Summary and Analysis
While Mrs. Dalloway selects flowers for the party, we leave her for awhile and consider a new character: Septimus Warren Smith. The change of focus is brief, but it is important because Clarissa is only one half of the design for Mrs. Dalloway. While she worked on this novel, Virginia Woolf jotted in her diary that she wanted to sketch, in a shadowy way, "the world seen by the sane and the insane." The book was to be more than a story about Clarissa Dalloway; it would be a novel with two main characters and two stories alongside one another. The two characters — Clarissa and Septimus — never meet in the novel, yet they are linked to one another through various characters and because of the value they both give to that "leaf-encumbered forest, the soul."
Both Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Smith are intense and sensitive — especially about the privacy of their souls — that collection of qualities which make up a personality's essence and individuality. Mrs. Dalloway has a veneered composure; she attempts to keep her most serious thoughts, dreams, and musings to herself; no one else would treasure or understand them. She restricts the boundaries of her secret world. She lives with her husband and her daughter and among her friends; she is wife, mother, and hostess, but she is never completely relaxed and open with anyone. No one sees the dark depths of Mrs. Dalloway's soul. And when Clarissa uses dark to describe her soul, she does not mean dark to connote something necessarily evil or fearful; dark simply means that the soul is not open for public view. Mrs. Dalloway's soul is a place of retreat, like a private garden. Perhaps this is not the healthiest attitude to take towards oneself, but Mrs. Dalloway is considered sane.
Septimus Smith, on the other hand, is insane. He has almost wholly retreated into his private world. Notice, for example, how his reaction to the noise of a car backfiring echoes and amplifies, but differs from, Mrs. Dalloway's reaction. Clarissa immediately thinks that she has heard a gun shot. There is nothing pathological about this association. The Great War is just over. An era of terrifying death and violence has officially ended, yet the fearful sounds of war remain in the unconscious. England still trembles; the sound stills the rush and hubbub of the streets.
Ironically, it was a gunshot — a multitude of them — which cut Septimus Smith's contact with reality. He is a casualty of the Great War, a victim of shell-shock, Nevertheless, he does not imagine the car's backfiring to be a gunshot. To him, the noise is the sound of a whip cracking ("The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?"). Everyone else is only startled; Septimus is terrified.
In this crowd scene of London, we have gone beyond the exterior of appearance and have had a glimpse into two private, inner worlds — Clarissa Dalloway's and Septimus Smith's. We have seen two confused and frightened people. They differ in degree, of course. Clarissa has been weakened by an illness and she is frightened and furious about Miss Kilman's "possession" of Elizabeth. But, as best she can, she attempts to keep her fears corralled and orderly. In contrast, Septimus' fears cannot be governed; they are too overpowering and chaotic. London, through Clarissa's eyes, is familiar and reassuring; for Septimus, it is only fragments of sensation. To Lucrezia, Septimus' wife, London seems totally alien. She is a stranger in a strange land, with no friends, and with a husband who threatens to kill himself.
Focusing on a simple morning scene, Virginia Woolf has challenged us with a many-prismed view: we wandered through Clarissa's wonderland of past and present thoughts; we drew back and saw the citizens of London react like one unified organism to a car backfiring; then we were jolted by the jagged reality of Septimus Smith's thoughts. Now we see what is happening through the eyes of a foreigner. So what is the "real world" like? Each person has a different idea of what truth and reality are. There is a general, agreed sense of what is true and real in a given situation but there are always highly individual interpretations. Virginia Woolf continually reminds us of such individual intricacies. One of the characters will frequently show us a sense of what is extraordinary in even the most mundane occurence. A car's backfiring is only a loud noise, yet it has unusual effects, individually, and it does something unusual to the mass of people who happen to be together on a London Street. The noise catches their attention, then the important-looking car mesmerizes them with awe. The car does not, for certain, contain anyone important, but everyone has deep veneration for it. And, from far above the story itself, we hear Virginia Woolf meditating, reflecting on the crowd's need to be associated with Greatness. The car is just a car — and even the Queen, if she be inside, is only a woman.
