Mrs Dalloway Book summary
Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, well into the career of Virginia Wolf, and yet most critics believe that it was this book in which she found her writer’s voice. The book is set over a single day in London, and it explores the English life post WWI. Wolf uses the stream-of-consciousness narrative, an experimental literary form, at the time. The book is a convincing argument for the belief that no action is truly too insignificant for a writer’s attention, since the book is primarily about a party.
It presents the viewpoint of a plethora of characters from all walks of life, with over a hundred minor characters. Wolf is believed to have written the book after being inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, which also takes place over a single day.
Clarissa Dalloway is the wife of a politician living in London, she sets out to buy flowers on a Wednesday morning five years after the end of WWI. Clarissa struggles to find meaning in her life, now that she is nearly done mothering her daughter, Elizabeth, who is anyway more concerned with her governess, Miss Kilnman. Clarissa thinks about her decision to marry Richard Dalloway and rejecting the proposal of another man, Peter Walsh. He had been affected by her rejection, had left his life in England to move to India, and had met a woman on the eastward-bound ship. She feels that she has failed to express any passion for her husband, and has only ever felt it when she was kissed by her childhood friend, Sally Seton. She thinks about death and the meaning of her life. Clarissa runs into an old friend, Hugh Whitbread, who works with the royal family, and is always dressed perfectly. She reminds him about the party she is going to be hosting that evening while feeling flustered about whether the hat she is wearing is appropriate. She makes her way to the flower shop, and as she is browsing through the shop, the car of an important figure in the government backfires in the street.
Septimus Warren Smith hears the backfired car, and it brings him out of his reverie. Septimus is a veteran of the first world war and he has been changed since then. He is going through London with his wife, Rezia, whom he had met while recovering in Italy. Rezia guides a ruminating Septimus to the park where they watch a plane spell something out in the sky. Rezia is fatigued from caring for her ailing husband, especially since their physician, Dr. Holmes had told her that there was nothing wrong with Septimus. She thinks about how he had told her that they should kill themselves, and about the repeated hallucinations he had while thinking of his old officer Evans. Her love for him resurfaces and she returns to be with him.
Clarissa returns to a busy house, as the servants prepare for the party, and she sets about mending her dress for that evening. She is interrupted in this task by the arrival of Peter Walsh, who had disappeared from her life nearly thirty years ago. They examine each other with concentration, and Peter tells her that he is visiting London because he is organizing a divorce for his new love interest, Daisy, the wife of an officer in the army, who had been stationed in London. As they converse, Peter notices the luxury that surrounds her, and he is moved to tears by their memories together. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth, but Clarissa placates Peter as he leaves. He heads into the streets still thinking about the interaction with Clarissa and feels angry that he had lost composure of himself. He then loses himself in appreciation of London, as he compares it to India, and imagines fantastical scenarios of seducing random women in the street. Peter thinks that some people think of him as a failure, but he doesn’t care about the opinion of people like Clarissa and her husband.
Septimus and Rezia make their way to the psychiatrist’s appointment. Septimus had been trying to become a poet before the war and had shown remarkable promise although many people had worried about his constitution. At war, Septimus had grown very close to an officer, Evans, but he had been killed in battle, and Septimus had not been affected by it. He had worried about it but had met Rezia while he had been recovering in Italy and they had gotten married. Rezia wanted them to have children by Septimus could not bring himself to bring children into a world he perceived to be cruel. Doctor Holmes had tried to treat Septimus, but his treatment was limited to diminishing Septimus’s struggle and drugging him to sleep.
Hugh and Richard visit the important Lady Bruton as she requires help with a letter that she wished to send to the editor of the Times about emigration to Canada. Richard leaves the lunch with the intention of telling Clarissa that he loves her, and purchases flowers. He is unable to bring himself to tell her, and he leaves her to rest as he returns to the other half of his day. Elizabeth comes to Clarissa with her governess, whose hate for Clarissa is palpable in her look. Miss Kilnman believes that life has been too harsh to her, while it has been too kind to women like Clarissa. She hates her poverty and blames the anti-German sentiment for her present condition. She tells Elizabeth that innumerable opportunities are available to her and that she could be anything. Elizabeth feels that she is too lazy to do anything significant as she rides the omnibuses after abandoning the sometimes oppressive company of her governess.
Septimus and Rezia meet the esteemed Psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, who examines an extremely agitated Septimus. The doctor learns that Septimus has thought about suicide, and pronounces a treatment of seclusion and rest away from his loved ones. Rezia and Septimus are both horrified by the treatment that the doctor recommends and they return home dejected, believing they had no other option but to submit to the doctor’s judgment.
Septimus has a few moments of lucidity with his wife, and she begins to see the old Septimus, but he then kills himself after he hears doctor Holmes approaching his residence. Rezia understands why he had done it but Doctor Holmes pronounces him as a coward. Peter hears the ambulance that carries away the body of Septimus and appreciates the humane British healthcare system. He returns to his hotel and finds a note from Clarissa telling him that it had been a treat to see him, which causes him to feel more grief. He then thinks about Daisy, and dresses for dinner. Peter has a pleasant dinner at the hotel, then he makes his way to Clarissa’s party. The party is going well, and people are talking about how the prime minister is going to visit. Clarissa is consumed with worry that the party isn’t going well, and even when the prime minister visits, Clarissa doesn’t truly feel any emotion. She is surprised by the arrival of her old childhood friend, but even that fails to engage her. She learns about Septimus’s suicide from his psychiatrist’s wife and retreats to an empty room where she thinks she understands why he killed her. She returns to speak to Peter Walsh and Sally Seton, who are still excitedly talking about their childhood.