Summary of Mrs Dalloway

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Mrs Dalloway book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Modernism

What It’s About

Life in Pieces

Consider an upper-class matron who is planning a party and a suicidal war veteran who sees visions of his dead commanding officer. This unlikely character pairing forms the heart of Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterwork, Mrs Dalloway. As Clarissa Dalloway goes about the events of her day, intrusions from her past – particularly, the re-emergence of her ex-lover Peter Walsh – disrupt her peace of mind about her life and marriage. Meanwhile, the shell-shocked Septimus Smith fights a different kind of battle with memory, one that his wife worries he won’t be able to win. Woolf’s brain-teasing experiments with plot structure, perspective, and stream-of-consciousness narration embody the unrest and fragmentation of British society and culture in the post-World War I years. But more than that, they transform an otherwise straightforward, day-in-the-life sketch of seemingly disparate characters into a poignant study of the effects of the trauma, the effects of memory, the meaning of death and the beauty of being alive.

Take-Aways

  • Mrs Dalloway is a modernist masterpiece. Its radical form, plot and perspective reflect the fragmentation of life in post–WWI London.
  • Clarissa Dalloway plans a party and reflects on her life. Shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Smith waits in Regent’s Park for a doctor’s appointment. Clarissa’s ex-lover Peter Walsh visits her. The doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, wants to commit Septimus to an institution. Rather than let himself be taken, Septimus kills himself. Peter and Clarissa’s old friend Sally attends Clarissa’s party. Learning of Sepitmus’s suicide, Clarissa once again feels the beauty of living.
  • Septimus Smith serves as both a memorial of the traumas of war and a critique of England’s involvement in the conflict.
  • Woolf saw her novel as a study of “the contrast between life and death” as seen through the eyes of a pair of characters – one sane, the other insane.
  • Mrs Dalloway cemented Woolf’s authorial reputation and was her first true commercial success.
  • Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness lends greater psychological realism to her characters.
  • In both the novel’s structure and plot, the past intrudes upon and affects the present moment.
  • Mrs Dalloway frames death as a means of escaping oppression or as an inevitability which can make the beauty of living more evident.
  • Woolf struggled with her own mental health and experienced a number of nervous breakdowns throughout her life.
  • “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing.”
 

Summary

Buying Flowers

Clarissa Dalloway leaves her London home to go buy flowers. The fresh air reminds her of her childhood home, Bourton, and of Peter Walsh, a friend from long ago who was once in love with her and who will soon return from living in India. Her neighbor, Scrope Purvis, notes how pale Clarissa looks after her recent illness.

Entering Regent’s Park, Clarissa runs into another old friend, Hugh Whitbread. Clarissa likes Hugh, but her husband Richard and Peter don’t. Peter was always difficult; he and Clarissa argued all the time. It was good that she hadn’t married Peter. Walking on toward Bond Street, Clarissa reflects on her identity as Mrs. Richard Dalloway and thinks about her daughter, Elizabeth, who spends too much time with the insufferable Miss Doris Kilman.

“She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, 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.” (Doris)

At the shop, Clarissa is selecting her flowers when she suddenly hears a car backfire. Passersby begin speculating about the car’s passenger: Is it the prime minister? The queen? A young couple sitting on a bench in the park – Septimus Warren Smith and his Italian wife, Lucrezia – look at the car. Lucrezia thinks about Septimus’s threats to commit suicide. The car moves toward Buckingham Palace, and everyone thinks patriotic thoughts. A skywriting airplane appears overhead, and attention turns to deciphering the letters it makes.

Septimus in Regent’s Park

Lucrezia attempts to distract her husband from his dark thoughts. Septimus thinks the plane is transmitting secret messages to him. Overwhelmed, he begins to cry. Septimus’s strange behavior frightens Lucrezia. He writes down messages he believes he is receiving about God, nature and death. He listens as a bird sings to him in Greek. He sees a vision of Evans – his dead commanding officer – hiding behind a fence. Lucrezia interrupts Septimus’s hallucination and tries to point out real sights around the park.

