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.