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From the Library of Clarissa Dalloway: Reading Memory, Casual Allusion, and Characterization in *Mrs. Dalloway*

“She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed” (Woolf 7); so Clarissa Dalloway describes her reading habits the first time they are mentioned in Mrs. Dalloway. This statement is nostalgic, even dismissive, seeming to declare that reading plays no significant role in Clarissa’s life in the present. Yet over the course of the novel, Clarissa’s reading habits—both past and present —are brought up several times by herself and by Peter Walsh. Jean Wyatt interprets these “casual allusions” to Clarissa’s and Peter’s reading memories as “support[ing] the theme of diminution of life from past to present. Youthful literary preferences comment ironically on later life and character” (440). She thus situates these allusions within the broader realm of the novel’s creation of characters’ subjectivities, a topic which is the object of some debate among scholars. In this paper, I wish to expand upon Wyatt’s brief statement and propose a more substantial reading of the “casual allusions” in Mrs. Dalloway. I will draw on critics Annalee Edmondson and Cristina Delgado García to outline two diverging critical interpretations of subjectivity in Mrs. Dalloway. I will then argue that allusions to Clarissa’s reading memory made by both Clarissa and Peter play an important role in Clarissa’s characterization, and that they contribute insight into the debate on subjectivity and characterization.

First, let us establish the broad strokes of the critical conversation about characterization and subjectivity. Annalee Edmondson argues that Mrs. Dalloway, rather than focusing on individual characterization, seeks to parse how individuals think of and characterize others: “Woolf’s text evinces a privileging of intersubjectivity—the consciousness of other consciousnesses—over subjectivity” (19). Characters “narrativize” each other’s experiences by imagining the actions and emotions of another character at a given moment. This representation, for Edmondson, is true to life: “Woolf tells the story of a self not from the outside in (as in a conventional novel) or from the inside out (as in stream-of-consciousness), but instead from the vantage of a highly motivated self who both slices through and stands outside, in other words, from the perspective of an everyday mind” (29). Cristina Delgado García, on the other hand, meets the seeming interconnection of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway with skepticism. She argues that “Woolf’s double narrative of the relational self works by concealing alienation” (21). Clarissa believes that she is deeply connected to other characters, but for Delgado García, this is an illusion, and “Clarissa’s narration of connectedness has the counter effect of turning her identity into a totality from which she cannot step out and fully recognize other people’s needs” (21). Where Edmondson characterizes intersubjectivity as a tool allowing Woolf to represent real-world social interconnection in literature, Delgado García interprets it as something which prevents Clarissa from seeing the world as it truly is.

Both Edmondson and Delgado García link the creation of subjectivity—relational or excessively totalizing—to what Woolf herself described as her “tunnelling process.” In her diary, Woolf wrote of Mrs. Dalloway that “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives them exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment” (qtd. in Edmondson 22). For Edmondson, “[t]he raison d’être of Woolf’s ‘tunnelling process’ is to foreground the deeply intersubjective nature of her characters’ minds—the ways in which they are continually interpreting each other’s behaviors and causally attributing thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires to each other” (22). For her part, Delgado García interprets the same process as limiting relationality: “This continuous but selective ‘tunnelling process’ has a detrimental effect on the envisioning of othernesses, of alternative selves and interrelations […] The narration remains centred in the consciousness of Clarissa’s closest circle, a social circle that lives in a perpetual state of past recollection in order to assess their present” (22). These two oppositional readings, one arguing in favour of genuine connection and the other against, can be reconciled by reading the novel through the lens of casual allusion. I will suggest that examining in what circumstances and to what effect Clarissa reads (or references what she has read) during different periods of her life demonstrates that true intersubjectivity is practicable, but mostly in relation to the past.

