Mrs. Dalloway

This novel follows Clarissa Dalloway on a June day in London as she takes care of last-minute arrangements for a party at her home that evening. An apparently happy, superficial society hostess, Clarissa is revealed through her thoughts as extremely sensitive to experience, aware not only of the beauties but of the horrors and dangers of daily life. Her day consists of small happenings to which the novel attributes major significance. She receives a surprise visit from her former suitor and reflects on her reasons for choosing her husband. When her husband accepts a luncheon invitation that excludes her, she feels resentful and alone. Learning of the suicide of a shell-shocked World War I survivor, Stephen Septimus Smith, she sympathizes with his defiance of authority figures who would force the soul. In accepting her emotional kinship with Septimus, Clarissa is able both to come to terms with death and to embrace life. With renewed vitality, Clarissa attends her party.

Contrasted with Clarissa’s musings and mundane activities are the terrified hallucinations and apocalyptic visions of Stephen Septimus Smith. In a sense, however, Clarissa’s and Septimus’ thoughts show not only contrast but kinship: Stephen’s conviction that the skywriting of an airplane is a secret message is removed only by degree from Clarissa’s vision of an old lady extinguishing a light as a reminder of death. For Clarissa, as for Septimus, the world threatens to dissolve at any moment; and so, she sews material together, assembles people, and organizes events.

Accompanying both Clarissa and Stephen throughout the day are reminders of mortality. Their thoughts are punctuated by the chiming of Big Ben, which notes the passing of external time, impervious to human experience and oblivious of death. In addition Clarissa keeps remembering the line from Cymbeline, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” which, as a reflection on death, both frightens and comforts her. Through the use of these recurrent motifs and of a narrative voice that moves into and out of diverse minds, the novel develops that theme that the individual life, like the art that records it, is but a fragile human construct, a thin envelope to contain the formless if fascinating tissue of experience.


Abel, Elizabeth. “Narrative Structure(s) and Female Development: The Case of Mrs. Dalloway.” In Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Margaret Homans. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993. Analysis of Mrs. Dalloway as a “typically female text” that hides its “subversive impulses,” which resist the typical narrative structure. Points out that Clarissa’s real passion was not for Peter but for Sally, whose kiss gave Clarissa “a moment of unparalleled radiance and intensity.”

Blackstone, Bernard. Virginia Woolf: A Commentary. London: Hogarth Press, 1949. An older but excellent essay on Woolf’s use of time, “the insistent hours pressing on,” to create a sense of the pressures felt by Septimus and Clarissa. Blackstone claims that the characters’ loneliness and the pity they evoke are keys to Mrs. Dalloway.

Brower, Reuben Arthur. “Something Central Which Permeated: Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway.” In The Fields of Light: An Experiment in Critical Reading. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1951. Excellent analysis of Woolf’s use of metaphor to convey a sense of suspense and interruption. Woolf creates a sense of the “terror of entering the sea of experience and of living life,” so that the reader feels both the loveliness and the frightening truths of reality.

Daiches, David. “Virginia Woolf.” In The Novel and the Modern World. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Revels in the rhythms of Woolf’s style, with repetitions and qualifications of impressionistic “patterns of meaning” that are almost “hypnotic.” Focuses on time, death, and personality as key themes and compares Woolf favorably to James Joyce in her stream-of-consciousness technique, which limits space and time to reveal individual consciousness and memory.

Harper, Howard. “Mrs. Dalloway.” In Between Language and Silence: The Novels of Virginia Woolf. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982. Harper reveals the genesis of Mrs. Dalloway and its characters, who are based on Woolf’s own friends and family members. Discusses the absence of a mother, Clarissa’s own ambivalence about her life, the imagery of sea and wind, and the work’s parallels in Night and Day (1919), The Voyage Out (1915), and To the Lighthouse.

Henke, Suzette A. “Mrs. Dalloway: The Communion of Saints.” In New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Jane Marcus. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. Discusses Mrs. Dalloway as a “scathing indictment of the British class system and . . . patriarchy,” focusing on her use of Greek tragedy and Christian doctrine to create a symbolic story of good vs. evil, art vs. war, privacy vs. passion, homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, sacrifice vs. revelation.

Homans, Margaret, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1993. Many of the articles in this collection connect Mrs. Dalloway to Woolf’s other works. One essay focuses on the web created in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse to explain Woolf’s images of space, darkness, and affirmation. In another essay, the structure of the novel is analyzed as it relates to female development. Mirroring and images of death are also examined as a key to understanding the novel.

Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987. An examination of five of Woolf’s novels in terms of her “feminist subversion of conventions.” The chapter on Mrs. Dalloway explains how Woolf deliberately confuses past and present thoughts and actions to diminish the “linear progress” of the narrative to blur the identity of the subject, thus producing a feeling of fluidity, spontaneity, and sensibility.

Warner, Eric, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Centenary Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Includes some of the best available articles on Woolf’s symbolism and purpose. The images of reflections in glass, sight, and mirroring are key to her sense of being and to the creation of continuity between people. One article deals with the paradoxes of love and silence, duality and time. Another discusses Woolf’s concern with the self and with consciousness.