Skip to main content
Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: A Different Perspective
Jul 1, 2014

Looking at Virginia Woolf's contemplations of characters in "Mrs. Dalloway" and Said Nursi's ruminations on profound inner struggles, one might first sense some contradictions - as if two separate ideas or views. But a closer look reveals much common ground. The fear of death and search for immortality, depressive thoughts caused by social unrest, ruminations on nature, and a circular sense of time are the themes present in both authors' works. The significant difference is that Nursi's approaches are solution centered with optimistic outcomes rather than the pessimistic endings as seen in "Mrs. Dalloway."

Yet fear of imminent calamities, unspeakable catastrophes, is rarely absent; the horrors of individual and collective destruction are never remote. (Brombert 2010)

One of the important details that many scholars focus on in Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" is that she has many secrets awaiting to be revealed through her real life experiences (Gay 2002). This is similar to Nursi's real time experiences, and indicates that both can be continually studied by evolving modern and postmodern ideologies (Hardy 2011).

Socio-economic background

Both Nursi and Woolf worked in a time, post World War I, of deep socio-economic uncertainty. Faced with the ruins of one war, and the threat of another, society was wracked by spiritual, moral, and psychology turmoil. The Great War for civilizations was turning into "disenchantment" (Panichas 2004). In England, the male population had been damaged by the war. The war veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, who commits suicide and symbolizes the pessimistic side of Woolf in "Mrs. Dalloway" is reflected as the duplicate of Clarissa Dalloway and represents the lower class of English society of that time:

More British soldiers died in World War I than in any other British conflict. Under the best of circumstances, this burden would have been difficult to bear, but other factors increased the psychological and emotional damage. (Bethea 2010)

As such, women were starting to go to work in traditionally male fields and were mobilizing for equal rights. Woolf, herself a feminist writer, advocated for women's equality and suffrage.

While Woolf was firmly entrenched in the English middle class, Said Nursi, on the other hand, lived a mobile life in rural Anatolia and Istanbul. He had been exiled for writing the "Risale-i Nur," through which he struggled against ignorance and obstacles to socio-economic and spiritual welfare. Freedom of conscience was under assault in Turkey at the time (Yavuz 1999). Nursi devoted his life to answering the questions of western science and philosophy with revelations from the Qur'an, and reconciling them with more spiritual thought.

Psychological background

Psychology serves as a science, not only for corporal healing, but also to help people reach happiness, an inner-state of tranquility. However, psychology, as a positive subjective experience of science, has been restricted and described as a devotee of prevention from pathological illnesses, especially when confronted with despair or pessimism about the meaningfulness of life. Authors like Mongarin, Csikszentmihalyi, and Hershbenger eagerly clung on the idea of reorientation of psychology, as a science, to its two main missions of evaluating normal people and actualizing the high human potential (Mongrain 2012, Csikszentmihalyi 2009, and Hershbenger 2005). The dominance of pathology resulted in a model of the human being that is lacking positive concepts like hope, wisdom, creativity, courage, spirituality, responsibility, and perseverance, which are essential for one's well-being. Such values were ignored or defined as mere transformations of authentic negative impulses (Seligman et al 2000).

Septimus, who suffers from a very serious mental problem caused by the shock of war, in which he lost his closest friend and many others, loses his belief in the doctor that diagnosed him with "lack of proportion." Due to these traumas and lack of faith, he commits suicide at the end of the novel. Woolf, through Clarissa, also has negative feelings about doctors, thus showing sympathy for Septimus Warren Smith:

She felt somehow very like him-the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. (Woolf 1925)

Themes, symbols, and motifs

Optimism vs. pessimism

Clarissa starts the day with fresh thoughts of livelihood as she heads to the florist:

For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can't be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. (Woolf 1925)

These lines reflect how joyful her thoughts are, as depicted by Woolf in Dalloway's stream of consciousness. However, the same person gets very depressed as she later finds it difficult to bear life one more day:

She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (Woolf 1925)

Nursi also uses natural elements to infer implications of depression and pessimism if one was to see the landscape we live in with limited visions, as he narrated the story of the prophet Jonah, who was believed to be swallowed by a big fish and had to endure darkness and loneliness. This was redemption for leaving his people, who had strayed from God.

