Summary and Analysis
Like the birds on the curtain that blows back and forth during the party, we flit in and out of the party. First we are in the mind of one of the guests, then we are above and listening to that guest speak; we note incongruities, Virginia Woolf's satiric touches, then move on to another guest. The pace is fast, the tempo is party-like. Out of scraps and impressions, this scene is constructed to give us the noise, the smells, the rhythm of a party, and to give us omniscience. We note the mannered fraudulence and dramatic ironies. Most of the novel's cast are here, brought together for a moment in time, as Virginia Woolf ties together the narrative threads of her novel.
Among some of the incongruities and dramatic ironies, we note Elizabeth Dalloway wearing the necklace her father gave her. Her mother, remember, has never been satisfied by Richard's choice of jewelry; Richard gave Clarissa a bracelet once but she has never worn it. And, while on the subject of Elizabeth, note that while she is standing, elegantly and handsomely adorning the party as the Dalloways' daughter, she radiates composed loveliness: she knows she does. People compare her to a lily or a willow: she knows they do. Yet she never betrays her lack of interest in her mother's party or her continuing concern over her dog, which has been shut up for the evening. We see surface impressions, then dive inward and see an entirely different sort of reality. Virginia Woolf has continually taken us backstage. And it is literally backstage that we begin the party scene. This section begins with the maids bustling and worrying. Foods are described and the comedy among the cooks and the servants is recorded; the party preparations are solid support for Virginia Woolf's impressionistic style; they anchor the scene and give it balance. Then, besides cleverly taking us through the kitchen before we are admitted to the party, Virginia Woolf slyly slips in Peter Walsh's entrance to the party. It would be easy to overlook his entrance for he is included with several "Lords" and "Ladies" and "Sirs" and only his last name is announced by Wilkins.
Some of the irony in this scene is tender, like the differing responses of mother and daughter to Richard's gifts of jewelry. But most of the irony is wry. We are sure that Clarissa will manage her party most efficiently but, at its beginning, she has a bad case of nerves. Clarissa is timid, sure she will be awkward, and sure that Peter can spot the cracks in her composure. Her frustration is therefore piled on Ellie Henderson, whom Clarissa considers a bore. Ellie is standing alone, like a dolt, but inside she is as unnerved and panicky as Clarissa. Likewise, Lady Bruton assumes a regal air, yet we learned at her luncheon that parties terrify her. In fact, strangely, the person who seems to be most enjoying the party is Richard Dalloway. He talks easily to the titled guests, eases Ellie's terror, and is truly delighted to discover and talk with Peter Walsh. Richard is far more at ease than his wife. Clarissa, the hostess, of course, recalls Peter's taunt. Her fears remind us that Peter has as much as said that she would turn into a wooden, party-giving robot.
Certainly Clarissa is not robot-like, but the one thing Clarissa has done with her life is give it design. She has tried to make her life sane and safe; she realizes that it does have a certain wooden quality. And we realize this fact even more thoroughly when Sally Seton appears. Sally is still a good deal like Peter. Neither one follows the rules if they choose not to. Sally comes to Clarissa's party without an invitation. Peter burst in on Clarissa unexpectedly earlier in the afternoon. Both were, and still are, impulsive people. Sally is sure that Clarissa disapproves of her marrying a self-made man and having five sons. And Peter, by the same token, is sure that Clarissa disapproves of his never having gotten rich or obtaining a really fine position. Yet both are still fascinated with Clarissa — and she is still fascinated by each of them. Why? Perhaps for that answer we must return to our original question: Who is Mrs. Dalloway?
We realize the futility of answering such a question. It is a question that Virginia Woolf tried not to answer with a portrait, but with a novel-as-sketch. Human beings, she knew, are mixtures. So is the present — and the past. Within themselves, human beings are composed of their concepts, their memories, and their presents; and, in the eyes of other people, the same human beings are composed of another set of impressions, emotions, and distortions. To get a true sense of Clarissa Dalloway, one must not look for a clearly outlined, traditionally dimensioned reproduction of a fictional character. The pieces of Clarissa which Virginia Woolf has given us do fit together, but each person's impression of Clarissa must be considered as being separate, yet valid; then if we realize this, and draw back and see the novel as a sketch, as shadowy, as a series of gestures, and not as a complete, composed picture, we see a work of art far more exciting and multi-dimensional than had the author merely created a conventional figure in a conventional plot.
The novel ends as Clarissa is approaching Peter. We end by observing Clarissa Dalloway, along with Peter, as he says, "there she was." We see multiple images; we see the mystery, the variety and the richness of a human being who is far more than a hostess. We are particularly aware of the mystery because the spirit of our age is scientific and too often we expect when we finish a book to say, "I know all about that character." One cannot say that about Clarissa Dalloway. We have continually seen how different people interpret what they see and what they hear.
Who is Mrs. Dalloway: Is she the girl on the hilltop who, within Peter's memory, will remain forever on the hilltop, pointing toward the river? Is she the plumed bird Scrope Purvis saw perched stiffly on the curb? Is she the vain, emotionless grande dame whom Doris Kilman sees? Is she the recluse in the tower room? Is she the frail white-haired lady, mending a dress, crying silently for Peter to take her away? Is she the young girl Sally Seton impulsively kissed? Is she the flower-buyer, deeply and deliciously inhaling the sweet odors of lilacs and roses? Is she the generous, composed lady that Lucy the maid sees? To the doctors, would she be a latent Lesbian who is frigid and harboring paranoid tendencies? Is she a complete stranger, yet someone who knows more thoroughly than even Rezia why Septimus committed suicide?
The list could continue but, concerning Septimus, Clarissa certainly does understand why fie killed himself She is as aware of the reason for his death as she is that the Bradshaws use the suicide as an excuse for being late. Septimus and Clarissa are linked at last. The suicide unnerves Clarissa at first, just as Peter Walsh earlier startled her. Death is an intruder but Clarissa conceals her anxiety well; she has a true lady's discipline. No one, unless it be Peter, would guess at the tumult of emotion that blazes beneath Clarissa's pale, thin exterior. Clarissa understands that Septimus kept his "soul" through death, the ultimate weapon against Fate. Clarissa has preserved herself, her soul, in Richard Dalloway's house and within a social milieu that does not condone violence either in life or death. She prepares her days of living, just as she is trying to prepare for death. She considers consequences, lives carefully — thus is awed, and not a little envious of Peter Walsh, who has flung himself at life, and of Septimus Smith, who has flung himself at death.