Allusions to Clarissa’s reading memory, I will argue, play an important role in the tunnelling process. Intimately linked to both Clarissa’s and Peter’s perceptions of the past and to Clarissa’s subjectivity in the present, these more-than-casual allusions participate in the creation of multifaceted and complex characters. The novel references three main “reading moments” in Clarissa’s life: childhood, young adulthood, and middle age. As a child, Clarissa reads Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall (Woolf 66). The endnotes tell us that these are writers of popular science books; Huxley in particular was a champion of the theory of evolution (Woolf 177). As a young adult, Clarissa’s reading becomes a communal activity, which she engages in with Sally Seton: “There they sat, hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world […] The ideas were Sally’s, of course—but very soon she was just as excited—read Plato in bed before breakfast; read Morris; read Shelley by the hour” (Woolf 28-29). These are by and large political texts: William Morris was an openly socialist novelist and political activist, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essays influenced the socialist politics at the time (Woolf 174). The present of the novel offers a dark mirroring of the attic reading scene with Sally. Here, a middle-aged Clarissa again reads in a bedroom at the top of the house, but this time she is alone: 

The candle was half burnt down and she had read deep in Baron Marbot’s Memoirs. She had read late at night of the retreat from Moscow. For the House sat so long that Richard insisted, after her illness, that she must sleep undisturbed. And really she preferred to read of the retreat from Moscow. He knew it. So the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading, for she slept badly, she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet. (Woolf 27)

Jean-Baptiste Antoine Marcellin Marbot, Baron de Marbot, was a French general who participated in Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign in Russia (Woolf 174). His Memoirs were translated into English by A.J. Butler and published in 1892. The tone of the section on the retreat from Moscow is rather nationalist and chauvinistic, despite the dire straits in which the French army find themselves. The Baron remarks, for example, that “only those soldiers who were French by birth retained their spirit” (280). The section is also rife with political schemes, asking readers to remember minute details about the positions and actions of a host of people. Clarissa’s reading trajectory therefore progresses from learning about the world, to thinking critically about it, and finally landing on a perspective aligned with petty politics and futile military campaigns. Her reading simultaneously morphs from a social activity to a profoundly solitary one.

From the perspective of literary theory, these “casual” allusions are relatively straightforward, representing what William Irwin would call “overt” allusions, in which the authors are explicitly named in the text. There is no need to build an argument to demonstrate their presence. What is arguable, however, is the presence of these texts elsewhere in the novel. It is this that Jean Wyatt does not yet account for when she writes that “[i]n her youth Clarissa read poetry and philosophy under the tutelage of Peter and Sally; now she reads only memoirs, skimming the surface of society” (440). Even more than when they are simply mentioned, it is when the allusions recur that they contribute to the tunnelling process, demonstrating the depth and interconnectedness of the characters.

The passage in which we learn that Clarissa read Huxley and Tyndall as a child participates in the process of narrativization identified by Edmondson, since it is told from Peter’s point of view. Whilst narrativizing Clarissa’s religious beliefs and general attitude towards life, Peter imagines that, based on what she read as a child, Clarissa might use nautical metaphors: “possibly she said to herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors)” (Woolf 66). This is a prime example of intersubjectivity: Peter is using the information he possesses in order to construct an idea of Clarissa’s consciousness. According to Edmondson’s framework, then, this passage teaches us more about Peter than it does about Clarissa, and more about the way they communicate and construct each other than about individual characteristics. Yet in learning about Clarissa’s previous reading habits, we acquire crucial information: Peter’s overt allusion to Huxley and Tyndall can help us to identify moments when Clarissa makes what Irwin would call “covert” allusions. As Jean Wyatt has noted, Clarissa uses the word “plunge,” a nautical metaphor, to describe both Septimus’ suicide and her memory of opening the French windows at Bourton (Wyatt 443). When Clarissa is walking to the florist’s, she relates that “[s]he had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone” (Woolf 7, my emphasis). On their own, these nautical metaphors could not be traced back to Huxley and Tyndall, but with the help of Peter’s narrativization, it becomes possible to see that they point to the long-lasting influence of Clarissa’s childhood reading. 

