On the outset, Virginia Woolf, for today’s readers, is a writer whose work requires a feminist eye. There is a lot that assumption is based on; for one, she was a woman writer writing novels in twentieth-century Britain, an area considered widely to be the domain of men, and secondly, her work has universally been claimed by scholars nationwide as a precursor of modernism and free expression of female sexuality. It isn’t uncommon to find her work being quoted by feminist critics today. Her private life has also been much appraised in an effort to identify the source of her insightful stories. Her mental illness (now believed to be bipolar disorder) and her sexual abuse at the hands of her step-brother have been considered to be possible influencing factors. Reading her work in that light has also made the reader acquainted with certain familial and psychological themes dominating her novels.
However, what makes Virginia Woolf so distinguished as a writer is her excellent command and use of the “stream-of-consciousness” technique. Although, it is very similar to what James Joyce uses in Ulysses and Woolf’s most famous work, Mrs Dalloway, is often seen as a response to Joyce’s text, it is impressive how she deftly employs it to comment on the societal structure of the 1920s. In what seems to stem from her own personal ordeal with her mental breakdowns, she also uses the technique in Mrs. Dalloway to critique her society’s perception of and attitude towards mental illnesses through the character of Septimus Warren Smith, a war-veteran suffering from “shell-shock”. He commits suicide by the end of the novel, troubled by the doctors’ lack of compassion and understanding of his problem. Mrs. Dalloway, who hears about the suicide during her party, admires him for his act, believing that he embraced death in an effort to retain the “purity” of his happiness.
Another seemingly autobiographical element prominent in the novel is Mrs. Dalloway’s ostensible homosexual infatuation with her friend Sally Seton. Although it is clear Mrs. Dalloway was unaware of her attraction being homosexual (she states at a point that she feels about Sally “as men feel”), there is mention of a kiss they shared once, a moment Mrs Dalloway claimed to be the happiest of her life. This aspect seems to echo Woolf’s own sexual flings with her friend, Vita Sackville-West. Many critics have also entertained the notion that the friend, Evans, who Septimus lost in the war and who he keeps hallucinating about, is also an episode of homosexual intimacy.
In short, Woolf was too profound and complex a writer to squeeze into the framework of a single theme. Mrs. Dalloway, now hailed as her masterpiece, has all the facets of the writer, and a close reading of the intermingling themes in the story would tell us in an instance why readers consider Virginia Woolf an author worthy of admiration so many decades down the line.