Clarissa Vaughn remembers that she must buy flowers. She leaves her lover, Sally, cleaning the bathroom and dashes out of the house. As she steps outside, she admires the June morning and feels lucky to be alive. In good health at the age of fifty-two, Clarissa feels practically the same as she felt when she was eighteen and living in Wellfleet with her former lover Richard. She remembers stepping out of glass doors on a similar day, when Richard put his hand on her shoulder and greeted her by calling her “Mrs. Dalloway.” He chose this pet name because of her first name, Clarissa, and her destiny to “charm and to prosper” like the character in the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name.
On the street, Clarissa thinks about how Richard’s literary success will be cut short by AIDS. She feels badly for loving the beauty of the day so much that she can forget about Richard’s troubles for a minute. Clarissa is aware that she has a noncritical, romantic point of view, but she knows that if she were to express herself fully, people would perceive her as stupid for being so easy to please. Despite this awareness of the potential criticisms of others, Clarissa believes her capacity to enjoy things is the deepest part of her soul.
Clarissa will host a party that evening in honor of Richard’s award. As the hostess, she will have to ensure that the guests have a good time and that Richard gets through the evening without getting too tired. After the party, she will lead him uptown to receive the Carrouthers Prize for his poetry. As Clarissa waits at a stoplight, her neighbor Willie Bass catches sight of her and thinks about how she must have been beautiful at one point but that time has dragged her downwards.
As she walks through the park, Clarissa falls in love with every detail of the city. She loves the eternity of the city, the feeling that it’s been this way forever. Clarissa bumps into Walter Hardy. Walter’s lover Evan has been doing much better on his new HIV drugs, and as they chat Clarissa invites Walter and Evan to the party that night. Clarissa thinks sadly that if Richard were healthier, she’d have been able to have a fight with him about her having invited Walter, whom Richard thinks is shallow. Clarissa imagines what Richard would comment on if he could walk around with her.
Clarissa contemplates buying her daughter, Julia, a pretty dress but realizes that Julia would never wear it. As she looks in the window of a bookstore, she has a memory of a branch tapping against a window. The memory seems to come from a childhood vacation she took with her family to Wisconsin, and she realizes that her memory means more to her than any book that she could find in the store. Clarissa continues walking down the street and regrets not buying the dress for her daughter. Julia has been changed by her friend Mary Krull, and Clarissa resents Mary for turning Julia against her.
Before entering the flower shop, Clarissa notices that a movie production is filming on the street in front of the shop. As she walks in, she greets the owner, Barbara, and she drinks in the pleasures of the store. She feels guilty that she hasn’t become better friends with Barbara, who wants to be an opera singer and faced a close call with breast cancer the year before.
Clarissa looks over the flowers and thinks about which to buy, feeling guilty about the extravagance, when a shattering sound comes from the street outside. She and Barbara both look outside and catch sight of a famous movie star, who Clarissa thinks might be Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave, as she pokes her head out of a trailer to see if everything is okay.
Clarissa has a sensitive perception of the world, and the small moments that constitute the first chapter reveal her zest for life, her insecurities, and her conflicted relationships with the people she loves. Cunningham introduces details and themes of Clarissa’s life slowly, through her thought process and her contact with the objects and people she sees. For example, we hear about Richard’s tendency to argue with Clarissa soon after she physically bumps into Walter in the park. This moment triggers her reflection about how different the walk would be if Richard were well enough to join her. The literary form respects the ordinary details of the life of an ordinary woman, revealing that Clarissa thinks that life is beautiful and worth describing and cherishing.
Clarissa’s chapter recreates the first chapter of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The beginning of Mrs. Dalloway has the Clarissa going out to buy flowers for a party that she will be throwing that night. It also describes in minute detail the shopping trip that Clarissa takes, and Cunningham’s Clarissa and Woolf’s Clarissa both find beauty in small pieces of the world. By mirroring the first chapter of Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham plays off of Woolf’s structure and style the way a jazz musician plays off an established riff. He makes a point about the eternal nature of the ideas of mortality, beauty, and contemplation that mattered so much to Woolf.
In this short recap of Clarissa’s morning, we learn that her major relationships with the people she cares about most are conflicted. She feels a bond with Richard and sadness at losing him to illness, but she also thinks that Richard is unfair to her by wanting her to be more than she can be. Sally grounds Clarissa, but Richard thinks Sally is unexciting, and by extension Clarissa may feel the same way. Clarissa’s relationship with her daughter, Julia, is semiestranged. Most important, Clarissa’s conflict with herself becomes evident. Though essentially a happy person, she sometimes sees herself as shallow. She has guilt about her health, about her ability to enjoy things, and about the decisions she has made in her life.