If Huxley and Tyndall are subtly present in the precise wording with which Clarissa describes life, then Shelley is much more obviously present in her attitude to it. She clearly does not retain the sort of politics Shelley favoured in his writings, but many of the philosophical beliefs he expounds in his essays can be traced in Clarissa’s musings. In his essay “On Life,” Shelley describes his philosophy of interconnectedness: “[T]he existence of individual minds, similar to that which is now questioning its own existence, is likewise found to be a delusion. The words I, you, they, are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind” (75, emphasis in original). This is remarkably similar to the connection Clarissa establishes between herself and the world at the very beginning of Mrs. Dalloway:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home, of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchard’s shop window? What was she trying to recover? (Woolf 8)

In this passage, to use Shelleyan terms, Clarissa questions the existence of individual minds, but she also takes this reasoning one step further, extending the erasure of boundaries to the natural world. By comparing her social circle to trees and herself to mist, she does the opposite of anthropomorphizing nature: she claims that we can learn about ourselves from external nature. This demonstrates a remarkable openness that Shelley would no doubt appreciate. The last two sentences of the passage, in linking these ideas to Clarissa’s past, reinforce the argument that it does represent an allusion to Shelley. They also show that, though Clarissa may dismiss it as “dreaming,” she remains under the influence of the books she read with Sally Seton. It is also significant that Clarissa chooses to mention Peter in this passage, attributing to him the same unbounded self that she claims to possess. This lends a certain trustworthiness to Peter’s narrativization of Clarissa and seems to support Edmondson’s reading of the novel through the lens of intersubjectivity.

Clarissa’s atheism, too, reveals a striking similarity to Shelley’s beliefs, while also betraying the impact of having read Huxley’s writings on evolution. In his “Essay on Christianity,” Shelley states that the concept of Heaven as reward represents “the idle dreams of the visionary, or the pernicious representations of impostors, who have fabricated from the very materials of wisdom a cloak for their own dwarfish or imbecile conceptions” (86). According to him, “Jesus Christ has said no more than the most excellent philosophers have felt or expressed—that virtue is its own reward” (Shelley 86). Clarissa’s atheism is mentioned on several occasions throughout the novel. Peter, narrativizing, says of her that “she thought there were no Gods, no one was to blame, and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness” (Woolf 66). As in the case of the nautical metaphors, Peter’s statement holds up under further scrutiny, as we can see a similar sentiment reflected in a passage narrated by Clarissa herself: 

It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds on the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only); not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, taking up the pad, must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband […] one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments. (Woolf 25)

This passage is Shelleyan in more ways than one: Clarissa expresses an atheism that reflects Shelley’s ideas on Christianity, but his broader philosophy of life is also present. It is explicitly stated that Clarissa does not believe in God. Rather than being a source of hopelessness, however, this motivates her “all the more” to show kindness to those around her. For her, it seems, virtue is indeed its own reward. Meanwhile, the idea of interconnection is called up by the phrase “buds on the tree of life,” while the general tone of wonder and joy is reminiscent of “On Life.”

Wonder at life is a common theme in Clarissa’s thoughts throughout Mrs. Dalloway, and it does not always paint her in a positive light. When Richard is leaving for a committee meeting on the plight of Armenians, Clarissa is unsure whether he said “Armenians” or “Albanians”:

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?  but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)—the only flowers she could bear to see cut. (Woolf 102)

Here, Clarissa exhibits wonder and disregard that evokes the opening lines of Shelley’s “On Life,” in which he asks: “What are changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties, with the opinions which supported them; what is the birth and the extinction of religious and political systems to life?” (71). In the suggestion that English people enjoying roses somehow helps Armenians, there is also some of the nationalistic chauvinism present in Baron de Marbot’s Memoirs. The Baron, faced with the dwindling fortunes of Napoleon’s army, remarks: “The cold was already intense, and only those soldiers who were French by birth retained their spirit. But they were not the half of those whom Napoleon had led into Russia. The rest were Germans, Swiss, Croats, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese. All these foreigners, who remained loyal so long as the army prospered, were beginning to grumble” (280). The two situations are of course vastly different, but both Clarissa and the Baron exhibit a belief that their own emotions and the emotions of their countrymen are in some way superior to others. As such, this passage is a prime example of how Clarissa’s past and present politics and reading habits can all be brought into conversation to form a better understanding of her character.

