It would be easy to say that the novel is titled Mrs. Dalloway because it is the name of the main character; and while this is true, it does not adequately convey just how central Mrs. Dalloway herself is to the novel, bringing together the different perspectives and themes. She is so central, in fact, that her name replaced the working title.
Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway was The Hours: the novel chronicles the hours of a single day, marked by the chiming of Big Ben, as experienced inwardly by a variety of different characters. She wrote, too, that her novel was meant to be "a study of the world seen by sane and insane side by side." As such, she created the "sane" Mrs. Dalloway and the shell-shocked Septimus Smith as the novel's two primary studies.
While Woolf does not explicitly explain her change of title, her life and the novel itself offers clues. Mrs. Dalloway emerges, in fact, as the central character, the force tying together the disparate strands of the stream-of-consciousness novel. Even though she and Septimus never meet, it is at her party that the two intertwine—at her party, she hears and reacts strongly to his suicide, an act she herself has contemplated by never gone through with (in her initial concept, Woolf did envision Mrs. Dalloway killing herself). In the character Mrs. Dalloway, not only do all the strands of the day intersect, but so do the "sane" and the "insane," destabilizing these categories.
It is also worth noting that Mrs. Dalloway is a character that had long interested Woolf and haunted her imagination. Mrs. Dalloway has a strong minor role in Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out, as well as in a short story. As a feminist, Woolf was interested in exploring women like Mrs. Dalloway because she felt so ambivalently about them. They represented her mother's generation (and her mother) embodying the kind of female subservience of always working for others that Woolf wanted to "kill" inside herself. At the same time, her feminist self wanted to celebrate the work, the skill, and the talent that throwing a successful party entails, rather than regarding such efforts as trivial, as male writers often did. It is clear that Woolf realized the centrality of Mrs. Dalloway, a mere woman, to the novel and reflected that in her title.
On the face of it, Mrs. Dalloway would seem to be fairly obvious title for a novel whose main character is Mrs. Dalloway. Plenty of novels are named for their protagonist. In order to understand Woolf's choice, it might be helpful to consider a name she did not choose. For instance, she did not choose to name it Clarissa, Mrs. Dalloway's first name. It seems instantly clear that this would be a bad choice. "Clarissa" is too familiar. It implies or promises a status of friendship with the character, which the novel does not deliver, exactly. It seems insincere.
Seen in this light, the formality that Mrs. Dalloway suggests becomes telling. The name Mrs. Dalloway is a kind of mask that Clarissa wears; not only does it suggest that her identity is subordinate to or contained by Mr. Dalloway's identity, it also is a kind of protection or armor. That is, "Mrs. Dalloway" can function in a world that would destroy "Clarissa." The title is an acknowledgement of this "role" Clarissa must always play.
In another sense, we can understand the title as a kind of invitation or promise. The formality of the title is intriguing; while at first glance it seems trivial, or even a little boring, it also seems possible that in naming the book Mrs. Dalloway there must be something about this person that warrants such an honor. In this sense, the surname is irrelevant: it could easily have been any Anglo name. The point is that the name and the person are different, and the title is an ironic comment on that fact.
The title of Woolf's story, though consisting of a mere two words, tells us an awful lot about the book's central character and the society in which she lives. For one thing, it tells us about the effacement of women's identity in 1920s England.
Clarissa, like all married women at this time, is known only through her husband. She is not expected to have an identity of her own. In the rarefied, upper-class world in which she moves, she is Mrs. Dalloway, the husband of Richard, rather than plain old Clarissa. Ironically, this phenomenon, of a woman being known mainly through her relationship to male characters, is a prominent complaint in Woolf's A Room of One's Own.
And yet Clarissa seems, on the face of it, to embrace this identity. She did, after all, choose to be Mrs. Dalloway, preferring to be Richard's wife rather than Peter Walsh's. In opting to be Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa knew that in doing so she'd be able to maintain a style to which she'd become accustomed, continuing to live in a world of wealth, privilege, and power. That she should have made this choice indicates the lack of real options available to women at that time.
Woolf's novel is about the interior life of Clarissa Dalloway. Much of the internal action of the book centers on Clarissa's reminiscence about her previous love affair with Peter Walsh, who returns from India during the book. As she plans to see Peter again, she contemplates her former love affair with him and her choice to marry the better-connected and wealthier Richard Dalloway instead of Peter. In the end, she confirms her choice, though Peter still cares for her. However, her marriage with Richard, while loving, is somewhat stilted. Still, she prefers a marriage to the stalwart and decent Richard to the poor Peter.
The title of the book affirms Clarissa's choice to marry Richard. The title is not Clarissa Dalloway but Mrs. Dalloway, an assertion of the main character's identity as someone who is married to a well-connected and wealthy man.
Woolf once wrote that, "All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature." If this is to be understood in its fullest form, then then title being the name of Clarissa Dalloway is important because it is through Clarissa and her party that we fully understand the force of Woolf's statement. The title becomes very appropriate because it is through Clarissa that we see how all "relations" have changed. Clarissa is the prism by which we see women and their roles change, people and their perceptions change, and it is through Clarissa and the people who attend her party that we fully grasp the divergence, and possible fragmentation, of society and human psyches. Her name should be in the title because she occupies the central force of the novel.