The nature of identity is a main theme in Mrs Dalloway. This novel explores the question of our ability to truly understand the “self”. Indeed, our surroundings, our physical environment and our human relationships actually impact the notion of self and personal identity. The characters in this novel only have a limited understanding of one another, each creating a personal identity through their reflections in the eyes of others. This idea is shown by Clarissa, as the reader witnesses throughout the novel her identity develop in parallel with her contact with the outside world. But it is clear that none of the characters know much about each other, because it becomes obvious that what each knows of another is a fragmented version.
Indeed, Clarissa is seen by her husband Richard Dalloway as “Mrs Dalloway”, as a charming and delicate wife, whereas her servants help her to portray the image of the “gentle, generous-hearted” society wife, and while Peter sees her as the snob and perfect hostess. Accessorily, it is Peter who is the most aware of Clarissa’s multifaceted nature. Moreover, Clarissa plays several roles to many different people. Clarissa is defined getting ready for her party as “collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself”. In this mirror, there are three progressive images reflecting in it: the woman, the hostess and the inner self. Woolf uses the party and its preparation to set out an evening towards the eventual assembly of Clarissa’s identity. The party is a way for all of Clarissa’s personality aspects to come together at once.
In the same way, in the second sentence of the first part of The Waste Land, Eliot introduces a new element, a narrating personal consciousness. It suggests that there is and has been a speaker: the unspecified “us” who will receive greater specification in the next lines. We certainly want to identify the “us” that winter kept warm with the “us” that summer surprise. And if the pronouns suggest a stable identity for the speaker, much else has already become unstable: landscape turns into cityscape, the series of participles disappears and is replaced by verbs in conjunction (“And went”, “And drank”, “And talked”); the adjective-noun pattern is broken. So we can clearly notice a tension is settled between the presumed identity of the speaker and the instability of the speaker’s world.
The main characters in Virginia Woolf’s novel find themselves isolated from each other, struggling to say what they truly mean: Richard Dalloway spends all day thinking about the way he’ll tell his wife he loves her, but in the evening appears to be unable to say it. In his poem, Eliot expresses a similar disconnect: “Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak./ What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?”. This inability to communicate translates a confusion of identity. The express oneself is to define oneself. The loss of words and the difficulties to communicate in Mrs Dalloway reflect a lack in the identity of the characters. Peter Walsh for example, has trouble putting his emotions into words and expressing clearly what he thinks about Clarissa, showing his confused sense of self and of his feelings; or although Richard states that “it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels”, he is after all unable to do so. In the second part of The Waste Land, we find as well characters suffering with communication: the relationship between the speaker and his companion is indeed tight because one cannot get into the other’s mind. When the soldier is replaced into a banal existence, apart from war, he suffers of an identity crisis. Moreover, this part also echoes Lucrezia and Septimus’ relationship in Virginia Woolf’s novel.
In addition, these identity lacks reveal Eliot’s and Woolf’s searching for identity as writers as they elaborated new sorts of narrative structure and averted the traditional ones to adjust their need as modern writers. Woolf uses internal monologues, switching between Clarissa’s and other character’s consciences, and sets the plot in one only and unique day of Mrs Dalloway’s life. This makes the story majorly composed of the characters’ thoughts and memories, with a fluid and long sense of time. Eliot as well sets multiple voices (most of these being anonymous, some in foreign languages) and all united into one conscience expression the solitude and disillusion of humanity. The characters in both works are mainly ordinary people, but they affirm their individuality in minor ways: Mrs Dalloway throws a party, creating a little community for one evening, while two lovers exchange hyacinths in the first section of the The Waste Land.