Mrs. Dalloway is not a novel that chronicles the years of the life of Clarissa Dalloway. In fact, Mrs. Dalloway is not a conventionally narrated novel at all. It is a collage, a mosaic portrait; it pieces together bits of Mrs. Dalloway's past and bits of Mrs. Dalloway's present on a single day — a Wednesday in mid-June, 1923. As far as plot is concerned, Mrs. Dalloway on this particular day in June prepares for and gives a party. That is all that happens. Our job is to look beyond the plot and realize who Mrs. Dalloway has been and what she has become. We must try to see the diversity beneath the surface of this English lady and try to get a sense of her personality. This is not an easy task because appearances deceive.
When Mrs. Dalloway was a young girl, her beau, Peter Walsh, prophesied that someday Clarissa would be The Perfect Hostess. Peter said this impulsively, out of jealous anger, yet when we finish Mrs. Dalloway we are left with a literal image of Clarissa Dalloway as The Perfect Hostess. Peter Walsh's chance and angry remark seems to have been most accurate. Clarissa's destiny does indeed seem to have been that of a well-bred wife who would give successful parties for her husband. This would seem to be the only value of her life.
In a sense, Clarissa Dalloway does develop into a perfect hostess; and, in a sense, Mrs. Dalloway is about a party Clarissa gives. But these ideas are only on the surface. A woman is never just a wife, or a mother, or a hostess; human beings cannot be defined in one word. It is only when we are ignorant, or lazy, or angry (as Peter Walsh was) that we label one another. But we make these generalized, easy assessments of people every day while knowing that we — individually — are certainly too complex to be summed up so easily. We would never dream of simplifying ourselves so narrowly because we know how very little of our "real selves" is displayed to the world. There are depths of feeling — hatred, despair, joy, sensitivity — which are rarely revealed. And, in the same way that much of our emotions remain submerged, our minds also pile up ideas, dreams, conversations, and multitudes of words and thoughts that are never uttered. The acts we actually perform are only pale outlines of another multithought and — feeling individual. It is this individual which is Virginia Woolf's concern in Mrs. Dalloway.
Who is Mrs. Dalloway?
Probably it is best to start with what Clarissa Dalloway looks like so that we have a frame for our discoveries about her. And in determining Mrs. Dalloway's physical features we should note how we learn such details; Virginia Woolf's art of narration is just as important as the content of her novels.
We learn that Mrs. Dalloway prefers to buy the flowers herself This seems like an innocuous statement, yet this single sentence is the entire first paragraph; it is a curious way of beginning a novel. What lies behind the first sentence is this: Virginia Woolf is getting Mrs. Dalloway out of the house so that she can be seen by strangers, by an old friend, and by a neighbor. Also, Mrs. Dalloway can react to a London she has not seen for some time. We are going to learn about Mrs. Dalloway from various points of view; we will not be told outright the facts about Mrs. Dalloway because such collections of facts reveal too little. We must learn by observation.
Mrs. Dalloway's excursion is not routine. Usually Mrs. Dalloway has things done for her; she is not used to doing errands. Today, however, seems special to her because it is fresh and brisk. The fact that the maid is busy supervising the removal of the winter doors is an excellent opportunity for Mrs. Dalloway to go out shopping. This is a day when Mrs. Dalloway is going to do something she enjoys but which, because of illness, she has not been able to do for some time: to go strolling on an errand through London's noisy, bustling traffic. The return of the summer season, the return of Mrs. Dalloway's health, and her return to a busy London scene parallel one another.
As Clarissa heads for the flower shop, we leave her thoughts and enter the mind of Scrope Purvis. Purvis has been Clarissa's neighbor for many years so his observation is valuable. He thinks of Mrs. Dalloway as bird-like — perched, as it were, on the curb. She seems bird-like despite being fiftyish and still bearing the pallor of her recent illness. She is wearing a feathered yellow hat (we learn this after she returns home) and possibly this spot of plumage influences Scrope's comparison. But, no, Clarissa also thinks of herself as bird-like — too bird-like, she would say. We learn this when she reflects on Lady Bexborough.
By comparing herself with Lady Bexborough, Clarissa (not Virginia Woolf) tells us about herself. We learn about Clarissa's physical appearance and we learn her thoughts as she compares herself with a woman whom she considers ideal. Clarissa would, for instance, gladly exchange her own pale and smooth complexion for Lady Bexborough's dark and crumpled one. She would like to have a face with more visible character. She would like to move more slowly and stately, not lightly; she feels that she is too flighty, too pointy-featured, and too insincere. Clarissa, it would seem, would like to be less feminine; more masculine, perhaps. At least she would like to have a more serious mien and be interested in, say, politics. She does not find her pallor or smooth skin attractive — or even natural. She talks of her body as being a "nothing" that she "wears." The only features that she approves of are her hands and feet. Otherwise, she is not happy with her outward appearance — the thin, white, bony sack that contains Mrs. Dalloway.
