The heroine of modernist fiction is tempted and tormented by a dream of freedom which cannot be realised- Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude

Women writers at the beginning of the 20th Century began an exploration into the mind and a self-awareness of the individual. These writers concerned themselves not only with time and history but with a sense of perception and an investigation into the inner dimensions of the human mind. According to Peter Barry, the period of high modernism between 1910 and 1930 showed, ‘a movement away from…omniscient external narration, fixed narrative points and clear-cut moral positions’. This was to give way ‘to experimentation and innovation’ (Barry, 2002, p82). The move into high modernism however, demonstrated a shift from the omniscient narrator to the third person free indirect objective, which gave an insight into the minds of all the characters. Virginia Woolf believed, ‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’ (Woolf 2018). Woolf meant that if a writer could be free from the conventional aspects of writing, then they would be able to produce unconventional work that reflected the innermost workings of the mind. This is reflected in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’. If the female protagonists could be freed from their constraints, then they could realise their freedom in whatever form that may be. Ermarth suggests that Virginia Woolf, ‘encourages her audience of women with the thought that “for the first time in history” women have the chance to re-shape the conventions in which both men and women live’ (Ermarth,1983, p16). Both Mrs Dalloway and ‘Prelude’ tempt their female heroines with dreams of freedom and are tormented by the constraints of their gender.

Both texts are concerned with the theme of time. Henri Bergson stated that, ‘Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’ (Bergson, 2018). This shows the advancement of time upon the woman is subjective and both Woolf and Mansfield utilise time as a constraint upon their heroines. Mrs Dalloway is set over a period of twenty-four hours, as ‘a day in the life’ story and ‘Prelude’ over the course of two days. In Mrs Dalloway, the sounds of Big Ben chime throughout the text, ‘with his majesty laying down the law…’ (Woolf, 2003, p93) exhibiting a masculinity and patriarchal symbol to the text. The clock symbolises time marching on and is a constant reminder that it cannot be stopped. It also represents the patriarchal society in which women were living and was a constant reminder of their place. This is in sharp contrast to the internal clock which Clarissa is governed by ‘all sorts of little things came flooding and lapping and dancing in on the wake of that solemn stroke which lay flat like a bar of gold on the sea’ (Woolf, 2003, p93). The language Woolf uses demonstrates the softness of the woman but also an oppression of their gender. Woolf shows us a different side of time, one which only a female can recognise and again showing the way women are trapped by their own sex. This gender awareness shows a response to the new style of writing that women writers embraced.

Mansfield however, shows the progression of time through the stages of womanhood from Kezia the adolescent daughter, Linda the pregnant mother and Mrs Fairfield the grandmother. Each represent a different time in which the female develops. Gubar states that, ‘they form the development of one creative female self…in a matriarchy…governed and graced by women’s rituals’ (Gubar,1983, p35). Mrs Fairfield represented the old traditions with her role being defined in the kitchen, ‘[w]hen she had finished, everything in the kitchen had become a series of patterns’ (Mansfield, 2002, p94). These patterns symbolise the outdated version of womanhood and the desire of Linda to be freed from these constraints. Gordon states that, ‘…Stanley Burnell and his mother live in the bustling present, his wife Linda dreams…in a timeless past, …and Beryl, the unmarried girl, lives in a continually imagined future.’ (Gordon, 1954, p23). It is interesting to note here that neither of the two younger women are in the present, which shows their desire for a different life away from the conventions of their time.

Clarissa Dalloway has given up her dream of freedom and is confined to her class. Just as Jane Austen before her, Woolf demonstrates that women still had to marry to gain status and wealth and have a part to play within the household. Squier states that, ‘[w]hile Clarissa feels invisible, part of the background of her society…Elizabeth is both visible and highly capable…’ (Squier,1990, p180) illustrating the difference between mother and daughter in two very different worlds. Clarissa represses her maternal instincts, a throwback to the patriarchal society in which she has been brought up. Elizabeth however has a different outlook: ‘She would become a doctor, a farmer, possibly go into Parliament if she found it necessary…’ (Woolf, 2003, p99). There is a determinism in her that is not reflected in Clarissa. Elizabeth sees no constraints and believes she can do anything. Even when she moves around London, it is in a modern way: ‘Suddenly Elizabeth stepped forward and most competently boarded the omnibus in front of everybody’ (Woolf,2003, p99). Woolf shows that women are moving forward to a new modern world which will allow them to flourish and realise their dreams whilst Clarissa remains part of the old traditions. Woolf’s use of the word ‘omnibus’ also emphasises new technology emerging with women being a part of it, illustrating how times were changing.

In ‘Prelude’ however, Linda dreams of escape from the burden of being a wife and mother. When the children arrive at the house, she states, ‘Are those the children? But Linda did not really care; she did not even open her eyes to see’ (Mansfield, 2002, p86). This lack of maternal instinct from Linda shows the movement away from the role of wife and mother, to an individual reflection of the self. Linda’s desires come to the fore, showing the interpretation of self-awareness. This was relatively unheard of in the early 20th Century, where women still had to play their part in the household. Mansfield illustrated that to step away from pre-determined stereotypes was to experience freedom for the first time. Beryl, however dreams of being a woman of independent means, ‘as she lay down, there came the old thought, the cruel thought-ah, if only she had money of her own’ (Mansfield, 2002, p88), demonstrating the frustration she felt. As a woman, Beryl would have to marry to achieve wealth but would still be trapped in the constraints of marriage. When she imagines a man in the garden below her window, Beryl’s desires are tempted but are an escapism from her entrapment. Gubar argues that Beryl, ‘exemplifies the lure of romantic thralldom for the youthfully erotic female imagination and the narcissim at the center of such imaginings’ (Gubar,1983, p36) demonstrating Beryl’s wish for a different life.

