There is scarcely any real action in this scene. Yet a few commonplace acts structure the real matter of this scene — Clarissa's thoughts about life and death. Virginia Woolf does not use these labels, of course, but they are the fundamental considerations at the core of the scene.
Already Clarissa has mulled over certain aspects of dying. Looking into Hatchards' shop window this morning, she pondered the idea that bits and pieces of herself might continue to live after she had ceased living. Also, the lines from Cymbeline that caught her attention concerned death; "Fear no more the heat o' the sun / Nor the furious winter's rages" is part of a funeral song. Clarissa, in the midst of noisy and colorful London, thought about death. As contrast, note what it is that accompanies Clarissa's current thoughts of death: we read that the Dalloway hall is as "cool as a vault." This is the first thing we learn about Clarissa's house when she returns home; this is our first impression. Thus there are two kinds of life to consider here: one is the busy living on the streets of London; the other kind is that which is lived within the Dalloway house. Clarissa has stepped out of the milieu of the London life and returned to her life, her sanctuary where living is, to extend the metaphor, as "cool as a vault." Virginia Woolf suggests a certain death-in-life atmosphere in the Dalloway house.
Mrs. Dalloway is aristocratic and wealthy, but one should not stereotype her; she is not a one-dimensional well-bred, well-mannered, gently religious lady. Clarissa is a lady in the old sense — but she is also an atheist. This is a surprise and thus Virginia Woolf's allusion to Clarissa's being like a nun is ironic; Clarissa is a paradox, a secular nun. Consider how Clarissa's day-to-day acts of living are performed: she does what is expected of her and whatever she does she is very orderly. Her acts are performed with the regularity of a rosary being recited. There is something holy about Clarissa's observance of day-to-day acts. But what Clarissa seems like, she is not really like. She seems nun-like, her daily acts are performed with religious devotion, yet she is an atheist. We are impressed with the irony between appearance and reality.
There is yet another contrast between the appearance of Clarissa Dalloway and the reality of Clarissa Dalloway — and it is one which Clarissa is well aware of. Clarissa realizes that her home, the Dalloway house, is a safe refuge. The house is fortress-like and sturdy, and as well-bred in its exterior appearance as Clarissa is; but, in their interiors, Mrs. Dalloway and the Dalloway house differ. Clarissa, inside, is a mass of doubts and fears. This is dramatic irony because Lucy, Clarissa's maid, worships her mistress and imagines Clarissa to be as regal and composed as she appears to be.
We see the truth of the matter when we enter Clarissa's mind. Already we have glimpsed into some of Clarissa's fears and worries; now we perceive that Clarissa is truly hurt by Lady Bruton's inviting Richard, and not Clarissa, to luncheon. Life is slipping away from Clarissa; she is frail, white-haired, and already, it would seem, is being neglected. Socially, Clarissa does not like to be snubbed by another society lady; as a female, she is jealous that Lady Bruton invited only Mr. Dalloway to her luncheon; and, deep down in her soul, Clarissa is stunned. Even though she does not greatly fear death, she is pained at being neglected so soon after she has been seriously ill; it is as though she were already forgotten.
We have seen that Mrs. Dalloway has secured for herself a safe, if somewhat sterile, existence. Our next matter is with Clarissa's truly "happy times." She remembers these isolated moments, fittingly, as she loosens and removes the trappings of the public Mrs. Dalloway. Up in her tower room, away from London and away from the lower rooms of the Dalloway house, Clarissa removes her hat and puts her coat away. She literally "lets her hair down." As she does so, memories of Sally Seton return. Sally was the first person Clarissa ever shared secrets and affection with. Clarissa was fascinated by Sally. Sally was everything Clarissa wasn't. Clarissa obeyed all the rules, Sally broke them. Sally sat on the floor, propped up her knees, and smoked. Once she ran naked out of the bathroom to fetch a sponge she forgot. Sally was a rebel who did the unexpected, the romantic: everything a well-bred, well-mannered young girl at the turn of the century did not do.
Many of us are attracted to a rebel personality, especially when we are young — and especially, we can imagine, if we had been reared, as Clarissa was, in a cloistered, Victorian atmosphere. We are told that flowers at Bourton (Clarissa's family home) were arranged in "stiff little vases all the way down the table." This is an appropriate image for Clarissa's life — because it was, until Sally appeared, made up of stiff, indistinguishable days arranged along the length of the years. Then Sally sparked Clarissa's spirit. Clarissa felt that she and Sally could "communicate."