Perhaps these seem like unusual, contradictory thoughts — this despair at aging, and at aging unattractively, while Clarissa is very obviously enjoying being in the hurry and noise of the London morning. Without a doubt, Clarissa is thrilled to be in this colorful London stream; our first view of her is filled with her excited responses to being a part of the city's thoroughfare again. Her moods do alternate however; in one paragraph she is troubled and worried, in the next she is sparkling. Yet Virginia Woolf did not insert these changes of mood merely to be whimsical or lyrical.
Consider this: Clarissa's flashes of worry about aging are not at all unnatural; she has already said that she wishes she were not so delicate and brooding. Also, Clarissa has been ill, has become even more delicate, and has had too much time to think. No doubt her doctor and husband and friends commented on her looks and Clarissa would probably have consulted, first of all, her mirror as she searched for signs of illness in her over-fiftyish face. In addition, one must remember in assessing Mrs. Dalloway's fluctuations of moods that if Clarissa was confined to bed during her illness she would, like most people past fifty and confined to bed, have reflected on life. She would have recalled and pondered. Recovered now, and back in the stream of London traffic, her sick-bed seriousness would not have been immediately flushed away. There would be this natural residue of seriousness in the midst of all the wonder of this morning.
Virginia Woolf is not manipulating, for sheer effect or merely for exposition, Clarissa's present-to-past-to-present changes of mood and thought. There is valid motivation for Clarissa's ebb and flow of mood and time. The transitions are indeed swift, but our own minds can be every bit as mercurial. Human beings seem geared to clock time as it continuously moves forward, but in fact they are not. Within themselves, their minds ignore clock time and obey a different sense of time. Virginia Woolf has used Clarissa to imaginatively approximate a mind's natural course.
We discern that Mrs. Dalloway has been ill, has been resurrected, and is again enjoying the smells and sights of this busy London morning. Sharp-featured, angular-jointed, she is almost intoxicated by the noisy goings-on and, at turns, lost in thought about decisions she has made during her lifetime and about her physical shortcomings. She has been ill but has returned to the life of London and has plunged into its traffic. Now, as she makes her way up the streets, we make our own way — into Mrs. Dalloway. We have learned what she looks like from Scrope Purvis' image; then we were given Clarissa's verification. Listening to her negative comments about herself, we learned certain of Clarissa's quirks — plus one very important clue to her character. From Clarissa's minor dissatisfactions with her looks and personality grows one of the novel's major concerns: is Mrs. Dalloway satisfied being "Mrs. Dalloway"? Piecemeal, we are to learn the circumstances and the results of Clarissa's decision to become Mrs. Dalloway — this decision on a husband, the most important decision in a woman's life.
Returning to Peter Walsh, it is important to consider that we hear of him long before we hear about Richard Dalloway. This is a novel about Richard Dalloway's wife, yet it is not Richard that we learn about first; it is Peter. We discover that Clarissa, very rationally, chose to break off her relationship with Peter Walsh and, very rationally, to become Mrs. Richard Dalloway. The title of this novel and its first words are one and the same: Mrs. Dalloway. Our first impression is a double-barreled emphasis on Clarissa's married state. But already on the first page we see that Clarissa is concerned not with her husband, but with remembering a wry comment Peter Walsh, her former beau, made long ago as he caught Clarissa gazing into space.
The first thing we hear Peter say, as he chides Clarissa for appearing so deep in revery, is that he prefers men to cauliflowers. Peter is saying, in effect, that he prefers the company of men — of human beings — to the non-human. It is a trivial joke that Peter tossed to Clarissa, yet Clarissa's memory has preserved it all these years; and, since Virginia Woolf places it before us as Peter's first speech in the novel, it is important — a key to why Clarissa rejected Peter, why she denied herself Peter, and why still today she argues with herself that she was right not to marry Peter.
Had she married Peter, Clarissa says, he would have insisted on sharing; she then changes thoughts and recalls their break-up and the gossip she heard later about Peter's marrying an Indian woman. Even in her thoughts, Clarissa is cautious about too thoroughly considering Peter, as if even that would be too much "sharing." Clarissa is terribly fearful of the implications of sharing. As we shall see later, Clarissa equates sharing (with a man) with surrender. And Peter would have insisted on sharing an intimacy with Clarissa — and not intimacy in a sexual sense only. Peter would have insisted on a basic, defenses-down, baring-of-souls kind of intimacy — the kind of intimacy that exists between absolute friends. It was this exchange, this possession of one another's most secret depths, which frightened Clarissa. Marrying Peter would have cost Clarissa all private thoughts and feelings. This may seem to be a paltry sort of consideration but it is, in fact, more important than had Clarissa only had qualms about giving in to Peter sexually. Clarissa is considering basic communication between husband and wife — basic honesty, basic compassionate intimacy. Peter would have demanded that Clarissa release all her hopes and fears and joys to him — and he would reciprocate. This is a far more dangerous and sustained exchange than that of sex.
