Clarissa Dalloway enjoys her walk. She loves the air, the invigorating city of London, the people. As she walks, she thinks about events from her past, particularly a summer when she was being courted by Peter Walsh at her home of Bourton.
On her walk, Mrs. Dalloway briefly encounters an old friend and we follow him and his thoughts for awhile. So through the day, the novel moves from the consciousness of one character to another, culminating in Mrs. Dalloway’s party. Thoughts and memories are triggered by random images, as Woolf tries to replicate human consciousness.
Woolf’s express purpose in writing this novel was to depict one day in a woman’s life. She also does a turn on the marriage plot—for we see thirty-some years later how that plot worked out.
Mrs. Dalloway harks back to her youth, when it seemed possible she would marry Peter. They argued a lot, though, and it seemed to her that he criticized her. We learn from Peter’s memories that he suddenly had the flash of a thought that she would marry Richard Dalloway. Convinced of this, he left for India. Now, he has returned to tell her he is in love again—with a much younger married woman who has children and is not of his class. Still, by the end of the novel it is as if he has forgotten his new love.
Clarissa married comfort and stability in Richard Dalloway. Instead of a challenging and more bohemian existence with Peter, she has a very structured life. But she is recovering from illness and sleeps in a narrow, prim bed in the attic. It is unclear whether she is happy, except in the delight of living she feels by her nature.
Septimus and Rezia Smith are a couple unknown to Clarissa who are also important to the novel. Septimus is suffering from a delayed shell shock and hallucinations from his experiences in World War I. Rezia, the wife he brought back from Italy, is taking him to see Sir William Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a Harley Street specialist who appears later at Mrs. Dalloway’s party.
As with other modernist novels, I sometimes felt I was missing something. At other times, though, I felt that my reaction was supposed to be something like “This is what life is.”
Having recently read The Hours (wrong way around, I know), Michael Cunningham’s tribute to the novel, I was fascinated by how, with slight adjustments of character and by breaking the novel into three time periods, he invokes even stronger feelings and gives us a fresh look at the material.