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>.

Mrs. Dalloway: beginning and ending

This week we have been discussing pages 3-4 and pages 179-182 of Mrs. Dalloway in relation to the themes of death/life, fun/fear (terror), communication (empathy, connection), and time. We are particularly interested in the use of free indirect discourse. Are there comments about these passages that you’d like to add? Feel free to do so here! (And don’t forget that we have another month of discussion on Mrs. Dalloway, so these themes will recur….)