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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
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
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
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.
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