Peter’s Return

When Clarissa arrives home, her maid Lucy tells her that Richard will be lunching with Lady Bruton. Upset that she wasn’t included in the invitation, Clarissa goes upstairs to her room. She thinks about how she has slept alone in the attic since her illness and acknowledges that she never felt sexual passion for Richard. In her youth, however, she fell in love with her friend Sally Seton. Clarissa felt intimate with Sally in a way she couldn’t feel with men. One night on the terrace, Sally kissed her – a perfect moment until Peter interjected.

“She and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down!”

Gazing into the mirror, Clarissa ponders how a self consists of many parts, pulled together to form a whole. She decides to mend a tear in her party dress herself. Clarissa starts to sew on her dress, but Peter, newly arrived from India, interrupts her. Peter notes that Clarissa looks older. Clarissa thinks Peter looks well, though likewise older. They talk about the party, and Clarissa asks if he remembers Bourton. Peter’s memories are mostly painful. He tells Clarissa he is in love with a married woman named Daisy and is in town to arrange her divorce. Clarissa feels Peter is being foolish but also is perturbed that he is in love with someone other than herself. All of a sudden, Peter burst out crying. As Clarissa comforts him, she thinks about Richard and about running off with Peter. Peter asks if her marriage is happy, but before Clarissa can answer, Elizabeth, comes into the room. After introducing himself, Peter leaves. Clarissa calls after him, reminding him to come to her party.

Peter in Regent’s Park

Peter repeats Clarissa’s final words in time to Big Ben’s chimes. He thinks about how he’d cried in front of Clarissa – the woman who once refused his marriage proposal. He thinks about Clarissa’s recent illness and how she could die at any moment. Rejecting this thought and, with it, thoughts of his own age, Peter moves toward Whitehall. A troop of soldiers marches by, and Peter admires what they represent. The sudden realization that nobody except Clarissa knows he is in town makes Peter feel youthful and excited. A young woman passes him, and he follows her, imagining possible interactions. Afterward, Peter wanders toward Regent’s Park. Entering the park, he seats himself and falls asleep.

In his dream, Peter is a lone voyager who encounters a variety of female figures, young and old. When he awakes, he remembers a day at Bourton with Clarissa. They were talking about a woman who had become an unwed mother, and Clarissa had disapproved. Her reaction wasn’t unusual, but he disliked it nonetheless. He felt, in that moment, that her soul had died. That same evening, Peter intuited that Clarissa would marry Richard Dalloway. He recalls Clarissa’s ease of manner around Richard and how he, Peter, called her an ideal hostess – much to Clarissa’s chagrin. Peter remembers his final meeting in the garden with Clarissa, when she told him that whatever was between them was over.

Love, War and Doctors

Walking along the park path, Lucrezia wonders why she is being punished. She loves her husband, but he’s not the same man she married in Milan. It’s nearly time for their appointment with Sir William Bradshaw. Lucrezia returns to get Septimus, who believes he has messages to deliver to government officials about love and crime. Septimus feels like a shipwrecked sailor. He hears Evans singing and then sees him appear from behind a tree.

Walking past the couple, Peter thinks they are having lover’s quarrel. He thinks about how the once free-spirited Sally is married and living in Manchester. Peter always liked Sally; she also disliked Hugh. Sally used to ask Peter to save Clarissa from men like that. Now Richard shaped Clarissa’s view of the world. Clarissa had caused Peter pain in ways Daisy never did. Did he really love Daisy or just not want anyone else to have her?

“It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.”

