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.
Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class, fifty-two-year-old woman married to a politician, decides to buy flowers herself for the party she is hosting that evening instead of sending a servant to buy them. London is bustling and full of noise this Wednesday, almost five years after Armistice Day. Big Ben strikes. The king and queen are at the palace. It is a fresh mid-June morning, and Clarissa recalls one girlhood summer on her father’s estate, Bourton. She sees herself at eighteen, standing at the window, feeling as if something awful might happen. Despite the dangers, and despite having only a few twigs of knowledge passed on to her by her childhood governess, Clarissa loves life. Her one gift, she feels, is an ability to know people by instinct.
Clarissa next runs into her old friend Hugh Whitbread. Hugh and Clarissa exchange a few words about Hugh’s wife, Evelyn, who suffers from an unspecified internal ailment. Beside the proper and admirable Hugh, Clarissa feels self-conscious about her hat.
Past and present continue to intermingle as she walks to the flower shop. She remembers how her old friend Peter Walsh disapproved of Hugh. She thinks affectionately of Peter, who once asked her to marry him. She refused. He made her cry when he said she would marry a prime minister and throw parties. Clarissa continues to feel the sting of his criticisms but now also feels anger that Peter did not accomplish any of his dreams.
She continues to walk and considers the idea of death. She believes she will survive in the perpetual motion of the modern London streets, in the lives of her friends and even strangers, in the trees, in her home. She reads lines about death from a book in a shop window. Clarissa reflects that she does not do things for themselves, but in order to affect other people’s opinions of her. She imagines having her life to live over again. She regrets her face, beaked like a bird’s, and her thin body. She stops to look at a Dutch picture, and feels invisible. She is conscious that the world sees her as her husband’s wife, as Mrs. Richard Dalloway.
Clarissa looks in the window of a glove shop and contemplates her daughter, Elizabeth, who cares little for fashion and prefers to spend time with her dog or her history teacher, Miss Kilman, with whom she reads prayer books and attends communion. Clarissa wonders if Elizabeth is falling in love with Miss Kilman, but Richard believes it is just a phase. Clarissa thinks of her hatred for Miss Kilman, which she is aware is irrational, as a monster.
A car backfires while Clarissa is in the flower shop, and she and several others turn to observe the illustrious person passing in a grand car. They wonder if it is the queen or the prime minister behind the blinds. The car inspires feelings of patriotism in many onlookers.
Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of World War I who is about thirty years old, also hears the car backfire. He suffers from shell shock, a mental illness brought on by the horrors of war, and believes he is responsible for the traffic congestion the passing car causes. Lucrezia, or Rezia, his young Italian wife, is embarrassed by his odd manner and also frightened, since Septimus recently threatened to kill himself. She leads him to Regent’s Park, where they sit together. Septimus’s thoughts are incomprehensible to his wife. He believes he is connected to trees and that trees must not be cut down. He believes that if he looks beyond the park railings he will see his dead friend, Evans, and fears the world might burst into flames. Septimus, Rezia, and many minor characters observe a plane overhead writing letters in the sky. The letters eventually seem to read “TOFFEE.” Septimus believes someone is trying to communicate with him in a coded language. Rezia cannot stand to see him so broken, staring and talking out loud, and she walks to the fountain. She sees a statue of an Indian holding a cross. She feels alone and for a moment is angry with Septimus—after all, Dr. Holmes has said that Septimus has nothing at all the matter with him. Suddenly, Rezia feels her devotion to her husband clearly and returns to where he sits. A young woman, Maisie Johnson, asks them directions, and as she walks away she thinks about how strange the couple is. An older woman, Carrie Dempster, observes Maisie and feels regret about her own life.
Woolf wrote much of Mrs. Dalloway in free indirect discourse. We are generally immersed in the subjective mental world of various characters, although the book is written in the third person, referring to characters by proper names, as well as the pronouns he, she, and they. Woolf seldom uses quotation marks to indicate dialogue, as in most of Clarissa’s encounter with Hugh Whitbread, to ensure that the divide between characters’ interior and exterior selves remains fluid. In this way, Woolf allows us to evaluate characters from both external and internal perspectives: We follow them as they move physically through the world, all the while listening to their most private thoughts. The subjective nature of the narrative demonstrates the unreliability of memory. In this section, Clarissa, Septimus, and other characters interpret and reinterpret themselves and others constantly—changing their minds, misremembering, contradicting previous statements. Even simple facts, such as somebody’s age, are occasionally vague, since people’s memories are different and sometimes wrong.
Clarissa gains texture and depth as her thoughts dip frequently into the past and begin to edge around the future and her own mortality. Clarissa is full of happy thoughts as she sets off to buy flowers that beautiful June morning, but her rapture reminds her of a similar June morning thirty years earlier, when she stood at the window at Bourton and felt something awful might happen. Tragedy is never far from her thoughts, and from the first page of the book Clarissa has a sense of impending tragedy. Indeed, one of the central dilemmas Clarissa will face is her own mortality. Even as Clarissa rejoices in life, she struggles to deal with aging and death. She reads two lines about death from an open book in a shop window: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.” The words are from one of Shakespeare’s later plays, Cymbeline, which is experimental and hard to classify, since it has comic, romantic, and tragic elements, much like Mrs. Dalloway. The lines are from a funeral song that suggests death is a comfort after life’s hard struggles. Both Clarissa and Septimus repeat these lines throughout the day.
Though Septimus shares many of Clarissa’s traits, he reacts differently to the passing car that thrills Clarissa and other bystanders. World War I has prompted changes in traditional English society, and many of London’s inhabitants are lost in this more modern, more industrial society. People in the street, including Clarissa, seek meaning in the passing car, whose grandeur leads them to suspect it may carry the queen or a high-ranking government official. They want desperately to believe that meaning still exists in tradition and in the figureheads of England. For Septimus, the car on the street in the warm June sun does not inspire patriotism but rather seems to create a scene about to burst into flame. He has lost faith in the symbols Clarissa and others still cling to. The car’s blinds are closed, and its passenger remains a mystery. Any meaning the crowd may impart on the car is their own invention—the symbol they want the car to be is hollow.
Woolf reveals mood and character through unusual and complex syntax. The rush and movement of London are reflected in galloping sentences that go on for line after line in a kind of ecstasy. These sentences also reflect Clarissa’s character, particularly her ability to enjoy life, since they forge ahead quickly and bravely, much as Clarissa does. As Clarissa sees the summer air moving the leaves like waves, sentences become rhythmic, full of dashes and semicolons that imitate the choppy movement of water. Parentheses abound, indicating thoughts within thoughts, sometimes related to the topic at hand and sometimes not. Simple phrases often appear in the flow of poetic language like exclamations, such as when young Maisie Johnson encounters the strange-seeming Smiths and wants to cry “Horror! horror!” This line echoes Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, in which a character despairs over humanity’s cruelty. Later in the novel, we learn that Clarissa herself said “Oh this horror!” when Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf, an old family friend, interrupted her encounter with Sally on the terrace. Society closes in on both Septimus and Clarissa, and the effect, conveyed through language and sentence structure, is terrible.
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