Yet this potent mystery takes the crowd away from its sense of being ordinary. The car endows each person with an Extraordinary Moment. Everyone feels individually distinguished because they have encountered the possibility of being in the same street with royalty, with England. We observe the blind awe of the crowd and listen to Virginia Woolf comment that only historians will know for sure who is in the mysterious car. Her attitude is like the attitude of Clarissa when, earlier, she was crossing London streets. Both women smile at the comic folly of us mortals.
The novel continues on its course as Clarissa's momentarily conferred "dignity" passes. The thought of the queen in the mysterious car reminds her of the queen's party which reminds her of her own party, and thus she is reminded once again of Peter Walsh's taunt — that she would eventually define herself as a Hostess. The pleasant, patriotic, quasi-dignity is replaced by the dread of a more sterile dignity, the dignity of a Hostess.
Suddenly our attention is drawn to something else. Something else mysterious has appeared. A plane discharging white smoke is passing overhead. The instant patriotism for Royal England that held the public spellbound only minutes before is gone — but the awe of the unknown remains. No one knew who was in the black car before; now no one knows what the skywriting says, yet both forces have a similar compelling power over the public. The skywriting letters form words but the message is blurred and indecipherable. What the public is watching is only an advertising gimmick, but they don't seem to recognize it as such. They are enchanted by this riddle of a commercial message in the heavens. Their attempts to read the sky-writing are wryly described, as though there were an oracular significance to the enigmatic letters.
At this point we learn that not everyone agrees that Septimus Smith is insane. Septimus' doctor, for instance, thinks that Septimus' problem is only habitual, obsessive introspection. This is Lucrezia's reason for trying to interest Septimus with the words written in the sky. But we know that Septimus is insane because we enter his mind and are shown the sad beauty of his madness. Time is dispersed; it is stretched, lengthened, slowed down. The smoke shapes do not mean anything to Septimus; they simply are. They are modulating colors of white, rising and tumbling.
Sounds around Septimus are amplified and richly suggestive. The movement of Septimus' sight and sound experiencings are wave-like: the smoke languishes, melts; sounds converge, then break; the light on the elm leaves rises and falls. This water imagery has been used before. It punctuated Mrs. Dalloway's morning walk and the journeys back and forth from her past to the present. The rising and falling is the rhythm of waves and it is also the same rhythm of a throb, the beat of a heart — the beat of the individual heart and the beat of our primeval mother, the sea. The rhythm beckons mightily to Septimus; the metaphorical rhythm of the great Unconscious, of the sea, is like a siren's song to Septimus' unconscious, and the remnant of his rationality fights to preserve itself. He pleads with himself that he will not go mad. Septimus is struggling to be the master of his own destiny, just as Clarissa is still struggling (in a parallel, though much less intense way) to be master of her destiny.
We draw away from Septimus' intense inner conflicts and Lucrezia's fears, and catch a glimpse of the Smiths from another side — from Maisie Johnson's point of view. Like Lucrezia, she is foreign to London. She is Scottish, just down from Edinburgh, and the men and women and the "prim" flowers of London — all the things that thrilled Clarissa — seem odd to Maisie. Especially odd are the Smiths, she thinks. Then we look at Maisie through Mrs. Dempster's eyes. We observe old Mr. Bently. The scene is blurring. Life has gone awry for most of the people we have met since Clarissa Dalloway stepped out of her house this morning to go shopping for flowers. The scene ends with the sky-writing airplane still noiselessly spilling blurred letters onto the sky. What do they say? They might say "toffee" but the message is still incomplete. We can interpret its blurred image any way we choose, just as Clarissa, Septimus, Lucrezia, and Maisie, Mrs. Dempster, and Mr. Bently can each decide differently about London, Londoners, and life. Human beings interpret moments of reality variously; we have seen several striking instances through the perceptions of the sane, the insane, the foreigner, the newcomer, and the elderly.