At first, communication may seem a rather tame prize for Clarissa to value so highly, but even today our popular magazines are continually concerned with the matter of communication between people. Can men and women truly communicate? Is the male sensibility different from the female sensibility? D. H. Lawrence, a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, believed that men and women were two entirely different species. Historically, the mind of a woman has always been relegated to second place whenever a man is concerned. This was especially true when Mrs. Dalloway was a girl. In those years, whom could a girl open her heart to? A sensitive, imaginative, timid girl like Clarissa? Men were superior. If one were a woman, could she tell her husband everything she thought? If so, how would he receive it? as the confession of a silly chatterbox? or in a spirit of trust? This problem was one which frustrated Virginia Woolf. She was a published critic and author. She had many male friends, but she was prone to distrust their friendships. She wondered if she were being patronized when she talked of literature and politics. Did her male friends think of her as only a clever curiosity? Did they really "share" themselves with her as her women friends did? Was there an even exchange?
This concept of "sharing" — of giving and taking — is central to Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa rejected Peter because he wanted to share himself and wanted an equal return. Clarissa feared open, total involvement with a man. The concept was foreign and frightening; to her, sharing meant surrender. Marriage to Peter would have been a dangerous, immoral one-sided contract. Compare, however, the give-and-take aspect of Clarissa's memory of Sally Seton. Clarissa gave her "soul" absolutely and exclusively to Sally. Sally gave her "soul" to Clarissa — but she offered, freely, just as much of herself to everyone else. When Sally kissed Clarissa, she gave the kiss impulsively. Clarissa, however, did not accept the kiss as an impulsive gesture. Clarissa accepted Sally's kiss as a treasure; she accepted it as though a ceremony had been performed and a gift had been bestowed. Nevertheless, Clarissa does not seem to see anything unjust or wrong in this disproportionate exchange.
The memory of Sally's kiss is still precious to Clarissa even though the incident happened long ago. Clarissa can remember that she thrilled in response to another human being's warmth. But how she thrilled? that is another matter. Her emotional response today to that memory barely registers. The memory is a keepsake, like a dead flower; Clarissa has preserved it too completely for too long, just as she has preserved a certain virginal quality about herself. Her white hair, her narrow bed, the clean tight sheets, and the book she reads about Marbot's retreat from Moscow are symbolic of the pristine, barren result of Clarissa's decision not to attempt a vital male-female relationship.
Clarissa's going upstairs is symbolic of her retreat from the challenge of living a full, adventurous life. Quiet, unassuming Richard Dalloway and his house are the principal peripheries of Clarissa's refuge but, inside the Dalloway house, there is an even safer nook for Clarissa to hide away in. This is, appropriately, the attic room. In these private quarters of hers, as in her deepest depths, Clarissa can be all alone; here she will not be disturbed, even at night by her husband
We feel a sense of loss as Clarissa mounts the stairs and pauses midway. The soft June air and the barking of dogs flow in through an open window and remind us of what Clarissa denies herself when she nurtures and constructs protective barriers around herself. Barking dogs (fierce unpleasantness) are vanquished but then so is warm, mild June air (simple, natural happiness). And, as we shall see more clearly later, Clarissa has not really been successful in her attempt to live peacefully and harmoniously in her sanctuary. She chose to marry Richard, not Peter, to escape the "heat o' the sun" and the "furious winter's rages" — extremes of passion and unhappiness. But Clarissa did not escape entirely. Memories of Peter still fester, Elizabeth is not maturing into the image Clarissa has for her daughter, and Miss Kilman is like an awful monster that is gaining possession of Mrs. Dalloway through Elizabeth. There is a startling contrast between the public image of Mrs. Dalloway, the hostess, and the Mrs. Dalloway that Virginia Woolf shows us.
Like the dress she mends later, Clarissa shines in artificial light (the chandelier lights of parties she gives), but in real light she is revealed to be a white-haired woman beside a narrow, white-sheeted bed. In real light, Clarissa loses color — life's coloring. We watch her contemplate her image in the mirror. Like a puppetmastcr, she purses the image's lips and draws the composure tightly together — concealing all jealousies, vanities, and suspicions. Clarissa composes her features, exactly as she mends her dress — drawing the folds together, arranging the folds in patterns, disguising the rents in the appearance. Back and forth, in and out, Mrs. Dalloway draws a needle through the waves of green silk. The silk, green and wavy, is reminiscent of the sea — of the vastness and the freedom of the sea. Mrs. Dalloway "plunges" her hands into it. Yet, true to form, she collects and orders the fabric — exactly as she has attempted to order the form of her life.