What is the significance of Clarissa's party in Mrs. Dalloway?

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The whole novel has been building to the culmination of Mrs. Dalloway 's party. Mrs. Dalloway has spent the day preparing for it, and as she has done so, we have followed her thoughts--her stream of consciousness--as well as her outward activities, so by the time the party starts, we...

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The whole novel has been building to the culmination of Mrs. Dalloway's party. Mrs. Dalloway has spent the day preparing for it, and as she has done so, we have followed her thoughts--her stream of consciousness--as well as her outward activities, so by the time the party starts, we have a strong sense of who she is and who the players are in her life, though we have only "known" her a few hours.

At the party, these various strands come together. On one level, the party, attended by the prime minister and a host of lords and ladies, represents a pinnacle of Mrs. Dalloway's "career" as a successful society hostess. Her lot in life may be narrow, and differ from her broader hopes as a young girl, but she carries it off beautifully--and Woolf illustrates that it is not nothing, this woman's world of the successful party.

The party also brings together so many characters from Clarissa's past and present intermingled: Peter Walsh, who showed up earlier in the day, and Clarissa's early love, Sally Seton, who, in her usual unconventional way, crashes the party without invitation. Clarissa's young adult daughter is also there, showing herself off to perfection.

And finally, the parallel plot lines of Clarissa and Septimus are brought together at the party, as she hears about his suicide from Dr. Bradshaw, a party guest.

What is important about the party is how much goes on beneath the surface. Woolf's project is to show that nine-tenths of the reality of a person's identity is submerged. What plagued Woolf was how to get to and express that hidden reality. She does so by showing Mrs. Dalloway's identity at the party as composed of multiple fragments: her own memories, her past as other people perceive it, what other people think she is now, and what she is to herself in the present moment, not just a supremely successful hostess, but a woman who feels for and identifies with why Septimus killed himself. Like Mrs. Dalloway herself, the novel and the party suggests that all people are composed of many different strands.

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The party is significant because, when Clarissa was young, she rejected Peter Walsh's romantic overtures, and Peter insulted her by suggesting she was best suited to acting as a hostess. At the time, Clarissa was angry and disappointed in this assessment of her character, but the current party is evidence of Peter's astute insight into her personality. Clarissa is indeed very good at hosting gatherings, and the amount of time and energy she spends thinking about the details of her party throughout the novel represents how important it is to her.

Although the party is significant to the reader's understanding of Clarissa's past relationship with Peter Walsh, it is also important to the reader's understanding of Clarissa's unrealized dreams. At the time of the party, she is recovering from an illness, and she feels her age. When her thoughts drift to memories of her younger self, she remembers her ambitions and her high-minded goals. These pursuits stand in stark contrast to the frivolous entertainment she provides her guests with at the party.

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Mrs. Dalloway involves the actions of Clarissa Dalloway and other characters preparing for her party later that night. The action starts as Clarissa Dalloway is getting ready to go out to buy flowers in London on a beautiful day after World War I. She thinks about her old beau, Peter Walsh, who she declined to marry. Though they've been apart for a while, they are still clearly connected. She often thinks, "If he were with me now, what would he say?" (page 7). Much of the rest of the action involves her stream-of-consciousness reminiscences about the past and the actions of Peter; of her daughter, Elizabeth; and of husband, Richard, on the day of the party. Another character, Septimus, is a war veteran whose horrid war experiences have left him numb. After spending the day with his wife, Lucrezia, Septimus kills himself rather than submit to institutionalization. Later, Peter hears the ambulance as Septimus is taken to the hospital, and Sir William Bradshaw, Septimus's doctor, arrives late to the party after hearing about Septimus.

At the beginning of the book, Clarissa thinks of the air in the morning "like the flap of a wave" (page 3). The wave image implies that all the characters are connected in some way. Although the characters start out disconnected, they all unite, physically and emotionally, at Clarissa's party later that night. Even Septimus, the character who seems most disconnected from Clarissa, is present at the party because his doctor arrives late and speaks about him. The uniting of all the characters at the party implies that humanity is connected through this wave.

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It is the assembly of the party where much of Clarissa's energies are focused.  On many levels this holds significance.  The focus of Clarissa's drive on the party helps to dislodge other, more substantive questions about the nature of her being.  Her choices in life, the selection of Richard over Peter, as well as the basis of her identity and how mortality plays a role in this can all be put to the side if there is a party that needs to be assembled.  In this light, one can see Clarissa's desire to put together the party as an attempt to stave off these more fundamental and painful questions of consciousness in place of something more trivial and more light in nature.

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