She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble.See Important Quotations Explained
The Dalloway servants rush around and make last-minute party preparations. The prime minister is supposed to arrive, but this does not make any difference to the cook, Mrs. Walker, who is overwhelmed with work. Dinner over, the female guests go upstairs and the men call to the kitchen for the Imperial Tokay, a sweet wine. Elizabeth worries about her dog and tells a servant to check on it.
More people arrive and the men join the women upstairs. Clarissa says, “How delightful to see you!” to everybody, which Peter finds insincere. He wishes he had stayed at home. Clarissa fears her party will be a failure. She is aware of Peter’s critical eye but thinks she would rather be drenched in fire while attempting her party than fade like her meek cousin, Ellie Henderson.
The wind blows a curtain, and Clarissa sees a guest beat it back and go on talking. She thinks her party may be a success after all. Guests continue to arrive, but Clarissa does not enjoy herself. She feels anyone could take her role as hostess but is also somewhat proud of her party’s success. The hired butler, Mr. Wilkins, announces Lady Rosseter, who turns out to be Sally Seton, now married. Sally heard about the party through a mutual friend and has arrived unexpectedly. Clarissa remembers the moment in her youth when she was thrilled merely to think of being under the same roof with Sally. She thinks Sally has lost her luster, but they laugh and embrace and seem ecstatic to see one another. With her old bravado and egotism, Sally says she has “five enormous boys.”
The prime minister arrives, interrupting Clarissa’s reunion with Sally. He does his rounds and retires to a little room with Lady Bruton. Peter Walsh catches sight of Hugh Whitbread and criticizes him mercilessly in his thoughts. Meanwhile, he watches Clarissa in her “silver-green mermaid’s dress” and feels she still has the power to sum up all of life in a moment, merely by passing by and catching her scarf in some woman’s dress. Peter reminds himself that he is not in love with her anymore.
Clarissa sees the prime minister off and thinks she does not feel passionate about seeing anyone. She prefers the intense hatred inspired by Miss Kilman, since the emotion is heartfelt. She returns to the party and mingles with her guests, all of whom seem to have failed in their lives in some regard. Mrs. Hilbery tells Clarissa she looks like her mother, and Clarissa is moved. Old Aunt Helena arrives and talks about orchids and Burma. Sally catches Clarissa by the arm, but Clarissa is busy and says she will come back later, meaning that she will talk to her old friends when the others have gone. Everyone's thoughts dip constantly into the past.
Clarissa must speak to the Bradshaws. She dislikes Sir William but tolerates Lady Bradshaw, who tells Clarissa about Septimus’s suicide. Clarissa goes into the little room where the prime minister sat so she can be alone. She feels angry that the Bradshaws brought death to her party. She ruminates about Septimus’s death and thinks he has preserved something that is obscured in her own life. She sees his death as an attempt at communication. She remembers the moment she felt she could die at Bourton in total happiness. She considers the young man’s death her own disgrace.
Clarissa looks out the window and sees the old woman in the house across the way going to bed. She hears the party behind her and thinks of the words from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat of the sun.” She identifies with Septimus and feels glad he has thrown his life away. She returns to the party, where Peter and Sally are gossiping about the past and present and wondering where she is. Sally goes to say goodnight to Richard. Peter is filled with terror and ecstasy when Clarissa appears.
Septimus’s death makes Clarissa’s party seem even more indulgent than it is. Elizabeth’s obsession with her dog, the men’s enjoyment of their wine, and Clarissa’s gushing welcomes to guests all seem trivial in light of Septimus’s suicide. More troubling is the fact that Clarissa’s party entertains Septimus’s oppressors, the upholders of stifling British society, including Sir William. Most of the guests seem to have failed in some way, and nearly all live in the bubble world of upper-class England. Clarissa’s stuffy Aunt Helena, the botanist who believes in suppressing emotion and any interesting topic of conversation, spent a lifetime weighing flowers down with books to make them flat. This hobby suggests her wish to squash the human soul in order to preserve the social mores of English society; it also demonstrates the danger of applying analytic, scientific study to aesthetic values. The prime minister himself is present, a comical, slightly pathetic figure who struggles to be a figurehead to a public desperate for symbols. The social system is empty and even ridiculous, but Clarissa and her guests uphold it nonetheless.
Clarissa worries that the party will be a failure until she sees a guest beat back a blowing curtain, which serves as a kind of border between the private soul and the public world. Her guest refuses to let the curtain get in the way of his talking, and his beating it back reveals his dedication to communication. Clarissa imagined her party as a forum for discussion of topics that people would not normally discuss, and people are indeed emerging somewhat from their usual selves. The party seems to be a success. One of Clarissa’s happiest memories is of the blinds blowing at Bourton when she and her friends were young and honest communication was possible to a greater degree. As the old woman in the window across from Clarissa’s window suggests, true communication becomes harder as one grows older and more isolated. Clarissa’s party provides an outlet, however brief, where communication might take place once again.
Here at the party, for the first time, we see Sally Seton as she is in the present, outside of Clarissa’s memory. She swoops in unexpectedly, having heard of the party from a friend as she was passing through town. Clarissa’s first thought is that Sally looks nothing like what she remembered—the luster has left her. She observes this without judgment or reproach and still asserts that it is wonderful to see her, but even then she adds that Sally is “less lovely.” Clarissa remembers with some disbelief the Sally from Bourton and cannot reconcile those images with the Sally that has appeared in her home. Brazen, wonderful, creative Sally is now the wife of a miner, the mother of five sons, a gardener, and a lady (her married name is Lady Rosseter). Though Clarissa loves flowers, she does not grow them, and Sally’s passion for her garden gives her an earthy and immediate physicality that Clarissa lacks. Though Sally and Clarissa hug and kiss hello, this Sally seems less real than the Sally who has lurked in Clarissa’s imagination all these years.
Sally’s appearance at the party brings the past crashing into the present, and Clarissa, faced now with the real woman from her memories, must confront the present head-on. Clarissa and Sally barely have time to catch up before Clarissa leaves her with Peter to devote herself to other guests. Clarissa has spent years remembering, even lusting after, Sally, and now that Sally is here, in the flesh, Clarissa cannot face her; as with Peter and the young woman he follows, Clarissa prefers fantasy to reality. In many ways, Clarissa has spent her life stuck in Bourton, with her memories of Sally and her occasional regrets about Peter simmering constantly under the surface of her life. Now, here they are, the both of them—Sally and Peter—and Clarissa barely speaks to them. The feelings she has about them are distant and hollow, not within her heart but outside it. When she sees Peter and Sally talking and laughing about the past, she cannot join them. Only after watching the old woman next door and thinking about Septimus does she gather the courage to find them. To face the present fully she must first come to terms with her own aging and eventual death.
When Clarissa retreats to the small solitary room to reflect on Septimus’s suicide, she experiences a powerful revelation, which is the climax of the novel. The impression of the prime minister’s body is still on the chair in the room, emphasizing that the soul is never completely alone or free from the influence of social pressures. Clarissa feels that Septimus’s death is her own disgrace, and she is ashamed that she is an upper-class society wife who has schemed and desired social success. His death is also her disgrace because she compromised her passion and her soul when she married Richard, while Septimus preserved his soul by choosing death. She remembers the line from Shakespeare’s Othello, “If it were now to die, ’twere now to be most happy.” She has lived to regret her decisions, just as Othello did. Clarissa sees her life clearly and comes to terms with her own aging and death, which ultimately enables her to endure. When she returns to the party, we see her from Peter’s perspective, not her own, and the novel ends without any more glimpses into her mind.