Lucrezia hopes Sir William will be able to help Septimus. Before the war, Septimus – a would-be poet – left his home for London. He listened to lectures; read Shakespeare, Darwin and Shaw; and worked hard at his clerking job. Then the war came and Septimus volunteered. He fought bravely and became fast friends with his senior officer, Evans. But when Evans died right before the war’s end, Septimus felt nothing. At the time, he felt proud of his manly stoicism, but then – when he became engaged to Lucrezia and still felt nothing – it was frightening for him. Septimus became convinced of the meaninglessness of life and horror of human nature. Lucrezia had called Dr. Holmes – who Septimus believes is the embodiment of human nature and punishes him for his lack of feeling – but the doctor didn’t think anything was wrong with Septimus. When Lucrezia protested the diagnosis, Dr. Holmes told her to get a second opinion.

And so, there they were in Harley Street, waiting to see the famous physician, Sir William. He tells Lucrezia that Septimus has lost his sense of proportion and prescribes rest in the country, away from his wife. This pronouncement appalls Lucrezia, but Sir William holds firm. Lunatics must be put away, broken down and made to adopt Sir William’s view of the world.

Lunch and Roses

Hugh Whitbread is dedicated to tradition and the responsibilities of his class. When he arrives at Lady Bruton’s, he presents her with a bunch of carnations – his usual gesture. Lady Bruton is a formidable woman – the descendant of great generals. Hugh mentions he saw Clarissa that morning, and Lady Bruton remarks that Peter is in town. Thinking about Peter, Richard decides that, after lunch, he will go home and tell Clarissa he loves her. Lady Bruton asks Hugh and Richard to help her write an editorial letter to the Times. After parting from Lady Bruton, Hugh and Richard go window shopping. Hugh considers buying his wife a necklace, and Richard thinks about what gift he might bring Clarissa. His last attempt at giving jewelry as a gift – a bracelet – was a failure. Clarissa never wore it, and it pains him to think of this. He decides on roses.

Richard finds Clarissa in the drawing room where she’s fretting about whether to invite her boring cousin Ellie Henderson to the party. Clarissa is delighted with the flowers. Richard can’t manage to say he loves her aloud but feels she understands him. They sit and talk. Richard feels happy but still can’t express his love.

“It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.”

After Richard leaves for a political meeting, Clarissa thinks appreciatively about their relationship: They give each other space. She is upset, however, that Richard, like Peter, doesn’t understand why she gives parties. They are her gift to the world – her way of bringing disparate parts of life together.

Miss Kilman and Elizabeth

Elizabeth goes in to her mother, while Miss Kilman waits on the landing, listening. Miss Kilman is poor and over 40 and dislikes rich people like the Dalloways. Thanks to her religious conversion, however, she now feels that she has gained the upper hand over Clarissa. Clarissa worries that Miss Kilman has stolen Elizabeth from her. Elizabeth and Miss Kilman leave to go have tea. Clarissa muses about how much she despises both romantic and religious fervor. She watches an old woman in the house opposite – a peaceful counterpoint to passion in its various forms. Miss Kilman wonders why the vain and frivolous Clarissa should enjoy every comfort while she herself goes wanting.

While at tea, Elizabeth notes how intensely Miss Kilman eats – as though it is her only pleasure left in life. Miss Kilman talks about the war, complains about her ruined career and harps on her humble origins. Elizabeth wants to leave, but Miss Kilman detains her with questions about Clarissa’s party. Elizabeth confesses she doesn’t really enjoy parties, and Miss Kilman remarks how no one ever invites her to them. Elizabeth leaves, and Miss Kilman feels bereft, for she deeply loves Elizabeth, her youth and her beauty. Miss Kilman goes to Westminster Abbey to pray. Elizabeth waits for the bus, wishing she were in the country. Onboard the bus, she rides up to the Strand. Looking at all the people working, she thinks about taking up a profession – becoming a doctor, perhaps. Realizing the lateness of the hour, she heads back home.

