New Historical Criticism And Mrs. Dalloway



Kennisha Williams



               New Historical Criticism, takes different texts written today by previous authors and assumes that each work is formed from a historical moment. New Historical Criticism also takes literature and places it on the same level as history; both literature and history can be read as the same text. Literature and History are equally important as well.

              Taking into account history in a literary text, the New Historical Criticism would view Mrs. Dalloway written by Virginia Woolf as an example. In Mrs. Dalloway ,Woolf reveals a main character named Septimus. Septimus, in the text, is a war hero who suffers from shell-shock after witnessing the death of his friend Evans. Septimus’ humiliation of seeing Evans causes the people around him to classify him as a mentally ill person,. Septimus’s doctors feel that he’s incapable of caring for himself. When discussing problems about Septimus the doctors uses his wife Rezia as a way of speaking to him, instead of directly communicating with him.  By the end of the novel,Septimus eventually committs suicide. New Historical Criticism would now connect Septimus’ mental illness with the time period in which this took place, World War I. Septimus’ conditions exemplify the many other soldiers in the war. Many solderers witnessed death of their fellow men and therefore became traumatized. New Historical Criticisms would then link Septimus’ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with Virginia Woolf herself; for during her life time, Woolf was also struggling like Septimtus. Woolf had Bipolar Disorder. Similar to Septimus, she experienced hallucinations and eventually committed suicide.

             New Historical Criticism, unlike the traditional historians, doesn’t just look at what happened in the past and simply ask what the event tells us now about history, it looks at how the event that has occurred has been interpreted and what questions it might pose. Such questions include, what does the interpretation of the event tell us about the interpreters and is it just as important to know the background information as it is to understand the text.



Here are the two biographies of about Virginia Woolf in case anyone is interested to read more about her.


New Historicism and Mrs. Dalloway

New Historicism developed in the 1980s, largely through the works of critic Stephen Greenblatt (a name we’ve already encountered this semester).  We’ve also discussed that New Historicism attempts to understand both the “historicity of texts” and the “textuality of history”.  In simpler terms, this theory outlines two ideas: the reading of any literary text would benefit from being put in its proper historical context, and any document of history can be analyzed in the same way that we analyze literary texts.  In that sense, New Historicism does away with notions of background versus foreground information; literary and non-literary texts are inseparable in a greater mission to understand history.

Given this information (an extreme version of the textual criticism argument that “context is content”), there are a variety of paths I could take in relation to Mrs. Dalloway.  If I so desired, I could consult historical documents (doctors’ records, timely medical journals) of shell-shock patients in conjunction with Woolf’s characterization of Septimus Smith to get a better understanding of returned WWI soldiers.  I could seek out information on Parliament activity and debated topics in conjunction with the character of Richard Dalloway to comprehend the mindset of post-WWI conservative British politicians.  I could even find information on popular opinions of lesbianism to combine with the relationship between Clarissa and Sally Seton so I may have a clearer knowledge of post-WWI understandings of lesbianism’s place in society.

But since I have a particular affinity for Peter Walsh (how can a girl resist a sensitive yet desperate romantic?), I might compare opinions of British-Indian race relations in this time period with Woolf’s specific depiction of a scene between Peter and Clarissa.  When Peter declares that he is in love with an Indian woman, Clarissa is horrified by the idea “that he at his age should be sucked under in his little bow-tie by that monster” (44).  Clarissa believes the Indian woman “flattered him; she fooled him…” and that Peter’s love for an Indian woman is “what a waste! What a folly” (45)!  From this, one can assume that Clarissa Dalloway would look down on this romantic connection.  By loving a racially non-white (and therefore impure) Indian woman instead over a more traditional white-white relationship, Peter does two things.  First, he allows himself to be tricked by an Indian woman’s savage witchcraft, betraying his own British sense of moral incorruptibility.  Second, he wastes his pure bloodline, potentially letting British whiteness be tainted by the Indian Other.

To get a better sense of what the British mindset towards mixed-race relations would have been in the post-WWI period, I looked to historical documents on a social movement that was in its heyday right around this time: the eugenics movement.  Inspired by the 1870s theory of Social Darwinism and the sociopolitical implications of the expansion of the British Empire, the eugenics movement came out of a societal desire to protect the superior white race. The eugenics movement started among scientists and radiated outward until it became a popular opinion in the 1910s-1920s.  I was able to find articles from sources such as The British Medical Journal, The Scientific Monthly, and the Journal of Social Forces that use pseudoscientific evidence to support post-WWI racial prejudices and re-enforce the current arrangements of power. Advocates argued that whiteness itself is very fragile and must be protected, but it is entirely possible to guide the evolution of humanity and use the artificial selection of human mates to potentially create the perfect species through the limitation of mixed-race relationships.

New Historicism would encourage me to make connections between the eugenics movement and Clarissa’s mindset.  Clarissa’s distrust of the Indian woman relates to the eugenicist view that Caucasian is the superior race.  Since Peter is a rational British man, the only way he would be seduced into loving an inferior woman must be through some unnatural force.  Similarly, Clarissa’s declaration that their love is a “waste” is a nice way of saying that she disapproves of the union based on the eugenicist principle that it would tarnish Peter’s pure white bloodline.  Peter is a suitable candidate to pass on socially acceptable Anglo-Saxon genetic material, but a child with an Indian mother would undeniably be considered non-white.

Both of these texts reinforce each other, validating the New Historicist argument that they should be considered side-by-side.  The eugenics movement documents give readers a more detailed understanding of the motives behind Clarissa’s strong reaction to Peter’s announcement.  Similarly, the scene from Mrs. Dalloway gives scholars of the eugenics movement a physical representation of how the ideology manifested itself in a realistic, daily-life scenario.

Bottom line: Can there ever truly be “too much information?”


Cunningham, J. “Some Factors in Racial Immunity and Susceptibility to Disease.” Man 26 (1926): 184-888. Print.

Garth, Thomas R. “Race and Psychology.” Scientific Monthly 23.3 (1926): 240-45. Print.

Goldenweiser, Alexander. “Race and Culture in the Modern World.” Journal of Social Forces 2.1 (1924):127-36. Print.

Schuster, Edgar, Harry Campbell, and J. Stewart Mackintosh. “Discussion on “Eugenics”” British Medical Journal 2.2744 (1913): 223-31. Print.

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