Hugh Whitbread examines the shoes and socks in a shop window on Oxford Street before he lunches at Lady Bruton’s with Richard Dalloway. Hugh is not a deep person, but he is very courteous in an old-fashioned way and always brings Lady Bruton a bunch of carnations when he visits. Lady Bruton’s assistant, Milly Brush, cannot stand Hugh, but he is oblivious to her distain.
Lady Bruton, at sixty-two, prefers Richard to Hugh, but she feels Hugh is kind. She does not see the point of ”cutting people up,” the way Clarissa does. Lady Bruton announces to her two guests that she wants their help but says they will discuss business after they eat. A magnificent lunch appears like magic, served by discreet white-capped maids. Nobody seems to have paid for the food and the table seems to have set itself.
Richard thinks Lady Bruton, the descendent of a great general, should have been a general herself. She has a reputation for talking like a man. Richard has great respect for her and enjoys the notion of a well-set-up woman from a great family. Lady Bruton is anxious to talk to the men about her business, but decides to wait until after they drink their coffee.
Lady Bruton asks after Clarissa, who thinks Lady Bruton does not like her. Hugh brags that he met Clarissa that morning. Lady Bruton tells them that Peter Walsh is in town. They all remember how passionately in love with Clarissa Peter once was, as well as how he went to India and made a mess of things. Richard decides to go home after lunch and tell Clarissa he loves her. Milly Brush watches Richard and feels she might once have fallen in love with him. Lady Bruton, Richard, and Hugh all like Peter but feel helping him is impossible because of his flawed character.
Emigration to Canada is Lady Bruton’s cause. Her letter-writing skills are poor, and she is unable to write to the Times about the issue. She has invited Hugh and Richard to lunch so they can help her. She thinks Hugh knows how to write a letter that appeals to editors. Richard finds Hugh’s letter to be nonsense, but Lady Bruton is thrilled with it. She stuffs Hugh’s carnations into the front of her dress and calls him “[m]y Prime Minister.” Richard plans to write a history of Lady Bruton’s family, and she tells him the papers are all in order for when the time comes, by which she means when the Labour Party comes into power. Richard reminds Lady Bruton about Clarissa’s party.
The men leave and Lady Bruton lies on the sofa. She remembers herself as a girl, riding on her pony in the country and roughhousing with her brothers. Hugh and Richard seem attached to her by a thread, which grows thinner as they move farther from her.
Hugh and Richard look lazily into an antique shop window. Hugh considers buying a Spanish necklace for his wife, Evelyn. Richard, looking at the things in the shop, is struck by the emptiness of life.
Richard starts home toward Clarissa and wants to bring her something. He decides to buy a vast bouquet of red and white roses. He feels his life and marriage to Clarissa are miracles after the war. Richard thinks about social reforms when he passes a woman stretched on the ground. She is free of all ties and laughs at the sight of him when he passes, holding his bouquet like a weapon. He considers the problem of the female vagrant. He feels Clarissa wants his support.
At home, Clarissa is irritated because her frumpy cousin, Ellie Henderson, is coming to the party and because Elizabeth is praying with Miss Kilman. Richard enters, but he is unable to tell Clarissa he loves her. They talk and he holds her hand. Richard leaves for a meeting and sets Clarissa up for a rest on the sofa. Clarissa feels unhappy because Peter and Richard criticize her for liking parties. She decides she throws parties simply because she loves life—her parties are an offering.
Members of the upper class in Mrs. Dalloway, including Hugh Whitbread and Lady Bruton, are devoted to preserving their traditions and justify their supremacy by defending one another’s faults. Thus Hugh, a shallow glutton, is indulged and defended by Lady Bruton and Clarissa, among others. Likewise, money and a lordly demeanor shelter the psychiatrist Sir William from judgment. Lady Bruton would like to make the problems of the British Empire, such as unemployment, disappear by exporting them—and English families—to Canada. She has “lost her sense of proportion” in her Canada obsession, but she is exempt from the evil forces of Sir William, whereas Septimus is not, in part because she belongs to Sir William's class. The upper class lives in an insular and make-believe world that is declining, but they do not intend to acknowledge this decline. The Conservative Party is about to lose power and be replaced by the Labour Party, at which point Richard will retire and write a book about the great war-waging family of Lady Bruton. While Hugh might be preoccupied with society and Sir William with amassing power and money, they are forgiven their sins due to their social status. Miss Kilman in her ugly mackintosh and Septimus in his shabby coat will not be forgiven their sins, because they are not armored with money or status. Nobody will empower them or defend their faults.
Women of all classes have little power in Mrs. Dalloway. Lady Bruton, though she seems displaced in the feminine sphere and exhibits general-like qualities, becomes as helpless as a child when she faces writing a letter to the newspaper. Normally proud and serious, she shows ridiculous gratitude when Hugh arranges her thoughts in the manner accepted by the male establishment. When Richard sees a vagrant woman lying on the street, he sees not a figure rejoicing in her freedom, but rather a poor woman and a social problem that the government must deal with. Outside the repressive confines of society, the vagrant woman becomes a positive life force, like the old woman Peter and Rezia hear singing the ancient song. Richard, however, sees her only as a woman who needs his help, and he views Clarissa in somewhat the same way. Richard is a kind but simple thinker, and he finds reassurance in believing that women need him.
The luncheon at Lady Bruton’s effectively highlights the differences between the English establishment and Clarissa. Though Clarissa is a member of the upper class and can occasionally be a snob, she asks herself questions, judges herself, and tries to discover the truth about the world. No one at the luncheon puts forth a similar effort. Furthermore, none of the people at the luncheon have any rapport with or know how to handle flowers, which seem to stand in for beauty and emotion. The flowers Hugh and Richard choose, carnations and roses, are traditional. Richard carries his flowers like a weapon, while Lady Bruton first holds them awkwardly by her lace collar, then stuffs them down the front of her dress. Clarissa is natural around flowers, and they constantly surround her, suggesting her connection to nature and the deeper reaches of the soul. Finally, Clarissa believes that she throws parties to create but wonders to whom she gives her creation. This question echoes Peter’s dream, when the solitary traveler wonders to whom he can reply when the landlady asks if he needs anything. In the modern world, people are alone; they have no one to answer their questions or to make offerings to. Clarissa is aware of this tragedy of the modern era, while the insular characters representing the English establishment are not.
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