Postcolonialism and Mrs. Dalloway

Throughout Mrs. Dalloway, we are reminded of the importance of the cultural context in which the novel occurs. Though the book is set after the height of British imperialism, there remains a strong sense of cultural and national superiority. The “British Empire” is often referenced, and plays a significant role in the mindset and discourse of the characters. Our Dictionary of Critical Theory defines the postcolonial as “referring to all the cultures affected by the imperial processes from the moment of colonization to the present day” (pg. 304). In these terms, Mrs. Dalloway is not necessarily a postcolonial text. The novel does, however, present an interesting alternative; Woolf explores the British reaction to it’s own colonialism through her characters. In the mind of many of the characters, Britain is much more than a country. The success of British authority seems to legitimize colonial rule, as it’s empire becomes a symbol of the superiority of Western civilization. This ideology of British superiority then manifests in the discourse and actions of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway.

Many of Woolf’s characters assume mindsets that are indicative of colonialist thinking. Clarissa seems to have assumed a distinctly euro-centric outlook that often lends itself to selfishness. Despite Richard’s involvement in British foreign affairs, Clarissa remains ignorant to non-western civilization. She “cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) — no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians?” (pg. 117). In this instance, Clarissa seems to espouse an “orientalist” mindset. Despite hearing Richard speak of the Armenian genocide, Clarissa disregards the distinction between these cultures, and thus groups them into a category of “other.” Her xenophobic mindset ultimately prohibits her from attempting to understand the affairs of an Eastern country. Clarissa goes on to ask “but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)” (pg. 117). In this context, Clarissa espouses euro-centrism in a way that denies this eastern culture an identity separate from the West. She assumes that the Armenians must in some way benefit from her love of roses. The absurdity of this claim embodies the ignorance inherent in a British colonialist perspective.

Peter Walsh’s questioning of British imperialism presents an interesting juxtaposition to Clarissa’s distinctly colonialist perspective. Although Peter has served the British in India, he questions the merit of Western imperialism and empire as he reflects on the civilization that surrounds him: “Coming as he did from a respectable Anglo-Indian family which for at least three generations had administered the affairs of a continent (it’s strange, he thought, what a sentiment I had about that, disliking India, and empire, and army as he did), there were moments when civilization, even of this sort, seemed dear to him as a personal possession” (pg.  54). Peter finds himself wondering how he can respect the civilized nature of British society, while criticizing British foreign policy. Unlike Clarissa, he was witnessed the effects of imperialism, whilst Clarissa has merely been influenced by the colonial era itself.

In comparing Clarissa to Peter, we see a distinction between euro centrism and a simply isolationist attitude. Clarissa is blithely unaware of the affairs of British colonialism, yet still perpetuates an orientalist worldview. On the other hand, Peter has administered the affairs of the British Empire, and now simply wishes to withdraw and exist solely within the bounds of developed society. In Mrs. Dalloway, we see range of reactions to British colonialism. Each experience in this cultural context seems to result in a decidedly Westernized mindset, regardless of its severity.

Sources:

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005. Print.

Macey, David. Dictionary of Critical Theory. London: Penguin, 2001. Print

“British Empire: The Map Room: Asia: World: Maps.” The British Empire. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <http://www.britishempire.co.uk/maproom/pinkbits.htm>.

4 thoughts on “Postcolonialism and Mrs. Dalloway

  1. I don’t know if I would truly call Clarissa Dalloway xenophobic. I view her as much more ignorant than xenophobic due to the societal ideas of what is “proper” for women to know and discuss. The entirety of her world consists only of her immediate surroundings and past experiences, with everything else being viewed by her as almost unreal or imaginary. I think this is naive and certainly detrimental to her ability to see the larger picture, but I don’t feel like she is literally afraid of other cultures.

  2. I agree with Brett that Clarissa’s attitude is probably a result of what a high class English woman should know, rather than an actual phobia of the outside world. However, we should also remember that Britain was in a state of decline post WWI. Not only did they lose a portion of their male population, but their economy was also struggling. This cause many English colonies to start vying for independence, like the Irish War for Independence in 1919. So in Mrs. Dalloway, we truly see the decline of British Imperialism and how Clarissa, like many high class English citizens of the time, still believes in the Empire’s supremacy.

  3. I wouldn’t say that Clarissa necessarily still believe in the Empire’s supremacy. I think she, like most people in her society, suffer from PTSD and an identity complex as their nation no-longer holds the status and definition it had in the world after the war. Both PTSD and confusions about one’s identity can cause awkwardness and uneasiness in how one views oneself in the society and behaves around other people.

  4. I do agree that Clarissa is struggling with the significant changes visible in British society, particularly those resulting from the decline of Britain as a viable colonialist power. However, I’m not sure that this struggle is one as outright as suffering from PTSD. Her struggles seem to be much more internalized. As one of the more politically apathetic characters in the book, Clarissa doesn’t seem to have much (or any) political knowledge concerning foreign affairs (just take a look at the “Armenians” scene). It has been quite awhile since we read Mrs. Dalloway, so this might be incorrect, but it seems to me that her struggles with identity and status are rooted in her own psychological conflicts. Some of these struggles are certainly related to her place and identity within London society, the others, and those seemingly more important, are those she experiences internally.

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