Mrs. Dalloway(1) concerns one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a day in the life of her upper class circle, one day in the life of London, England, circa 1925. It also concerns the war, the end of the war, the aftermath of war. It concerns a man, Septimus Warren Smith, a literate man, a gentle man, an ex-soldier, a man suffering terrible, delayed shell shock. When Mrs. Woolf wrote this novel, her friends questioned her inclusion of Septimus, but I wholeheartedly agree with it. He is the pivotal character, the most poinagnt soul in the novel.
We begin the morning with Clarissa wondering what flowers she is to buy to decorate her lovely home for the party she is to give that evening. As she walks through the streets of London, she encounters friends, thinking all the while of her past, how she came to be Mrs. Richard Dalloway, what life may have been like had she broken down and married her adored, learned, radical then-paramour Peter Walsh. What she would be like if she had just been a little more daring, as was her beloved friend Sally Seton.
As she enters Mulberry's Flower shop and makes her selections, the point of view switches to that of Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Rezia, there in the park across the way. Septimus is muttering to himself about life, death, love. He watches the birds as they peck at some seed at his feet and tells Rezia they are telling him the meaning of life.
He looks up.
His mind slips even further into illusion.
Who is that there in the park? That man in the waistcoat and hat?
He sees no one other than his doomed friend Evans: A brother-at-arms; the man Septimus watched being blown to bits by a land mine or a dropped bomb, and he panics, and screams at the illusion. The entire park turns to look at him, and Rezia is embarrassed. Septimus starts muttering about killing himself and Rezia tries to argue him out of it. Dr. Holmes will lock him up, she warns, if he continues with such thoughts. "Holmes's Homes?" he says. "Once you fall, human nature is on you--Holmes and Bradshaw are on you!"
Meanwhile, Clarissa returns home and continues with her preparations for the party, and her reveries of the past. And what's this? Her husband has been invited to lunch by Lady Bruton and Clarissa was not? More than a little perturbed. she selects her green mermaid dress for the party, and sets about mending it, as she thinks. Interrupions abound in her day, and she is surpristed to find her old friend Peter Walsh being escorted into her drawing room. There is an interesting little dialogue about his life in India, and the mess he has gotten himself into with the wife of Major in the Indian Army, but more important is Peter and Clarissa's private dialogues with themselves--how Clarissa feels about Peter, hastily inviting him to her party as he leaves, he thinking there is no way he's going to go; she hasn't changed a bit; she's wasted her life. Then poor Clarissa has to face the intolerable Miss Killman, the leech, recently converted bible-thumper out to steal her dear daughter Elizabeth from her. All is inner dialogue and the outer is brightness, happiness.
In fact, this novel is all about what lies beneath the surface if English upper-class life post-war; it is about people paying attention to nothing more than those surfaces; it is about people not taking the time to actually listen to one another; it is about what happens to those that need to be listened to, need to be understood to be helped, desperately. And it is about death, and life!
Yes, I suppose you could simply rent the movie to get the gist of what I've only begun to tell you, here, but you would truly be missing out, as most of the novel's charm is in these inner dialogues. I warn you, however, Virginia Woolf's style is not something you are likely to have encountered before, unless you are a fan of the Modernists. I absolutely adored this novel, laughed, cried, the whole nine yards. I love Virginia Woolf's work, and if you try Mrs. Dalloway, I am sure you will too. Give it a shot!
(1). Published 1925
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