Dangerous, in fact, is the word Clarissa uses to describe the act of living. Were she to have chosen Peter, Clarissa would have had to lose her balance; she would have had to dare make mistakes. She chose security and safety in Richard Dalloway. Yet the spirit in Clarissa that responded to Peter, before rationality denied him to her, is still alive. In this morning's walk there is evidence of this responsive streak — one that Clarissa is still trying to discipline. As she thrills to the morning's light, sharp freshness, so like "the kiss of a wave"; as she tenses, anticipating the striking of Big Ben; and as she hears the cacophonous noise of trucks and cars and vendors magically harmonized, Clarissa scolds herself for foolishly succumbing to such sensual delight. She wonders why she loves London's bustle so.
The answer is simple: Clarissa, by nature, is responsive and spontaneous but she has learned to conceal her responses and feelings. She allows a loose rein to her senses but only in this way: London is a collection of noises, colors, smells, and people, and Clarissa can walk amidst them, can savor them, yet not have to merge with them. She can smile lovingly, and ironically, at the follies of old ladies and at the follies of young lovers, but she does so with a love that keeps its distance. She appreciates London as she might appreciate a lovely, familiar painting come to life. London — a living work of art — is like a salve to Clarissa's feeling of isolation and to the post-effects of her illness. Clarissa's doctors said that her heart might have been affected by influenza, but this is only another way that Virginia Woolf underscores for us the fact that, figuratively, Clarissa's heart has already been weakened. It was weakened by disuse long before influenza felled her. Clarissa has been too careful with her heart's affection.
Mrs. Dalloway is not a simple person. She is most complex. She is fascinating in that she realizes that her "self" changes, that it modifies to a certain degree, depending on whom she is with. With Richard, she is a little different than she is with Elizabeth; and she is different in another way when she is with Hugh Whitbread. Unlike Clarissa, most people think that they are always the same, regardless of whom they are with. In truth, few people remain constant: we all change, reacting with different parts of our personality to the many different people we spend time with.
Mrs. Dalloway also appraises people differently than most people do. When she meets Hugh Whitbread, she comments on his "well covered ... handsome, perfectly upholstered" body. She is referring rather novelly to how Hugh's clothes fit. But, besides Clarissa's showing us a different way of looking at someone, we learn more about Clarissa. She thinks of Hugh's clothes as she thinks of her own clothes and body: as covering, distinct from the inner self under the "upholstery." This idea of a body's being upholstered is unusual and interesting, and it reinforces our notions about Clarissa's complexity. Already she has remarked about feeling "outside, looking on." She walks through life; she is inside her body, yet she feels apart from life and alien to her body. Not only does she have these feelings but she is lucid about them — and Clarissa is not a learned woman. She is not a college graduate; she has little formal education: she is merely a woman, sensitive and intuitive — with a special sensibility. Her emotions are very intense despite the fact that she would like them, like her world, to be carefully guarded and within boundaries. She would like her world of marriage and motherhood to be cool and quiet like the cool and serene park she crosses through this morning.
Matters are often beyond Clarissa's control, however. She has tried to order her life by marrying Richard Dalloway, but lately she has been near death, and lately the world has been torn by the Great War. Now both she and the world seem to be healing. The king and queen are in the palace and are giving a party tonight — just as Clarissa will be giving a party tonight. These should be happy moments — and some are — but Clarissa's joys cannot fend off certain unhappy thoughts — the intense feelings of hatred, for instance, that she has for Miss Kilman, her daughter's tutor.
Why Clarissa hates Miss Kilman is not entirely clear but already we can guess at a little: Clarissa was very ill and her daughter Elizabeth represents youth, the essence of aliveness, and the extension of Clarissa. Clarissa has never "possessed" Elizabeth, nor has Richard, but now, to Clarissa, it seems that Miss Kilman is devouring Elizabeth. This concept of owning, that was so odious about Peter's personality, has dangerously reasserted itself just when Mrs. Dalloway is growing old and the world is changing and she becoming a stranger to it.
And so, worrying about Miss Kilman, though delighting in Bond Street, Mrs. Dalloway reaches the flower shop. It has been an unusual walk. This first scene is one of great contrasts — one of active sensual excitement but also of intermittent reflection. Mrs. Dalloway has walked through the noisy streets of London, entered a quiet park, re-emerged into the noise and color, and has slipped into a peaceful, sweet-smelling flower shop. She has thought about the present, about the past, and about the present again. The back-and-forth narrative, and this back-and-forth, in-and-out current of noise and quiet have suggested the rhythm of waves, their ebb and flow. Virginia Woolf is a remarkable architect: Clarissa has already mentioned that the day felt as though it carried the kiss of a wave; she has remembered the rising and falling of the rooks — very much like waves; Big Ben booms out hours one after another, irrevocably — very much like waves; life, she says, builds up, tumbles, then creates afresh — very much like waves. In this scene and throughout the novel the changes of time, the changes of scenes, and the motif of water — the sea and the waves — are all carefully synthesized.