Our night is the future. When we look upon our future with heedlessness towards our religious responsibilities, it is a hundred times darker and more fearful than his (Jonah's) night. Our seas is this moving, unstable earth. Each wave of this sea bears on its thousands of dead bodies, and so is a thousand times more frightening than his sea. Our fish consists of the lusts and caprices of our evil-commanding soul, which strive to destroy our eternal life. Such a fish is a thousand times more harmful than his. For his fish could have destroyed a hundred-year lifespan, whereas ours seeks to destroy a life that will last hundreds of millions of years. (Nursi 2008, 5)

As inferred through the lines mentioned above, "Mrs. Dalloway" brings up calamities in society through ordinary characters by delving into their consciousness as to justify reasons for despair; it uses myriads of minor characters, together with major characters, to reflect a larger social corruption, oftentimes leading to questions of higher meaning.

She often questions life's true meaning, wondering whether happiness is truly possible. She feels both a great joy and a great dread about her life, both of which manifest in her struggles to strike a balance between her desire for privacy and her need to communicate with others. (SparkNotes Editors 2004)

Nursi, like Woolf, gives a detailed depiction of calamities in our lives, but unlike her, he forces the reader to see behind the curtain which veils eternal blessings; with a little effort, one may overcome the life-spanned limitations and achieve hundreds of millions of years of peace by submitting to the true Sustainer:

By demonstrating that He acts in whichever way He wills; by showing that (humankind and jinn have been equipped with free will and are responsible for their decisions and acts); by reminding that whatever takes place in the universe and whatever proceeds from, or is done, by any creature, is through His permission; by making it clear that universal laws are also always subject to His Will, and that an All-Compassionate Lord hears the individuals who cry out under the pressure of these laws and that He comes to their aid with His favors... (Nursi 2004, 33-34)


Time, in both perspectives, is handled as a key element that indicates the circular recurring of events and the cessation of life.

Clarissa, Septimus, Peter, and other characters are in the grip of time, and as they age they evaluate how they have spent their lives. Clarissa, in particular, senses the passage of time, and the appearance of Sally and Peter, friends from the past, emphasizes how much time has gone by since Clarissa was young. (SparkNotes Editors 2004)

In "Mrs. Dalloway," time is always present, as Big Ben always reminds the characters and readers of the time by chiming: "leaden circles dissolved in the air" (Woolf 1925). This expression is seen in many parts of the novel, as there is always time to do something, like not waiting anymore for another day to live the same things.

Time is so important to the themes, structure, and characters of this novel that Woolf almost named her book The Hours. (SparkNotes Editors 2004)

Said Nursi's approach to time as a concept has quite an eminent value, as it is handled with regards to the past, present, and future of each individual.

Such is reality. Past hours of misfortune and their pain have disappeared, while the future days of imagined distress have not yet come. Pain does not come from nothing or from that which does not exist. Therefore, it is pure lunacy to eat and drink continually today out of fear that we will probably be hungry and thirsty in the future. Similarly, it is foolish to think at this present moment of past and future pains - pains which do not exist - and, as a result, to grow impatient, to ignore one's faulty soul, and to act as though one is complaining about God. (Nursi 2010, 341-342)

Death vs. immortality

Death in "Mrs. Dalloway" stalks characters throughout the novel. Thoughts of death lurk beneath the surface of everyday life, especially for Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter, and this awareness makes even mundane events and interactions meaningful, sometimes even threatening (SparkNotes Editors 2004). Woolf delved into flux of consciousness through fear of death, as it is a door to mortality. The lines she reads on a book from a bookshop's window from Shakespeare, are an epiphany about mortality:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun / Nor the furious winter's rages. (Shakespeare 2006)

Her desire for immortality shows itself through a movie star, as she will be remembered even after her death, and through, Richard as he would be given an award for his writing and also be remembered. Art in general is shown as a way of not being forgotten. Thus, Dalloway's desire for immortality is quite obvious.

Nursi, just like Woolf shows the implications of desire for immortality as a basic need for human beings, a sense that should be fulfilled by eternal blessings of the hereafter. In his belief, just like a sense of hunger is fulfilled by eating, or thirst by drinking, the desire for immortality is a humane need that can find its needed answer through a power beyond human strength, a divine power that is free from the limits of mortality. When Nursi perceives the death of nature he shows great remorse and sadness:

The scenes of death and decay which appeared in this continuous flurry of activity were so pitiable that they moved me to tears. The more I witnessed the death of those lovely creatures, the more my heart ached. Sighing with pity and regret, I found my spirit in deep turmoil, for life that came to such an end seemed to me to be a torment worse than death.

