What happens in Mrs. Dalloway?

Clarissa Dalloway's decision to buy flowers for her party leads to a long, stream-of-consciousness examination of her life and her past. Meanwhile, Septimus Smith, a veteran suffering from shell shock, kills himself. Clarissa becomes upset when she hears about this at her party.

  • In her youth, Clarissa was close with Peter Walsh, a poor young man who loved her with an intensity that frightened her. He wanted to marry her, but she chose the wealthier and more respectable Richard Dalloway instead.

  • Clarissa's marriage proves to be entirely average, and she settles into the role of wealthy housewife. She regularly hosts parties and attends society events, but has few people she would consider friends.

  • On the day of the party, Peter returns from India and visits Clarissa. He later realizes that she still excites him as she used to. Upon hearing of Septimus Smith's suicide, Clarissa feels upset and temporarily leaves her party.

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Summary of the Novel
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is the story of a day in June 1923, as lived by a few London citizens. There is a calm in the air; people are enjoying a sense of peace and remembering their lives from before the long and bitter World War I.

Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about people’s inner lives. It does not possess a vivid plot; the actual events are secondary to what people spend much of their time pondering: memories, regrets, and hopes. Almost all of the main characters wonder about what might have been. The novel is told from the viewpoint of an omniscient and invisible narrator.

Most of the characters are well off financially, and have considerable leisure time. Yet they are quite busy with the business of being alive, which includes asking questions of their internal and external worlds. These questions do not always make them happy. On the contrary, most of the characters are unhappy for all or part of their day.

In keeping with Woolf’s interest in psychology, sexuality is a theme in the novel. Several of the characters are divided in their feelings towards love, and this contributes to their ambivalence.

The actions of the novel are simple: Clarissa Dalloway is hosting a formal party. She sees Peter Walsh, who has returned from India, and drops in for a visit. This meeting, and many other moments in the day, make Clarissa think about the past and the choices she has made. Clarissa’s husband, Richard, has meetings and lunches, and their daughter Elizabeth has similar plans herself. Another Londoner, Septimus Warren Smith, is having a bad day, and so is his wife Lucrezia. Septimus is obsessed with his memories of Evans, a friend who was killed in the war. He is also convinced that unseen forces are sending him messages. Lucrezia is taking Septimus to two doctors, neither of whom can do much to cure him. Septimus kills himself later in the day, to escape his doctors, and because he feels he has no other alternative.

Clarissa’s party is a success. The Prime Minister arrives, and this is considered a great honor. In the midst of her success as a hostess, she hears of Septimus’ suicide. Although she never met him, the news moves her to the core of her being.

Estimated Reading Time
The average silent reading rate is 250 to 300 words per minute, making the total reading time for this novel about five hours. Yet the student must remember that Mrs. Dalloway is a relatively abstract novel. It uses unusual narrative techniques and lacks the action and drama you may be accustomed to. A novel as subtle and complex as this requires more than merely enough time. A combination of endurance and sensitivity is needed to ensure success.

There are no chapter breaks in Mrs. Dalloway, and Woolf’s method of centering on the minds of her characters can make Mrs. Dalloway a challenging novel. Since there are no chapter breaks in the original work, these eNotes are divided into eighteen parts. The book is divided as follows:

Part One:
From the beginning of the novel until the...

(The entire section is 1,567 words.)