Those critics who complain that Mrs. Dalloway has no plot and only minimal characterization are right in the sense that the events of a day in the life of a London society matron have no point or significance in the grand scheme of life. Similarly, except for Clarissa and Septimus, Woolf’s characters are seemingly mere skeletons, stereotypical images of the spurned lover, the dull husband, the ruthless, power-mad doctor, and so forth. Yet Woolf deliberately creates a world in which the consciousness and searches for identity of two strangers can be seen as metaphors for all human existence, for who does not seek identity, love, and purpose? It is this flowing stream of images, thoughts, and feelings that engulfs the reader, who shares a conscious awareness of each individual’s connections to all people over all time, as well as a recognition of the individual’s delicate sense of self, which is threatened by those very people and experiences.
In her introduction to the 1928 Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf admitted that originally Clarissa was to commit suicide at the end of her party, but later Woolf created the suicidal Septimus Warren Smith as Clarissa’s double when her focus changed from a picture of a loveless woman bent on self-destruction to a portrait of the conflicting demands of selfhood and love for others.
For many critics, Clarissa is a woman who is in love with life, one who accepts her secure, passionless life even while she begins to recognize, sadly, that she has missed something—perhaps the ecstasy of erotic love?—and so her character has become hard, almost brittle. For Clarissa, love destroys one by threatening the self, one’s individuality, one’s psyche, complicating one’s life and making one vulnerable to someone who may disappoint or disillusion one.
Like Septimus, whose friends died in the war, Mrs. Dalloway is lonely for her loved ones who have also left, rejected by her—Peter to an adventure in India, Sally to the country as a wife and mother, Elizabeth taken over as Miss Kilman’s “disciple.” Everyone else is merely a “party friend,” with a party face and party manners. She means no more to them than does Septimus, a stranger, a madman, a suicide.
Some critics of the 1930’s and 1950’s have dismissed Woolf as “extremely insignificant” compared to writers such as James Joyce and British author H. G. Wells, and some have even accused her of being a poor, childish imitation of Joyce (Wyndham Lewis, 1934) or have claimed that her novels are merely “tenuous, amorphous and vague” (D. S. Savage, 1950). Most critics, however, agree with scholars such as Reuben Arthur Brower, who says that Woolf has a “Shakespearean imagination” and a wealth of visual and auditory images and symbols that recur throughout Mrs. Dalloway to reveal the “terror” and the joy of life and the fear of interruptions of that joy.
For Mrs. Dalloway, as for Woolf, people are connected by “tenuous” threads to the web of life, love, experience, and one another. For them, the joy of life comes from being part of the wave-like process, but also, standing apart from it, they take joy in the moment while fearing the suspense of “interruptions” of that calm, that peace—life itself. Characters such as Clarissa’s former lover, Peter Walsh, and her daughter Elizabeth likewise experience her love of precious moments, unlike Clarissa’s double, who cannot connect because he is alienated and alone, outside the world, outside life itself.
It is Clarissa alone who recognizes Smith’s suicide as a means of communication, a way of maintaining his rightful independence of spirit, of defying those who would control him—even his wife Rezia, who loves him. Clarissa also has rejected the passionate but controlling love offered by Peter and the purity of feeling offered by Sally, instead choosing the unfeeling and undemanding Richard. Although she has compromised some of her purity, Clarissa has also given back some joy in the moment to those whom she meets and entertains.
By repeating images, symbols, and metaphors such as those of the sea—waves of feeling, of joy, of life—sewing, building, mirroring, Big Ben, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” and solemnity versus love, Woolf connects the fragmented bits of characters, choices, and the day itself with fluidity, kinetic energy, and imagination to suggest her vision of the postwar English life of the contented but loveless Mrs. Dalloway.
A central metaphor here is that of vision, sight, insight, windows, and mirrors: Smith is a mirror image of Clarissa; if she is without passion in her life, having rejected love twice (with Sally and then Peter) in order to maintain her tentative sense of self, Smith thinks he feels nothing while he is overwhelmingly passionate in his survivor guilt and his love of life and notions of goodness, distorted by the war. She dreams of love while gazing into her mirror and looking out her window to connect with all life, while he sees the world from the outside and only rejoins humanity by killing himself to preserve the integrity of his soul.
Ironically, throughout the novel, the reader senses Clarissa’s fear of death, which occasions her reassessment of her peaceful life, given significance by Smith’s act of throwing his own life away. His suicide leads to Clarissa’s recognition of her own love of life and its momentary treasures. It is the mirroring of passion and life that unifies this impressionistic vision of the falsity of clock time—single lives, as opposed to the true, intuitive, flowing consciousness that connects all humanity. Thus, Mrs. Dalloway identifies with Smith at the precise moment of his annihilation and is inspired to accept the ebb and flow of being, the profusion of hopes and fears, the joys and terrors of life.
