Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655
Septimus Warren Smith: a man who fought in the recent World War, and has not been the same since; acts in a disturbed, disoriented fashion Lucrezia Warren Smith: Septimus’ wife, whom he met in Italy; she makes hats, and worries about Septimus and their marriage
Maisie Johnson: a young woman recently arrived in London from Edinburgh, Scotland; asks the Smiths for directions, and is bewildered by her glimpse into their unhappiness
Mrs. Dempster (Carrie): an older woman who observes Maisie Johnson; she thinks about her life, and believes herself lucky
The loud backfire that startles Clarissa comes from the car of an important personage. The people on Bond Street speculate about whose car they see, wondering whether it belongs to an important politician or even a member of the Royal Family. In a philosophical tone, the narrative describes the emotions that the car evokes from those who see it. People perceive that great-
ness is among them, and that knowledge has a physical effect on them all.
An airplane is heard. Just as with the car backfire, fear is the automatic reaction, even if only momentary, for they think of the war. People then observe puffs of smoke that seem to form words. It seems to be an attempt to sell something, but no one can quite make out the letters.
Septimus and Lucrezia Warren Smith are introduced. Septimus is morose and not listening to his wife, who tries to divert him by pointing out details from their surroundings. Instead of paying attention to the scenery around him, Septimus focuses on mysterious voices, believing that he is receiving secret messages.
Septimus’ condition causes great stress in his marriage with Lucrezia, and this tension is observed by Maisie Johnson. A young woman just arrived in London from Edinburgh, Maisie is lost and asks the Smiths for directions. Although she spends just a moment in their vicinity, their unhappiness makes a great impression on her.
Just as Maisie Johnson sees the Smiths, Mrs. Dempster observes Maisie’s confusion. She sums up Maisie with the phrase “that girl don’t know nothing.” Carrie Dempster appraises her life and decides that though she has had a hard life, she would not change lives with any woman she knew. Even so, she longs for a measure of sympathy and even pity, such as a kiss upon her face.
The examinations of the car and the airplane are examples of the narrative voice, which is not identified or personified in the novel. Many people’s thoughts are stirred by the plane. Its freedom contrasts with the confinement felt by many of the characters.
As far as the feelings of nationalism and pride that the car evokes in the streets of London, we should remember that the people of England felt differently about their “rulers” than they do today. The English having recently emerged from war also contributes to the satisfaction they feel when seeing symbols of their ways of life, such as the car. By contrast, the plane is a symbol of all humankind, transcending mere nationality.
The end of this reading section includes a 127 word sentence, which is far longer than most written sentences. The sentence concerns the mental meanderings of a man standing in front of a
cathedral. He wonders about the society of the place and of the people called to perform their duties. The wandering quality of this sentence reflects the workings of the human mind. Woolf disregards standard grammar so as to better transmit how the human mind’s use language for its own purposes.
This technique occurs repeatedly in the novel. While it may not seem to be reader friendly, a little effort (reading aloud is helpful, for the sentences contain punctuation to guide the reader through the rhythms of the characters’ minds), will allow the reader to grasp the characters’ stream of consciousness and how they arrive at their conclusions.
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