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.