Laughter and Death

Lucrezia, a hat maker by profession, sits near Septimus as she works on a new hat for Mrs. Peters. She thinks about all the things Septimus has asked her to write down for him – his revelations: some beautiful, some nonsense – and about his fear of Dr. Holmes. Septimus focuses on avoiding visions by looking at small details in the room. He asks about Mrs. Peters and says that the hat is too small and that it looks like an organ grinder’s monkey’s hat. They laugh together, and Lucrezia feels happy that he is acting like his old self. He helps her pick the right ribbons and decorations for the hat, and Lucrezia sews it all together. Septimus is prouder of his work on the hat than anything he has ever done before. The neighbor’s girl comes to deliver the evening paper, and the three of them enjoy a moment together eating sweets and dancing around the room.

Suddenly, Septimus looks up in terror. He is alone. Alone with just the bananas on the sideboard. There is a screen in front of him. The faces and voices of the dead aren’t there. Lucrezia re-enters the room, chattering away. A letter arrives. Plans had changed. Lucrezia is annoyed.

Septimus thinks about how Sir Bradshaw is planning to separate him from his wife. Septimus thinks about what the man told him: “The people we are most fond of are not good for us when we are ill.” He asks Lucrezia why they must be apart. She tells him that it’s because he spoke of suicide. Looking at Lucrezia, Septimus sees her as a counterpoint to men like Dr. Holmes and Sir William and what they value. They hear voices, and Lucrezia goes downstairs to stop Dr. Holmes from coming up. Dr. Holmes pushes past her, and Septimus looks around for something to help him kill himself. The bread knife? It would be a shame to ruin it. The gas fire? Too late for that. Razors? Lucrezia had packed them away. The only option left is the window. He doesn’t want to commit suicide. Life is too good, but he can’t let the doctors take him. As Dr. Holmes nears the door, Septimus throws himself out the window and down onto the metal railings outside. He dies, his body a mangled mess. Dr. Holmes calls Septimus a coward, and gives Lucrezia a sedative. She falls asleep and dreams of cornfields, ships, seagulls, butterflies and of her happy memories together with Septimus.

The Party

The sound of an ambulance passing makes Peter think about the contrast between England and India. He thinks about how much Clarissa has influenced his life. Returning to his hotel, he receives a note from her expressing how nice it was to see him. The note irritates him; for it to reach him now, she must have written it as soon as he left her house. He thinks about how easy it is to be with Daisy compared with his relationship with Clarissa. His friend, Mrs. Burgess hopes Daisy’s time away from Peter will cause her to reconsider divorce; indeed, Peter himself wonders if that might not be for the best. After dinner, Peter walks to Clarissa’s house, along the way admiring the city and its people.

“Really it was a miracle thinking of the war and thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shoveled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle.”

At the Dalloways’s house, last-minute preparations are underway. As guests arrive, Clarissa worries that the party isn’t going well and that Peter is judging her. A Lady Rosseter is announced; it’s Sally Seton. She looks older – but happy. Sally tells Clarissa that she has five sons. The prime minister arrives, and the guests feel a certain pride being in the presence of this symbol of England. Peter sneers at the pomposity. Gazing at Clarissa, he sees her as a kind of mermaid moving with perfect ease through the ocean, embodying the moment.

Clarissa asks Peter and Sally to stay until the party’s end and then leaves them to chat with other guests. She greets Sir and Lady William Bradshaw. Clarissa knows Sir William is a great man, but she doesn’t like him. Lady Bradshaw confesses that one of her husband’s patients just committed suicide. Upset by this news, Clarissa leaves the room. She thinks about the dead man and wonders how and why he did it. She thinks about growing old and about how death brings things together in ways that life cannot. Through the window, she once again sees the old woman across the street. This time, the woman is looking back at Clarissa.

Sally and Peter wait for Clarissa. They talk about the past, Clarissa’s foibles, and Clarissa and Peter’s romance. Sally notes how devoted to one another Elizabeth and Richard appear. Sally decides to go speak to Richard, and Peter is about to join her when, all at once, he feels a rush of exhilaration. Clarissa has returned to the party.