In both texts, the writing becomes wave-like and gendered. In ‘Prelude’, the portrayal of the aloe tree is androgynous. The aloe flowers once every hundred years whereas Linda us set to reproduce at her husband’s will. The portrayal of the aloe tree is very masculine with its, ‘cruel leaves…’ and ‘long sharp thorns that no-one would dare come near’ (Mansfield, 2002, p115), symbolising the patriarchal entrapment that Linda feels. She then daydreams of the aloe transforming into a ship, which becomes symbolic of her dream of escape, as she imagines herself ‘rowing far away…Faster! Faster!’ (Mansfield, 2002, p114). Waves are feminine, and the aloe becomes a symbol of empowerment in that, to discover the maleness in you, can be to discover your escape route. This is a vision of freedom that Linda sees firstly with the aloe as a phallic symbol, then as an escape. This blurring between the genders, portrays the wave-like writing which represents femininity and the dream of freedom. Linda also has vivid dreams of birds, symbolising her need for escape. Walking in the dream with her father, he passes Linda a small bird, ‘[a]s she stroked it began to swell…it grew bigger and bigger and its round eyes seemed to smile knowingly at her’ (Mansfield, 2002, p90). Mansfield symbolises Linda’s pregnancy with the swelling of the bird, illustrating that both her father and husband have aided society in trapping her within the family life she feels caged in.

Gilbert and Gubar suggest that Woolf believed, ‘the woman writer seemed locked in a disconcerting double bind: she had to choose between admitting she was “only a woman” or protesting she was “as good as a man”’. (Gilbert, 1984, p64). This can be shown in her interpretation of Clarissa and Septimus. The two characters are mirror images of each other because of their bisexuality but their positions in society are in opposition. Both the mirroring and opposing forces create their own level of entrapment, that both seek to escape. This new style of writing responded to the need of women’s dream of freedom. Indeed, when Clarissa is told that Mr Dalloway had been asked to lunch by Mrs Bruton without her, feels ‘suddenly shrivelled, aged, breastless…out of her body and brain which now failed…’ (Woolf,2003, p23). Woolf demonstrates the impact of this lack of solidarity of sisterhood, undermines Clarissa’s femininity and shows her vulnerability.

When Clarissa goes to the attic room to disrobe, there is a linguistic climax and Clarissa ‘did undoubtedly feel what men felt’ (Woolf, 2003, p24). The androgynous text shows Woolf embracing both sides of women’s sexuality and is reflected in her own essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, stating, ‘there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction…’ (Woolf, 2018). Woolf argues that there are two sides to the individual and that both parts are required to achieve an internal balance.  She also describes Clarissa’s climax as, ‘an illumination; a match burning in a crocus…’ (Woolf, 2003, p24) showing her dreamlike escapism in the confines of the attic room. The language Woolf uses here becomes gendered in that the match represents the male. The reality of androgyny then, is accomplishing the male other within the female and the use of a match representing the penile form is symbolic of a patriarchal society.


In both Mrs Dalloway and ‘Prelude’, the female protagonists dream of escape and a life away from the one in which they inhabit. Trapped by marriage and children, Mansfield portrays Linda realising her desire for escape from the constraints of life but never being fulfilled. Linda’s recognition of the androgynous aloe illustrates the women’s place at home is disappearing and a more liberated life is desired. Woolf’s portrayal of Clarissa shows a woman trapped by class and gender. Mirroring Septimus, Clarissa discovers the male within her and this reflects her desire to be liberated from the constraints of the old traditions. Both Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield tempt their heroines and torture them with dreams, phallic symbols, time and a world in which they cannot escape. Their androgynous writing reflects a world in which it demands not only a desire for women’s liberation but an acknowledgement that both femininity and masculinity are required to achieve a balance within the individual. 


Barry, P. (2002). Beginning Theory- An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bergson, H. (2018). ‘Creative Evolution’. Handout given in Literature & Modernity 22/02/2018 by M. Jesinghausen.

Ermarth, E. (1983). ‘Fictional Concensus and Female Casualities’. In: Heilbrun, C.G. & Higonnet, M.R. (eds). The Representation of Women in Fiction. Maryland, USA: The John Hopkins University Press.

Gilbert, S.M. & Gubar, S. (eds). (1984). The Madwoman in the Attic. Second Edition. USA: Yale University Press.

Gordon, I. A. (1954). Katherine Mansfield. London: Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd.

Gubar, S. (1983). ‘The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Kunstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield’. In: Heilbrun, C.G. & Higonnet, M.R. (eds). The Representation of Women in Fiction. Maryland, USA: The John Hopkins University Press.

Mansfield, K. (2002). ‘Prelude’. In: Smith, A. (ed). Katherine Mansfield- Selected Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Squier, S.M. (1990). ‘Carnival and Funeral’. In: Bloom, H. (ed). Clarissa Dalloway. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Woolf, V. (2108). ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Handout given in Literature & Modernity 22/02/2018 by M. Jesinghausen.

Woolf, V. (2018). ‘Modern Fiction’. Handout given in Literature & Modernity 08/02/2018 by M. Jesinghausen.

Woolf, V. (2003). Mrs Dalloway. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.


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