The living beings of the plant and animal kingdoms, most beautiful and full of precious art, were opening their eyes to gaze on this exhibition of the universe for a moment and were then disappearing. The more I watched, the more pain I felt. I was moved to complain by shedding tears, while my heart asked profound questions such as: "Why do they come and then go away without ceasing? (Nursi 2010, 13-14)

These lines indicate parallelism with Woolf's pessimism in "Mrs. Dalloway." One might find suicide quite inevitable if there were only such despair. Yet Nursi finds peace from his pessimism through verses of Qur'an and puts meaning to the aforementioned seemingly meaningless deaths:

As I started complaining bitterly about fate because of the painful way the events of these beings' life are governed, indicated by the light of the Qur'an and the mystery of belief, Divine Unity came to my aid as a pure favor of the All-Merciful. (Nursi 2010, 14)

... each living creature-this ornate flower, for example, or that sweet-producing bee, is such a meaningful Divine ode that innumerable conscious beings study it with great delight. It is such a precious miracle of Power and so great a proclamation of Wisdom that it exhibits the Art of the Maker to countless appreciative observers in a most attractive manner. Another exceedingly elevated result of its creation is that it presents itself to, or is favored with, the gaze of the All-Majestic Originator, Who wills to observe His Art Himself, to look on the grace and beauty of His creation, and view the beauties of the manifestations of His Names in the countless mirrors that are His creatures. (Nursi 2010, 14)

Unlike Nursi, Dalloway's inner struggle against insanity that is caused by the same sorrows doesn't give her the chance of a fruitful outcome, as she finds it an impossible fight to win. She has grown to believe that living even one day is dangerous. Death is very naturally in her thoughts, and the line from Cymbeline, along with Septimus's suicidal embrace of death, ultimately helps her to be at peace with her own mortality (SparkNotes Editors 2004).


In this article, the two contemporary writers are compared and contrasted through their writings and comprehensions of life. It is quite obvious that there is much more to write to fully convey their viewpoints. Nevertheless, this article could be a first step for further studies on both scholars. One may think that they have quite different approaches, but when delved into their philosophical and psychological inner worlds, many superficial differences are in fact similarities hidden behind misconceptions.

On the other hand, it is quite obvious that they have significant differences about their outcomes that can be revealed from their works, as they have different sources of inspirations. Further research is obviously required on their approaches to natural elements. Their psychological perspectives could be given a more detailed study and other philosophers and psychologists could be referred to in comprehending their perceptions. Other works written by the two writers could be explored, too. The function of science is also an important element in understanding the "Risale-i Nur" (Mermer 1999, Alam 2009). More importantly, Said Nursi, as an eastern scholar, should be given his deserved place among the western world of literature.


  • Abuhamdeh, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2009. "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivational Orientations in the Competitive Context: An Examination of Person-Situation Interactions." Journal of Personality.
  • Alam, D. 2009. "Spiritual Dimensions of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi's Risale-i Nur." Middle East Journal.
  • Bethea, A. F. 2010. "Septimus Smith, the War-Shattered Christ Substitute in Mrs. Dalloway." Explicator.
  • Boykin Hardy, S. 2011. "The Unanchored Self in The Hours after Dalloway." Critique.
  • Brombert, V. 2010. Virginia Woolf-"Death Is the Enemy". Hudson Review.
  • Gay, P. 2002. "On not Psychoanalyzing Virginia Woolf." American Scholar.
  • Hershberger, P. J. 2005. "Prescribing Happiness: Positive Psychology and Family Medicine." PMID. Vol. 37, No. 9.
  • Ibrahim, M. 2011. Said Nursi. Contemporary Islam.
  • Mermer, Y. B. 1999. "The hermeneutical dimension of science: a critical analysis based on Said Nursi's Risale-i Nur." Muslim World, 89 (3-4), 270-296.
  • Mongrain, M., & Anselmo-Matthews, T. 2012. "Do Positive Psychology Exercises Work? A Replication of Seligman et al." Journal of Clinical Psychology.
  • Nursi, Bediuzzaman S. 2008. The Gleams, NJ: Tughra Books.
  • Nursi, Bediuzzaman S. 2010. The Rays, NJ: Tughra Books.
  • Panichas, G. A. 2004. Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: "A Well of Tears." Modern Age.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. & Csikszentmihalyi M. 2000. American Psychologist: Positive Psychology, an Introduction.
  • Shakespeare, W. 2006. Pericles/Cymbeline/The Two Noble Kinsmen (Signet Classics), Release date: November 7, 2006. Series: Signet Classics. (Author), Sylvan Barnet (Editor).
  • SparkNotes Editors. 2004. "SparkNote on Mrs. Dalloway." Retrieved May 20, 2013, from
  • Woolf, V. 2010. eBooks@Adelaide 2010 this web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide
  • Rendered into HTML by Steve Thomas. Last updated Tue Aug 24 14:54:11 2010. The University of Adelaide Library, South Australia.
  • Yavuz, M. (1999). "The assassination of collective memory: the case of Turkey." Muslim World.