This novel takes place in London over the course of one single day with the plot revolving around a party Clarissa Dalloway is hosting for no particular reason. As the day advances, the reader is introduced to a plethora of characters who are in some way connected to Mrs. Dalloway and are often reminiscent of the past. The interwoven chiming of Big Ben pulls the reader back to the present day which is both a clever plot device and a reminder of time — time that often becomes slippery in recalling memories.
The storytelling is fragmented as it transitions in a lucid fashion between one character’s thought to the next, with too many characters sharing the page to identify one protagonist. Eventually, the reader loses track of names and connections as Woolf explores how memories work through us. But despite all of these transitions, as Peter Walsh (Clarissa’s childhood friend and devoted admirer) observes, Clarissa remains “impenetrable”:
“… the devilish part of her – this coldness, this woodenness, something very profound in her, which he had felt again this morning talking to her; an impenetrability.” (p. 60)
Peter’s longing for Clarissa goes nowhere; no action is taken on either side. Put in context, how much drastic change is expected to take place over the course of a day? It does seem though that the only rest Peter with have for this longing is in death. Fittingly that the biggest occurrence to take place is the suicide of Septimus (a side character). Clarissa’s reflection after hearing the news of his death is perhaps the most revealing penetration into her psyche we get:
“Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” (p. 184)
Clarissa relates to Septimus, feeling almost gratified by his death. And it is important to remember this was written during the early conception of psychology and psychoanalysis. Mrs. Dalloway is an undercurrent, a suggestion, a subtle nudge questioning our understanding of madness, treatments, and the roles of doctors (among other things). But by no means is this a direct address. Rather an intuitive and thoughtful observation.
Point of View
Mrs. Dalloway’s narrator shifts swiftly between characters and scenes akin to the movement of a camera, freely switching between the use of “I,” “we” and “he/she”. It is a fascinating treatment of dexterity and movement.
Many of the point of view (POV) shifts are distracting and frustrating, at times like picking through someone’s recollection of a dream. Woolf inserts dialogue without quotation marks, as if someone is recalling a conversation in his or her head:
“There was a delightful home down in the country where her husband would be perfectly looked after. Away from her? she asked. Unfortunately, yes; the people we care for most are not good for us when we are ill. But he was not mad, was he? Sir William said he never spoke of “madness”: he called it not having a sense of proportion.” (p. 96)
Favorite Descriptive Lines
“Her sigh was tender and enchanting, like the wind outside a wood in the evening.” (p. 141)
“On top of them it had pressed; weighed them down, the women especially, like those flowers Clarissa’s Aunt Helena used to press between sheets of grey blotting-paper with Littre’s dictionary on top, sitting under the lamp after dinner.” (p. 162)
“She often went into her garden and got from her flowers a peace which men and women never gave her.” ( p. 193)
On to Aristotle,
A Warrior Princess