Last Updated April 5, 2023.
On a pleasant June morning, as Clarissa Dalloway walks through the streets of London to purchase flowers for a party that evening, she reminisces about similar mornings many years prior spent at Bourton, her old summer residence. Running this errand because her maid, Lucy, is already occupied with more pressing tasks to prepare the Dalloway home for guests, Clarissa considers who might attend, then thinks of Peter Walsh, a man who had accompanied her at Bourton. Their relationship is clearly complex, but Clarissa does not linger on the details, instead anticipating Peter’s return home from India and wondering about the exact date he might arrive.
It is a beautiful day, and as Clarissa walks to the flower shop, her neighbor Scrope Purvis notices her weaving through the crowd. The narrative shifts to his internal monologue as Scrope reflects on what he knows about Clarrissa’s life, then comments that he finds her “charmingly bird-like.” The ten o’clock chiming of the London architectural fixture, Big Ben, breaks Scrope’s reverie, and the focus returns to Clarissa, whose mind is wandering from one subject to another until she spots Hugh Whitbread, a family friend.
As they chat, Clarissa considers Hugh, thinking that although she enjoys his company, she worries that he treats her with a condescending attitude and views her simply. She worries about her appearance—both physical and intellectual—and comments that Hugh’s impeccable manners and conversation style reflect poorly on her own and render her minor imperfections far more visible. The conversation begins with Clarissa’s party that evening but soon turns to the health of Evelyn, Hugh’s wife, who often falls ill.
After the pair part ways, Clarissa continues to think about Hugh, fitting him into the nostalgic narrative she was mulling over before she saw him. She recalls that Hugh, too, was an acquaintance from the Bourton days and remembers how Peter had vehemently despised Hugh, imagining him to be unintelligent and useless despite having been proven otherwise. Clarissa’s focus shifts, as the memory conjures yet another, and a quote from Shakespeare consumes her thoughts. Thinking about this quote, she pictures herself differently, seeing herself as a tall, commanding figure rather than the thin, indistinct woman that she is.
Passing a local glove shop, Clarissa thinks of her daughter, Elizabeth. Thinking of her daughter always invites a sense of bitterness for Clarissa, as the thought of Elizabeth has become inextricably tied to the thought of Elizabeth’s tutor and close friend, Doris Kilman, an older, deeply devout, and antisocial spinster. Doris dislikes Clarissa greatly, as she imagines Clarissa represents all the things about twentieth-century life that she dislikes or finds immoral.
Thinking about Doris leaves Clarissa feeling restless and upset, which surprises her. Upon reaching Mulberry's—the local florist—the sight of the fresh blooms and beautiful colors calms Clarissa, and she spends some time picking out the perfect arrangement. While she peruses, a car backfires, startling her out of her thoughts and back into the simple sensations of real life.