Mrs. Dalloway Summary

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.

Summary

Overview

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 sentence:

“Dear, those motor cars,” said Miss Pym, going to the window to look, and coming back and smiling apologetically with her hands full of sweet peas, as if those motor cars, those tyres of motorcars, were all her fault.”

Part Two:
From the sentence:

“The violent explosion which made Mrs. Dalloway jump and Miss Pym go to the window and apologize came from a motor car which had drawn to the side of the pavement precisely opposite Mulberry’s show window.”

To the sentence:

“And now, curving up and up, straight up, like something mounting in ecstasy, in pure delight, out from behind poured white smoke looping, writing a T, an O, an F.”

Part Three:
From the sentence:

“What are they looking at?” said Clarissa Dalloway to the maid who opened her door.”

To the sentence:

“She had worn them at Hatfield; at Buckingham Palace.”

Part Four:
From the sentence:

“Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing silk smoothly to its gentle pause, connected the green folds
together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt.”

To the phrase:

“as Peter Walsh shut the door.”

Part Five:
From the sentence:

“Remember my party, remember my party, said Peter Walsh as he stepped down the street, speaking to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound, the direct downright sound of Big Ben striking the half hour.”

To the sentence:

“But to whom does the solitary traveler make reply?”

Part Six
From the sentence:

“So the elderly nurse knitted over the sleeping baby in Regent’s Park.”

To the sentence:

“He never saw her again.”

Part Seven:
From the sentence:

“It was awful, he cried, awful, awful!”

To the sentence:

“As he sat smiling at the dead man in the grey suit, the quarter struck the quarter to twelve.”

Part Eight:
From the sentence:

“And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them.”

To the sentence:

“There she would sit on the sofa by his side, let him take her hand, give her one kiss. Here he was at the crossing.”

Part Nine:
From the phrase:

“A sound interrupted him; a frail quivering sound,”

To the sentence:

“He gave in.”

Part Ten:
From the sentence:

“Nothing could rouse him.”

To the sentence:

“But Rezia Warren Smith cried, walking down Harley Street, that she did not like that man.”

Part Eleven:
From the phrases:

“Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day,”

To the phrase:

“he would go straight to her, in Westminster.”

Part Twelve:
From the sentence:

“But he wanted to come in holding something.”

To the sentence:

“After that, how unbelievable death was! that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she loved it all; how,every instant…”

Part Thirteen:
From the sentence:

“The door opened.”

To the phrases:

“with a final twist, bowing her head very politely, she went.”

Part Fourteen:
From the sentence:

“She had gone.”

To the sentence:

“Calmly and competently, Elizabeth Dalloway mounted the Westminster omnibus.”

Part Fifteen:
From the words:

“Going and coming, beckoning, signalling,”

To the sentence:

“So that was Dr. Holmes.”

Part Sixteen:
From the sentence:

“One of the triumphs of civilisation, Peter Walsh thought.”

To the sentence:

“He opened the big blade of his pocketknife.”

Part Seventeen:
From the phrase:

“Lucy came running full tilt downstairs,”

To the phrase:

“she must go up to Lady Bradshaw and say…”

Part Eighteen:
From the sentence:

“But Lady Bradshaw anticipated her.”

To the end of the novel.

Teachers will no doubt be sensitive to Woolf’s difficult technique, and divide their assignments accordingly. Allow plenty of time to enjoy this great work.

The Life and Work of Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London on January 25, 1882, and died by suicide on March 12, 1941. She came from a family of writers: her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a prominent writer during Queen Victoria’s reign, and her maternal grandfather was William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair.

Virginia Stephen and her sister Vanessa were interested in the arts from their childhoods, Vanessa in painting and Virginia in writing. Their mother’s death in 1895 took a great toll on them, and they were sexually abused by their stepbrother, George Duckworth. Virginia suffered her first mental breakdown when she was thirteen years old and several were to follow throughout her life.

The Stephen sisters settled in Bloomsbury, a section of London that was an unofficial artist’s colony before and after World War I. Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912, and in 1917 they started Hogarth Press which operated out of their home in London. Virginia Woolf worked as a typesetter and reader for the press from 1917 to 1937. In addition to the works of the Woolfs’ friends, such as E.M. Forster and Katherine Mansfield, many of Virginia Woolf’s books, including Mrs. Dalloway, were first issued by the Hogarth Press.

Woolf was prolific, with over 35 essay collections, biographies, and novels being published during her lifetime. Her journals and her many other books were published posthumously. Although she is best known for her novels, Woolf’s essays are often anthologized. The essays reveal Woolf’s interest in social questions as they relate to the arts and women writers. She attacked what she considered outdated ideas about literature, arguing that literary expression should not overlook any aspect of human life. While she claimed that the right to vote made no difference to her, Woolf wrote that women must never be silenced. Throughout her texts, Woolf promotes the role as author for literary women.

Despite a successful career, Woolf’s private life was deeply and consistently troubled. Her comfortable marriage did not assuage periods of depression, prompted by self-doubts and, to a lesser extent, world affairs. Recalling the horrors of World War I, Woolf and others watched developments in Germany, and dreaded the prospects of another brutal war and the triumph of anti-semitism.

Also, having endured several breakdowns, Woolf knew the toll mental instability exacted from herself and on her husband. Fearing of another breakdown, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones one day in March 1941, to make herself heavier when she leapt into the River Ouse.