Mrs. Dalloway comes midway in Virginia Woolf’s fiction-writing career and near the beginning of her experiments with form and technique, just after Jacob’s Room (1922), her first experimental novel. The book is really two stories—that of Clarissa Dalloway and that of Septimus Smith—and the techniques by which Woolf united the two narrative strands are unusual and skillful. While writing the novel, Woolf commented in her diary on her new method of delineating character. Instead of explaining the characters’ pasts chronologically, she uses a “tunnelling process”: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters.” The various characters appear in the present without explanation; various sense impressions—a squeaky hinge, a repeated phrase, a particular tree—call to mind a memory, and past becomes present. Such an evocation of the past is reminiscent of Marcel Proust, but Woolf’s method does not involve the ego of the narrator.
Woolf’s “caves” reveal both the past and the characters’ reactions to present events. Woolf structurally connects the “caves” and her themes by spatial and temporal techniques; her handling of the stream-of-consciousness technique—unlike that of James Joyce—is always filtered and indirect; the narrator is in command, telling the reader “Clarissa thought” or “For so it had always seemed to her.” This ever-present narrative voice clarifies the characters’ inner thoughts and mediates the commentary of the novel; at times, however, it blurs the identity of the speaker. Woolf’s use of the “voice” became more prominent in To the Lighthouse (1927), then disappeared in The Waves (1931).
With its disparate characters and various scenes of street life, the structure of the book seems at first to lack unity. Woolf, however, uses many devices, both technical and thematic, to unite elements. The day, sometime in mid-June, 1923, is a single whole, moving chronologically from early morning to late evening. The book is not divided into chapters or sections headed by titles or numbers, but Woolf notes some of the shifts in time or scene by a short blank space in the manuscript. More often, however, the transition from one group of characters to another is accomplished by the remarking of something public, something common to the experience of both, something seen or heard.
The world of Clarissa and her friends alternates with the world of Septimus. The sight of a motorcar, the sight and sound of a skywriting plane, a running child, a woman singing, an omnibus, an ambulance, and the clock striking are the transitions connecting those two worlds. Moreover, the striking of the clocks (“first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable”) is noted at various other times to mark a shift from one character’s consciousness to another. The exact time, which is given periodically, signals the day’s progress (noon comes at almost the exact center of the book) and stresses the irrevocable movement toward death, one of the book’s themes. Usually at least two clocks are described as striking—first Big Ben, a masculine symbol, then, a few seconds later, the feminine symbol St. Margaret’s; this suggests again the two genders of all existence united in the echoes of the bells, “the leaden circles.”
The main thematic devices used to unify the book are the similarity between Clarissa and Septimus and the repetition of key words and phrases in the minds of various characters. The likeness between Clarissa and Septimus is most important, as each helps to explain the other, although they never meet. Both are lonely and contemplate suicide. Both feel guilty for their past lives, Septimus because he “cannot feel” the death of Evans, Clarissa because she rejected Peter and has a tendency to dominate others. Both have homosexual feelings, Septimus for Evans, Clarissa for Sally Seton. More important, both want desperately to bring order into life’s chaos. Septimus achieves this momentarily with the making of Mrs. Peters’s hat, Clarissa with her successful party. Septimus understands that the chaos will return and so takes his own life to unite himself with death, the final order. Septimus’s suicide forces Clarissa to see herself in a new and more honest way and to understand for the first time her schemings for success. Clarissa “felt somehow very like him”; she does not pity him but identifies with his defiant “embracing” of death.
Certain phrases become thematic because they are so often repeated and thus gain richer overtones of meaning at each use, as different characters interpret differently such phrases as “Fear no more” and “if it were now to die” and such concepts as the sun and the waves. The phrases appear repeatedly, especially in the thoughts of Septimus and Clarissa.
The disparate strands of the story are joined at Clarissa’s party, over which she presides like an artist over her creation. Not inferior to the painter Lily Briscoe as a creator, Clarissa’s great talent is “knowing people almost by instinct,” and she is able triumphantly to combine the right group of people at her party. Clarissa, Richard, and Peter all come to new realizations about themselves at the party. Richard, who has been unable to verbalize his love for Clarissa, is finally able to tell his daughter, Elizabeth, that he is proud of her. At the end, Peter realizes that the terror and excitement he feels in Clarissa’s presence indicate his true feelings for her.
The two figures who are given unfavorable treatment—Sir William, the psychiatrist, and Miss Kilman, the religious fanatic—insist on modes of existence inimical to the passionate desire of Clarissa and Septimus for wholeness. Claiming that Septimus “lacks proportion,” Sir William nevertheless uses his profession to gain power over others and, as Clarissa understands, makes life “intolerable” for Septimus. Miss Kilman’s life is built on evangelical religion; she considers herself to be better than Clarissa, whom she wants to humiliate. She proudly asserts that she will have a “religious victory,” which will be “God’s will.”
The real action of the story is all within the minds of the characters, but Woolf gives these inner lives a reality and harmony that reveal the excitement and oneness of human existence. Clarissa and Septimus are really two aspects of the same being—the feminine and the masculine—united in Clarissa’s ultimate awareness. Mrs. Dalloway remains the best introduction to Woolf’s characteristic style and themes.