By 1923 (the year in which the novel is set), World War I had been over for five years. The horror of the War still haunted the national psyche as an unresolved trauma, even as England tried to bury its memory and move on, in order to catch up with the rest of the world, which was speeding headlong into modernity. For some, it was an exciting, promising time. London buzzed with airplanes, motorcars, commerce, and the barely-contained exuberance of young people focused not on the past but on the present and future. A few industries were growing; the upper classes were still rich, and some segments of the working class were enjoying higher wages and better conditions than before the War. Women had more rights and freedoms; it was even possible for a young woman (such as Elizabeth Dalloway) to imagine a career in government for herself. There had been many exciting developments in art, music, and literature: Cubism, Jazz, Modernism, and other movements had administered a series of shocks from which traditional English culture was still reeling and recoiling, and new shocks were on the way (Woolf's novel would be one). Developments in psychology, anthropology, physics, and other fields had animated many artists, scientists, politicians, and social activists with a sense of urgency, with a conviction that they were uniquely positioned to revitalize, transform, and revolutionize society and the world.
At the same time, trouble lurked on the horizon. There had been full employment in England during the War, but afterwards, as the war machine was dismantled, as immigration increased, and as thousands of veterans returned from foreign parts broken in body and mind, unemployment began to rise. Though few knew it, the country was heading toward the deep depression, massive unemployment, food shortages, epidemics, and profound social unrest that for the next 15 years would make life miserable for the lower classes and that would contribute, eventually, to the causal chain that led England into World War II. Other troubles were on the horizon as well. By the end of 1923, Mussolini had already turned Italy into a Fascist state, Hitler had emerged on the political scene in Germany, and the British Empire was beginning to disintegrate, as its various colonies intensified their struggles to throw off British rule. Civil War in Ireland had already led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, for example, and Ghandi had begun his campaign for independence in India. Woolf's novel makes few direct references to these events, but signs of trouble occasionallyï¿½and pointedlyï¿½break through the bubble of security surrounding Clarissa and her set: a group of young boys in uniform march lockstep through the park; a vagrant woman's song stirs Peter to pity, another female vagrant discomfits Richard, Doris Kilman's poverty rebukes Clarissa, a shell-shocked veteran (Septimus) haunts the city, and his suicide interrupts Clarissa's party. We get intimations, too, that Peter, as a member of the British ruling class in India, has played some role in his government's repression of the independence movement there. In some ways, Woolf's novel is about, or at least recreates, the unstable mixture of breathless optimism and paralytic fear that characterized her time.
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