The indication of the large framing device comes early on. When Clarissa is looking for flowers, the narratives switches to her many many thoughts and tangents as she goes about her day, involving other people or herself. These beginning tangents are where we learn of her party. “…since her people were courtiers once in the time of the Georges, she, too, was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party (5)”. She begins to meet with people on the course of her errand, such as Peter Walsh. We get another framing device for him in Clarissa’s memory early on in the story when recalling her young adulthood, on pg. 1:
“…which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window… Peter Walsh said, ‘Musing among the vegetables?’—was that it?—’I prefer men to cauliflowers’—was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace—Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished—how strange it was!—a few sayings like this about cabbages.”
Here we have an introduction to a story within a story, and the intro to a character interaction, as well as background information of a character. These type of framing devices-tangents-are also used to develop the section’s character, though we can see their thoughts documented meticulously, instead of having the character explained to us such as Hugh Whitbread. “and who should be coming along…who but Hugh Whitbread; her old friend Hugh—the admirable Hugh(5)!”
A larger theme is the idea of juxtaposition or duality. Some examples of duality are Hugh’s and Clarissa’s place in society, Septimus’ and Peter’s return to England experiences, and one of the most important, Clarissa and Septimus.
Septimus is a shell shocked WW1 veteran. Upon returning to England, he finds living or appreciating life becomes more and more difficult. Our first indication of him gives us a frame of reference for his current state of mind when he sees the motor car in front of
Septimus from the 1997 film
Mulberry’s. He is described by the book as having “…hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension…The world has raised its whip; where will it descend(14)?” Just later we have an example of forshadowing to his fate, “…the world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought. Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose(15)?” He is trying to find out why he is still here. We have Lucrezia, his wife beside him, continuing to stay with him even though we know that she is not as happy as she once was with him:“But Lucrezia Warren Smith was saying to herself, It’s wicked; why should I suffer? she was asking, as she walked down the broad path. No; I can’t stand it any longer, she was saying, having left Septimus, who wasn’t Septimus any longer [comparing old Septimus to new Septimus], to say hard, cruel, wicked things, to talk to himself, to talk to a dead man, on the seat over there; when the child ran full tilt into her, fell flat, and burst out crying” (63-4).
Septimus was also plagued by visions of his dead friend, Evans, often causing him torment.
Peter Walsh had a somewhat contrasting return to England. He had come back from India and went to see Mrs. Dalloway, who he had once been in love with. Here he contrasts with Septimus, who has Lucrezia by his side while he is alive. He later has a delusion of walking down the street and seeing a nurse he once loved back in India. He follows her until the vision disappears. Though it may not have been a hallucination similar to the one of Evans, it shows how they contrast in their ultimate goals, Peter wants to be closer to people, whereas Septimus is drifting away.
Clarissa also is juxtaposed with Septimus. They are described as being bird-like in some way. Septimus is “about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed(14).” Where Clarissa is seen as having “a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green…(4).” But they also are two characters who reflect upon their lives and the meaning of life. The characters can be seen as two sides of the same coin, Clarissa being a hostess, and therefore very savvy of social laws customs, while Septimus is insane, and cannot act inside societies normal laws. Though they both speak about class and meaning of their lives and identity, they ultimately can be seen as one world view split into two different lives; one has not conformed to society, and the other has.
1) Many critics find that Clarissa and septimus are each other’s doppelgangers, alter egos, and perhaps even mirror images. In what ways are Clarissa and Septimus similar? How are they different?
2) At the time Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway, she was still trying to find her voice as an author. Does this style of writing work for her? What other styles could she have used to tell this story?
3) The stream of consciousness displayed in the text is supposed to simulate real chains of thought. Does it seem realistic? Are there any instances where you feel it seems especially genuine or, perhaps, phony?
4) The affect World War I had on Septimus was obvious. How did the war affect Clarissa? Were any of the other characters affected in a meaningful way?
5) Clarissa has had three love interests; Peter Walsh, Sally Seton, and her husband Richard Dalloway. Contrast these three characters. What differences and similarities from the text could have attracted Mrs. Dalloway to each of them?
6) What does this day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway reveal about the culture of post WWI London? How does this differ from the Victorian London of Oliver Twist or the London of Journal of the Plague Year?
7) Are there any other themes or motifs that you notice were not mentioned above? What examples are there in the text?
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.
For Mrs. Dalloway, as for Woolf, people are connected by “tenuous” threads to the web of life, love, experience, and one another. For them, the joy of life comes from being part of the wave-like process, but also, standing apart from it, they take joy in the moment while fearing the suspense of “interruptions” of that calm, that peace—life itself. Characters such as Clarissa’s former lover, Peter Walsh, and her daughter Elizabeth likewise experience her love of precious moments, unlike Clarissa’s double, who cannot connect because he is alienated and alone, outside the world, outside life itself.
It is Clarissa alone who recognizes Smith’s suicide as a means of communication, a way of maintaining his rightful independence of spirit, of defying those who would control him—even his wife Rezia, who loves him. Clarissa also has rejected the passionate but controlling love offered by Peter and the purity of feeling offered by Sally, instead choosing the unfeeling and undemanding Richard. Although she has compromised some of her purity, Clarissa has also given back some joy in the moment to those whom she meets and entertains.
By repeating images, symbols, and metaphors such as those of the sea—waves of feeling, of joy, of life—sewing, building, mirroring, Big Ben, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” and solemnity versus love, Woolf connects the fragmented bits of characters, choices, and the day itself with fluidity, kinetic energy, and imagination to suggest her vision of the postwar English life of the contented but loveless Mrs. Dalloway.
A central metaphor here is that of vision, sight, insight, windows, and mirrors: Smith is a mirror image of Clarissa; if she is without passion in her life, having rejected love twice (with Sally and then Peter) in order to maintain her tentative sense of self, Smith thinks he feels nothing while he is overwhelmingly passionate in his survivor guilt and his love of life and notions of goodness, distorted by the war. She dreams of love while gazing into her mirror and looking out her window to connect with all life, while he sees the world from the outside and only rejoins humanity by killing himself to preserve the integrity of his soul.
Ironically, throughout the novel, the reader senses Clarissa’s fear of death, which occasions her reassessment of her peaceful life, given significance by Smith’s act of throwing his own life away. His suicide leads to Clarissa’s recognition of her own love of life and its momentary treasures. It is the mirroring of passion and life that unifies this impressionistic vision of the falsity of clock time—single lives, as opposed to the true, intuitive, flowing consciousness that connects all humanity. Thus, Mrs. Dalloway identifies with Smith at the precise moment of his annihilation and is inspired to accept the ebb and flow of being, the profusion of hopes and fears, the joys and terrors of life.