning of the novel, we see how the tragedies of the war are still following the people of London. We start off by reading about an airplane flying above London creating this sort of anxiety for the survivors of the war as it brings up traumatic events they witnessed in the past. We can also relate this to mental illness in a way, as with most parts of this novel, and identify that these characters have PTSD. 

“The Past” in Mrs. Dalloway

“‘Yes,’ said Peter;. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ he said, as if she drew up to the surface something which positively hurt him as it rose. Stop! Stop! he wanted to cry. For he was not old; his life was not over; not by any means.” (Woolf 64)

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, 2002

Peter’s past is something that we have seen time and time again become an issue for him, as Clarissa’s rejection still burns a hole in his chest, even though it was mostly his own fault why he even got rejected in the first place. Regardless, both Peter and Clarissa continue to wonder what life would’ve been like if they had been together, with different reactions from each of them. Ultimately showing that even though two characters may share a past with each other, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they share the same feelings about it.

Tormented Past

“For why go back like this to the past? he thought. Why make him think of it again? Why make him suffer, when she had tortured him so infernally? Why?”( Woolf 42).

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, 2002.

In this quote, we see a start with indirect discourse and a move into free indirect discourse where the narrator lets Peter peak through. This surfaces the question of why transition into free indirect discourse? Why not just continue the utilization of indirect discourse? Is it supposed to emphasize Peter’s overwhelming emotions about his past with Clarissa?

The Middle Years

What his eyes met this time, as it happened, was on the part
of the young lady a queer stare, naturally vitreous, which made
her aspect remind him of some figure (he couldn’t name it)
in a play or a novel, some sinister governess or tragic old maid.
She seemed to scrutinise him, to challenge him, to say, from
general spite: “What have you got to do with us?”

I chose this section because James first introduces Dencombe as a narrator by proxy through an implicit means. The reader understands reading this, even if vaguely, that Dencombe is transfixing his ideas as a novelist onto the countess. This is more concretely suggested by the excerpt’s connecting her appearance to that of an ambiguous character in ‘a play or a novel.’

The Dead

“He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

The geographical description makes subtle allusions to certain pieces of Irish culture, like the ‘mutinous Shannon waves,’ that could perhaps imply that the colonial and revolutionary history of Ireland is somehow foundational to the country itself.

Culture of Identity

“He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his.”

Joyce, J. (1996). “The Dead” from Dubliners. Penguin Books, pg. 179

“The Dead” highlights how people (like Gabriel) feel the need to change their identity so they might better fit in with the culture of those around them. Gabriel worries that he will appear too sophisticated if he uses a certain quote, so he intentionally changes his speech so that he might not appear of too high a class for those around him, shifting his very identity in order to please his companions for the evening.

“Shades” – The Dead

“Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.”

Joyce, James, and Jeri Johnson. “The Dead” Dubliners, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2000, pg 421

The questions Joyce presents to the reader about the permanence of the dead on those living are haunting in many ways. Becoming something immaterial or ambiguous in the face of mortality allows one to connect with those who have passed. In doing this, Gabriel has become closer to his wife than ever before, claiming he finally feels true love for her. Whatever he felt before has changed, as has his perspective on those around him; they are all part of the ‘flickering, grey world’ that Joyce teases at the end of his tale.

The cultural role in marriage

“It was cold autumn weather but in spite of the cold they wandered up and down the roads of the Park for nearly three hours. They agreed to break off their intercourse: every body, he said, is a bond to sorrow. When they came out of the Park they walked in silence toward the tram; but here she began to tremble so violently that, fearing another collapse on her part, he bade her good-bye quickly and left her.”

-Joyce, J. (1914). A Painful Case. In Dubliners (p. 136). essay, Grant Richards LTD.

In this passage, Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico have been involved in an affair for an undetermined amount of time (simply stating their first meeting was the ‘first of many’ (Joyce 134)). She encourages his thoughts on social revolution, discussed books and music, and embraced each other physically and sexually. They were in a complete relationship, all while noting that her husband, the Captain, was not around and not fulfilling her needs. Despite Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico clearly having more possible, they abruptly end their affair, and stop talking. The culture surrounding marriage, and particularly divorce, was not good at the time. It would not have been a good idea for Mrs. Sinico to leave her husband, because such a thing was frowned upon to an extreme. It’s this very culture that leads the two to cease their contact, despite enjoying their time together. This could potentially even be extrapolated further, when looking at her eventual death and wondering if it really was an accident.

The One Who Left and Returned

“Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table”

“Dubliners.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Dubliners, by James Joyce, www.gutenberg.org/files/2814/2814-h/2814-h.htm#chap15.

This interaction is significant in that it’s the first time we see Gabriel appear self-assured in this short story. Without being told explicitly, it appears Gabriel moved away from Ireland, and has assimilated more or less to an English lifestyle. He’s well aware of how different he is from his ‘home,’ and consistently struggles to find his footing in interacting with the partygoers. This moment of carving the goose appears to be one aspect of his upbringing that he has been able to retain, it’s a skill that allows Gabriel to touch base with his culture, and in this moment, he isn’t a fish out of water. In a social sense, culture is what brings together and alienates these individuals, and it is most apparent with Gabriel’s experience as the one who left and has returned.

Funcion of writing as an art


Toward the end of the story, Gabriel, having heard of what his wife told him about the death of a dear friend when she was young, felt silent. He became solemn and turned his thought to the foreseeable death of Aunt Julia.

” … Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree.” (p. 268)

From the climax of joy and the lust toward his wife, to the understanding of his wife’s feelings after her hearing a song that reminded her of her previous lover’s death, Joyce described the change of Gabriel’s inner thought superbly. The description adds much depth to the story and shows the supreme skill in his writing as an art.

 Joyce, James. Dubliners, 1991 by Dover Publications, Inc.