About the Text

Structure and Style

A classic modernist novel, Mrs Dalloway showcases Woolf’s experimentation with form, perspective and plot. The story takes place over a 12-hour period in post–WWI London, from late morning to evening. Though the progression isn’t marked by chapters, the famous Westminster clock, Big Ben, regularly interrupts the action, reminding both characters and the reader that the day is passing. At the same time, however, the narrative itself resists the linear. Abrupt jumps in perspective from character to character – coupled with regular flashbacks as those characters reflect upon their pasts – enrich the slight plot and fragments it in ways that augment the themes and ideas Woolf is exploring.

In addition to sudden shifts in perspective, Mrs Dalloway also features several kinds of discourse: The third-person omniscient narrator comments on events and characters speak to one another (direct speech), the narrator conveys characters’ thoughts to the reader (indirect speech), and Woolf takes the reader straight into characters’ minds without advance signaling that she is doing so (free indirect discourse). This use of stream-of-consciousness narration, in addition to more traditional discourse, contributes a greater sense of reality to Woolf’s characters. Like real people, their minds hop somewhat randomly from impression to impression and move seamlessly from present to past and back again.

Interpretation

  • The novel’s characters are haunted by the past. Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh’s memories of Bourton – as well as Septimus and Lucrezia’s memories of Europe – consistently interrupt and affect their feelings about the present.
  • While Septimus is the character most clearly damaged by the war, no one can escape its impact: the older characters, in particular, aren’t sure how to feel about the changes the war has wrought or about their place in the new social order.
  • Though Woolf’s characters fear aging, death itself is framed more positively as either an escape from oppression or something that can help foster appreciation for the beauty of living
  • Mrs Dalloway highlights women’s new post-war opportunities, as well as how patriarchal norms continue to exert their influence. Young women like Elizabeth can now pursue careers, but marriage remains a more probable, though a double-edged fate. Not marrying means socioeconomic uncertainty, but marriage leads to loss of freedom.
  • Homosexual relationships are treated as more natural, in some ways, than heterosexual ones. Conflicts between male and female understandings of the world – and of one another – are contrasted with the innate understanding that women in particular have for one another, even when their feelings aren’t affectionate (as is the case with Clarissa and Miss Kilman).
  • Nature imagery abounds in the novel. While trees and flowers are associated with beauty, love and the soul, water is associated with time, death and oppression.
  • The novel’s setting, London, embodies the shifting landscape of the times. The landmarks recall British history, while new attitudes and innovations (like electric streetlights) remind characters and the reader of how the traditional ways are swiftly passing away.

Historical Background

The Devastation of War

Set in 1923 and published in 1925, Mrs Dalloway illustrates just how keenly Britain felt the ongoing trauma of the First World War. Woolf’s depictions of shell-shocked veterans like Septimus Smith and the continued grief of those who lost loved ones serve as both a memorial and a biting critique of the conflict, which most English people of the nonruling class felt should never have happened in the first place. The war divested the British Empire of its sense of destiny (a feeling furthered by challenges to its colonial rule in nations like India), precipitated a prolonged economic depression and called into question Victorian-era class divisions and gender roles. Women, who had entered the workplace during wartime and who weren’t prepared to return to the home, demanded suffrage and other freedoms. Meanwhile, the rise of the Labor Party (which gained a parliamentary majority in 1924) ushered in social reforms that would ultimately form the basis of the British welfare state and give greater economic power and security to workers.

Modernist authors, including Virginia Woolf, T.S. Elliot and James Joyce, worked to capture the collective unrest, pain and exuberance of the post-war years. These unique times, modernists believed, called for new forms of artistic expression, including experimental plot structures, nonlinear temporality, abstraction, self-reflexivity and stream-of-consciousness narration. Their writings teased out the tensions between old and new, the self and the other. The various forces of contemporary life which draw people together and tear them apart were central modernist preoccupations, as were the possibilities (positive and negative) of the city as a dynamic and transformative space. Additionally, modernism leveraged recent work by Freud and others to explore the significance of memory, imagination and the unconscious – and to push for a deeper level of psychological realism in art. Woolf’s feminist perspective, though generally not shared by her male contemporaries, can be seen as an additional facet of modernism’s concern with the nature of identity.

