Those critics who complain that Mrs. Dalloway has no plot and only minimal characterization are right in the sense that the events of a day in the life of a London society matron have no point or significance in the grand scheme of life. Similarly, except for Clarissa and Septimus, Woolf’s characters are seemingly mere skeletons, stereotypical images of the spurned lover, the dull husband, the ruthless, power-mad doctor, and so forth. Yet Woolf deliberately creates a world in which the consciousness and searches for identity of two strangers can be seen as metaphors for all human existence, for who does not seek identity, love, and purpose? It is this flowing stream of images, thoughts, and feelings that engulfs the reader, who shares a conscious awareness of each individual’s connections to all people over all time, as well as a recognition of the individual’s delicate sense of self, which is threatened by those very people and experiences.
In her introduction to the 1928 Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf admitted that originally Clarissa was to commit suicide at the end of her party, but later Woolf created the suicidal Septimus Warren Smith as Clarissa’s double when her focus changed from a picture of a loveless woman bent on self-destruction to a portrait of the conflicting demands of selfhood and love for others.
For many critics, Clarissa is a woman who is in love with life, one who accepts her secure, passionless life even while she begins to recognize, sadly, that she has missed something—perhaps the ecstasy of erotic love?—and so her character has become hard, almost brittle. For Clarissa, love destroys one by threatening the self, one’s individuality, one’s psyche, complicating one’s life and making one vulnerable to someone who may disappoint or disillusion one.
Like Septimus, whose friends died in the war, Mrs. Dalloway is lonely for her loved ones who have also left, rejected by her—Peter to an adventure in India, Sally to the country as a wife and mother, Elizabeth taken over as Miss Kilman’s “disciple.” Everyone else is merely a “party friend,” with a party face and party manners. She means no more to them than does Septimus, a stranger, a madman, a suicide.
Some critics of the 1930’s and 1950’s have dismissed Woolf as “extremely insignificant” compared to writers such as James Joyce and British author H. G. Wells, and some have even accused her of being a poor, childish imitation of Joyce (Wyndham Lewis, 1934) or have claimed that her novels are merely “tenuous, amorphous and vague” (D. S. Savage, 1950). Most critics, however, agree with scholars such as Reuben Arthur Brower, who says that Woolf has a “Shakespearean imagination” and a wealth of visual and auditory images and symbols that recur throughout Mrs. Dalloway to reveal the “terror” and the joy of life and the fear of interruptions of that joy.
(The entire section is 978 words.)