With these comments, I am clearly applying the term “allusion” very broadly. Gregory Machacek has suggested that “[c]ritics use allusion to name two phenomena that, while similar in some respects, are ultimately distinct. If a poet mentions a little-known fact or makes a roundabout reference to a well-known fact, we speak of this as an allusion. But we also use allusion for a poet’s incorporation into a poem of a short phrase reminiscent of a phrase in an earlier work of literature” (526). Neither of these descriptions apply to the metaphorical, tonal, or thematic echoes of Huxley, Tyndall, Marbot, and Shelley which I am identifying in Mrs. Dalloway, nor do they apply to the overt mentions of the authors’ names made by Clarissa and Peter. But as Allan H. Pasco reminds us, “allusion is not a genre, but is rather a mode, a strategy, a device that occurs in all genres” (6). Pasco conceptualizes allusion as a graft: “In an ideal environment, the two texts—plant and implant, stock and scion—bond to make a new creation, different from either of the component texts, quite different from what the text would have been without the external material” (6). In Mrs. Dalloway, this is exactly how allusion operates: the traces of Clarissa’s reading memory graft onto Woolf’s text an additional branch of meaning which, if we follow it, provides insight into Clarissa’s character that is not otherwise available. In Woolf’s words, the allusions participate in the carving out of “beautiful caves” behind Clarissa. 

For Pasco, the most important part of an allusion is its function: it does not exist for its own sake, but as a tool to help a text accomplish its goal. As such, though the precise characteristics of the allusions to Clarissa’s reading memory are important to consider, what is more consequential is the way these allusions intervene in the process of characterization. As I have noted earlier, Cristina Delgado García argues that the seeming interconnection between the characters in Mrs. Dalloway is an illusion. For her, when the novel’s principal allusion, which is to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, appears in Clarissa’s, Peter’s, and Septimus’ thoughts, it is not a sign of true connection, but rather a moment in which “the narration is providing scattered signs of Clarissa’s identity for the reader to retrieve and create these uncanny links between characters” (Delgado García 20). However, I argue that examining other, more discreet allusions—those to Clarissa’s reading memory—offers evidence to contradict her argument. As I have outlined, Peter Walsh plays an important role in the creation and unfolding of these allusions within the text. Some would not even be identifiable without his help. These are not, as Delgado García would have it, traces of Clarissa’s identity in Peter, but rather traces of Peter’s narrativization in Clarissa. The fact that Peter’s narrativization of Clarissa complements Clarissa’s narration of herself and her allusions demonstrates that the interconnection between the characters is not projection on Clarissa’s part. Instead, as Edmondson argues, it represents true intersubjectivity. 

There is, however, one book Clarissa reads alone, and which does not appear in sections narrated by other characters: the Baron de Marbot’s Memoirs. The Memoirs are explicitly mentioned at least twice: first, in the passage I quoted earlier, in which Clarissa reflects on how she prefers not to sleep in the same bed as Richard, and second, when Clarissa is thinking of her daughter Elizabeth. Clarissa is reflecting on the fact that Elizabeth, who is now a young woman, is beginning to attract men: “That she did not care more about it—for instance for her clothes—sometimes worried Clarissa […] And now there was this odd friendship with Miss Kilman. Well, thought Clarissa about three o’clock in the morning, reading Baron de Marbot for she could not sleep, it proves she has a heart” (Woolf 115). It is significant that both mentions of the Memoirs occur as Clarissa is thinking about her distance from her family. She does not sleep with Richard; she wonders “what could [Elizabeth] be thinking” (Woolf 114). She does not seem to have the same intersubjective access to Richard and Elizabeth as she does to Peter, and Peter to her. The retreat from Moscow becomes symbolic of a retreat from those around her, of a fall from a former greatness of interconnection which she now characterizes as mere “dreaming.” In the present, Clarissa frets, alone, about what her husband and daughter might be thinking and why she was not invited to lunch at Lady Bruton’s, just as the Baron de Marbot frets about military schemes and assassination plots. As such, the Baron de Marbot’s Memoirs are not so much a sign of Clarissa’s superficiality, as Jean Wyatt interprets them, as one of her isolation, her regression to thinking of others transactionally rather than relationally. 

