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Mrs. Dalloway

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This novel follows Clarissa Dalloway on a June day in London as she takes care of last-minute arrangements for a party at her home that evening. An apparently happy, superficial society hostess, Clarissa is revealed through her thoughts as extremely sensitive to experience, aware not only of the beauties but of the horrors and dangers of daily life. Her day consists of small happenings to which the novel attributes major significance. She receives a surprise visit from her former suitor and reflects on her reasons for choosing her husband. When her husband accepts a luncheon invitation that excludes her, she feels resentful and alone. Learning of the suicide of a shell-shocked World War I survivor, Stephen Septimus Smith, she sympathizes with his defiance of authority figures who would force the soul. In accepting her emotional kinship with Septimus, Clarissa is able both to come to terms with death and to embrace life. With renewed vitality, Clarissa attends her party.

Contrasted with Clarissa’s musings and mundane activities are the terrified hallucinations and apocalyptic visions of Stephen Septimus Smith. In a sense, however, Clarissa’s and Septimus’ thoughts show not only contrast but kinship: Stephen’s conviction that the skywriting of an airplane is a secret message is removed only by degree from Clarissa’s vision of an old lady extinguishing a light as a reminder of death. For Clarissa, as for Septimus, the world threatens to dissolve at any moment; and so, she sews material together, assembles people, and organizes events.

Accompanying both Clarissa and Stephen throughout the day are reminders of mortality. Their thoughts are punctuated by the chiming of Big Ben, which notes the passing of external time, impervious to human experience and oblivious of death. In addition Clarissa keeps remembering the line from Cymbeline, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” which, as a reflection on death, both frightens and comforts her. Through the use of these recurrent motifs and of a narrative voice that moves into and out of diverse minds, the novel develops that theme that the individual life, like the art that records it, is but a fragile human construct, a thin envelope to contain the formless if fascinating tissue of experience.

Bibliography:

Abel, Elizabeth. “Narrative Structure(s) and Female Development: The Case of Mrs. Dalloway.” In Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Margaret Homans. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993. Analysis of Mrs. Dalloway as a “typically female text” that hides its “subversive impulses,” which resist the typical narrative structure. Points out that Clarissa’s real passion was not for Peter but for Sally, whose kiss gave Clarissa “a moment of unparalleled radiance and intensity.”

Blackstone, Bernard. Virginia Woolf: A Commentary. London: Hogarth Press, 1949. An older but excellent essay on Woolf’s use of time, “the insistent hours pressing on,” to create a sense of the pressures felt by Septimus and Clarissa. Blackstone claims that the characters’ loneliness and the pity they evoke are keys to Mrs. Dalloway.

Brower, Reuben Arthur. “Something Central Which Permeated: Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway.” In The Fields of Light: An Experiment in Critical Reading. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1951. Excellent analysis of Woolf’s use of metaphor to convey a sense of suspense and interruption. Woolf creates a sense of the “terror of entering the sea of experience and of living life,” so that the reader feels both the loveliness and the frightening truths of reality.

Daiches, David. “Virginia Woolf.” In The Novel and the Modern World . Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Revels in the rhythms of Woolf’s style, with repetitions and qualifications of impressionistic “patterns of meaning” that are almost “hypnotic.” Focuses on time, death, and personality as key themes and compares Woolf favorably to...

(The entire section is 1,022 words.)