Development

Mrs Dalloway evolved from two short stories Woolf wrote between 1922 and 1923: “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” and the unfinished “The Prime Minister.” The character of Mrs. Dalloway first appears far earlier, however, in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). These short stories, along with details found in Woolf’s journals, show the development of the characters, ideas and organization found in Mrs Dalloway. Joyce’s Ulysses, in which action takes places over the course of a single day, likely served as inspiration for Woolf’s one-day structure. Her rereading of Greek classics led her to consider the inclusion of a kind of chorus to help orient the reader’s sense of the passage of time, which manifested, ultimately, as the bells of Big Ben and St. Margaret’s Church. Woolf’s feelings and observations about the war, her reactions to post-Impressionism and Cubism, and hints of her personal experiences with mental illness and dismissive doctors are mentioned, at various points, in her drafting notebook.

Reception

Initial responses to Mrs Dalloway were largely positive. The Herald called the novel both “daring” and “interesting,” while a review from The New York Times noted that, though many contemporary writers were attempting to “enlarge the resources of speech and the uses of narrative,” Woolf was “almost alone…in the intricate yet clear art of her composition.” Published just a month after her essay collection, The Common Reader, Mrs Dalloway offered Woolf greater commercial success than any of her earlier works and cemented her reputation as a modernist master.

Today, Mrs Dalloway is considered one of the most influential fictions of the 20th century. Woolf’s text served as the catalyst for another novel – Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which focuses on a day in the life of three women who, at three different points in time, are affected by the work: Woolf, writing the novel, 1950s housewife Laura reading the novel, and Clarissa living out a modern-day version of Mrs. Dalloway’s story. It has also inspired two feature films: Dutch film director Marleen Gorris’s 1997 adaptation of the novel starring Vanessa Redgrave in the titular role and the Oscar-winning 2002 adaptation of Cunningham’s novel, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, also titled The Hours.

About the Author

Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen, was born on January 25, 1882 in Kensington, London. Virginia and her three full siblings (Thoby, Vanessa and Adrian) shared the family home with the children from Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Stephen’s first marriages (Laura, George, Gerald and Stella). Though Virginia wasn’t sent away to school, the Stephens’s social connections and immense library offered her a rich education. The unexpected death of Julia Stephen in 1895, coupled with sexual abuse by her half-brothers, blighted Virginia’s once happy childhood and led to the first of her nervous breakdowns. Following her mother’s death, Virginia studied at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College. There, she met a group of feminists who would influence her life and writings (notably, her 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”). Stella’s death in 1987 and Sir Leslie’s in 1904 sparked subsequent mental collapses. In 1911, Virginia and Adrian purchased a house in Bloomsbury and formed the Bloomsbury Group. One writer in the group, Leonard Woolf, fell in love with Virginia, and the two married in 1912. Virginia struggled with her mental health throughout the 1910s. After completing her first novel, The Voyage Out, she made her first suicide attempt in 1913. She remained incapacitated until 1915, when she began a new novel, Night and Day. The Woolfs founded their famous Hogarth Press in 1917, and Virginia published her first experimental novel, Jacobs Room, in 1922. That same year, Virginia began a romantic affair with Vita Sackville-West. Later novels, including Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1928), Orlando (1928) and The Waves (1931), continued to challenge traditional literary conventions. The onset of World War II upset Virginia’s fragile mental state once again. As she finished Between the Acts (1941), she fell into a depression. On March 28, 1941, she wrote a note to Leonard confessing her fear that she was once again going mad. She then left the house, filled her coat pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse at age 59.


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