Mrs. Dalloway comes midway in Virginia Woolf’s fiction-writing career and near the beginning of her experiments with form and technique, just after Jacob’s Room (1922), her first experimental novel. The book is really two stories—that of Clarissa Dalloway and that of Septimus Smith—and the techniques by which Woolf united the two narrative strands are unusual and skillful. While writing the novel, Woolf commented in her diary on her new method of delineating character. Instead of explaining the characters’ pasts chronologically, she uses a “tunnelling process”: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters.” The various characters appear in the present without explanation; various sense impressions—a squeaky hinge, a repeated phrase, a particular tree—call to mind a memory, and past becomes present. Such an evocation of the past is reminiscent of Marcel Proust, but Woolf’s method does not involve the ego of the narrator.
Woolf’s “caves” reveal both the past and the characters’ reactions to present events. Woolf structurally connects the “caves” and her themes by spatial and temporal techniques; her handling of the stream-of-consciousness technique—unlike that of James Joyce—is always filtered and indirect; the narrator is in command, telling the reader “Clarissa thought” or “For so it had always seemed to her.” This ever-present narrative voice clarifies the characters’ inner thoughts and mediates the commentary of the novel; at times, however, it blurs the identity of the speaker. Woolf’s use of the “voice” became more prominent in To the Lighthouse (1927), then disappeared in The Waves (1931).
With its disparate characters and various scenes of street life, the structure of the book seems at first to lack unity. Woolf, however, uses many devices, both technical and thematic, to unite elements. The day, sometime in mid-June, 1923, is a single whole, moving chronologically from early morning to late evening. The book is not divided into chapters or sections headed by titles or numbers, but Woolf notes some of the shifts in time or scene by a short blank space in the manuscript. More often, however, the transition from one group of characters to another is accomplished by the remarking of something public, something common to the experience of both, something seen or heard.
The world of Clarissa and her friends alternates with the world of Septimus. The sight of a motorcar, the sight and sound of a skywriting plane, a running child, a woman singing, an omnibus, an ambulance, and the clock striking are the transitions connecting those two worlds. Moreover, the striking of the clocks (“first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable”) is noted at various other times to mark a shift from one character’s consciousness to another. The exact time, which is given periodically, signals the day’s progress (noon comes at almost the exact center of the book) and stresses the irrevocable movement toward death, one of the book’s themes. Usually at least two clocks are described as striking—first Big Ben, a masculine symbol, then, a few seconds later, the feminine symbol St. Margaret’s; this suggests again the two genders of all existence united in the echoes of the bells, “the leaden circles.”
The main thematic devices used to unify the book are the similarity between Clarissa and Septimus and the repetition of key words and phrases in the minds of various characters. The likeness between Clarissa and Septimus is most important, as each helps to explain the other, although they never meet. Both are lonely and contemplate suicide. Both feel guilty for their past lives, Septimus because he “cannot feel” the death of Evans, Clarissa because she rejected Peter and has a tendency to dominate others. Both have homosexual feelings, Septimus for Evans, Clarissa for Sally Seton. More important, both want desperately to bring order into life’s chaos. Septimus achieves this momentarily with the making of Mrs. Peters’s hat, Clarissa with her successful party. Septimus understands that the chaos will return and so takes his own life to unite himself with death, the final order. Septimus’s suicide forces Clarissa to see herself in a new and more honest way and to understand for the first time her schemings for success. Clarissa “felt somehow very like him”; she does not pity him but identifies with his defiant “embracing” of death.
Certain phrases become thematic because they are so often repeated and thus gain richer overtones of meaning at each use, as different characters interpret differently such phrases as “Fear no more” and “if it were now to die” and such concepts as the sun and the waves. The phrases appear repeatedly, especially in the thoughts of Septimus and Clarissa.
The disparate strands of the story are joined at Clarissa’s party, over which she presides like an artist over her creation. Not inferior to the painter Lily Briscoe as a creator, Clarissa’s great talent is “knowing people almost by instinct,” and she is able triumphantly to combine the right group of people at her party. Clarissa, Richard, and Peter all come to new realizations about themselves at the party. Richard, who has been unable to verbalize his love for Clarissa, is finally able to tell his daughter, Elizabeth, that he is proud of her. At the end, Peter realizes that the terror and excitement he feels in Clarissa’s presence indicate his true feelings for her.
The two figures who are given unfavorable treatment—Sir William, the psychiatrist, and Miss Kilman, the religious fanatic—insist on modes of existence inimical to the passionate desire of Clarissa and Septimus for wholeness. Claiming that Septimus “lacks proportion,” Sir William nevertheless uses his profession to gain power over others and, as Clarissa understands, makes life “intolerable” for Septimus. Miss Kilman’s life is built on evangelical religion; she considers herself to be better than Clarissa, whom she wants to humiliate. She proudly asserts that she will have a “religious victory,” which will be “God’s will.”
The real action of the story is all within the minds of the characters, but Woolf gives these inner lives a reality and harmony that reveal the excitement and oneness of human existence. Clarissa and Septimus are really two aspects of the same being—the feminine and the masculine—united in Clarissa’s ultimate awareness. Mrs. Dalloway remains the best introduction to Woolf’s characteristic style and themes.