It is here that Cristina Delgado García’s reading becomes useful. Delgado García points out that “Clarissa’s closest circle […] lives in a perpetual state of past recollection in order to assess their present” (22). Connecting this to Edmondson’s notion of intersubjectivity, we can see that intersubjectivity seems to be more practicable in relation to the past. In the present, Clarissa struggles to relate to those around her until her moment of strange connection to Septimus when she hears of his suicide. As such, Edmondson’s and Delgado García’s diverging interpretations of subjectivity in Mrs. Dalloway are perhaps not so much contradictory as applicable to different moments in the text. Examining how the allusions to Clarissa’s reading memory inform her character can illuminate the evolution of her (inter)subjectivity.

In the study of literature, it is common to wonder if we are “reading too far into” texts, if we are “stretching” their meaning by making so much of very minor textual details. In the case of allusion in particular, some might find it excessive to build an argument on authors who are mentioned once in the text and recur in tones, themes, or metaphors later on. But as Allan H. Pasco reminds us, “[w]riters tend to read, whether we do or not. And it puts us at a severe, often disastrous, disadvantage when, as they frequently do, they make use of what they have read” (19). When, in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf brings up John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, or the Baron de Marbot, she is clearly thinking about these authors—likely much more than most readers. It would be a discredit to Woolf’s skill—and to our skill as readers—to dismiss the resonances and meanings that these allusions have to offer. Digging into them (to use Woolf’s metaphor of tunnelling) provides key insight into Clarissa’s character. As I have argued, it is possible to trace how the books she read as a child and as a young adult continue to influence the ways in which she describes her life. Her reading in the present of the novel, in turn, reflects her isolation from the people around her. My reading of these “casual allusions” as forming part of Woolf’s “tunnelling process” intervenes in the debate over subjectivity and characterization in Mrs. Dalloway to demonstrate that Clarissa does not exist in complete interconnected harmony with, nor in isolation from, others, but is rather situated, as are all the most interesting characters in literature, in between.


Works Cited

Delgado García, Cristina. “Decentring Discourse, Self-Centred Politics: Radicalism and 

the Self in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.” Atlantis, vol. 32, no. 1, June 2010, pp. 15-28.

Edmondson, Annalee. “Narrativizing Characters in Mrs. Dalloway.” Journal of Modern 

Literature, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2012, pp. 17-36.

Irwin, William. “What Is an Allusion?” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 

59, no. 3, Summer 2001, pp. 287-297.

Machacek, Gregory. “Allusion.” PMLA, vol. 122, no. 2, March 2007, pp. 522-536.

Marbot, Baron de. The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot, Late Lieutenant-General in the 

French Army, translated by Arthur John Butler, vol. II, London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892. 

Pasco, Allan H. “Introduction.” Allusion: A Literary Graft, Rookwood, 2002, pp. 1-21. 

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Essays and Letters. Edited by Ernest Rhys, London, Walter Scott, 


Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Edited by David Bradshaw, Oxford World’s 

Classics, 2000.

Wyatt, Jean M. “Mrs. Dalloway: Literary Allusion as Structural Metaphor.” PMLA, Vol. 

88, no. 3, 1973, pp. 440-451.

Date submitted: October 2, 2023

Date accepted: December 5, 2023

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