Mrs Dalloway (published on 14 May 1925) is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post-First World War England. It is one of Woolf's best-known novels.
Created from two short stories, "Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street" and the unfinished "The Prime Minister," the novel addresses Clarissa's preparations for a party she will host that evening. With an interior perspective, the story travels forwards and back in time and in and out of the characters' minds to construct an image of Clarissa's life and of the inter-war social structure. In October 2005, Mrs Dalloway was included on TIME magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.
Clarissa Dalloway goes around London in the morning, getting ready to host a party that evening. The nice day reminds her of her youth spent in the countryside in Bourton and makes her wonder about her choice of husband; she married the reliable Richard Dalloway instead of the enigmatic and demanding Peter Walsh, and she "had not the option" to be with Sally Seton. Peter reintroduces these conflicts by paying a visit that morning.
Septimus Warren Smith, a First World War veteran suffering from deferred traumatic stress, spends his day in the park with his Italian-born wife Lucrezia, where Peter Walsh observes them. Septimus is visited by frequent and indecipherable hallucinations, mostly concerning his dear friend Evans who died in the war. Later that day, after he is prescribed involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital, he commits suicide by jumping out of a window.
Clarissa's party in the evening is a slow success. It is attended by most of the characters she has met in the book, including people from her past. She hears about Septimus' suicide at the party and gradually comes to admire this stranger's act, which she considers an effort to preserve the purity of his happiness.
In Mrs Dalloway, all of the action, aside from the flashbacks, takes place on a day in June. It is an example of stream of consciousness storytelling: every scene closely tracks the momentary thoughts of a particular character. Woolf blurs the distinction between direct and indirect speech throughout the novel, freely alternating her mode of narration between omniscient description, indirect interior monologue, and soliloquy. The narration follows at least twenty characters in this way, but the bulk of the novel is spent with Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith.
Because of structural and stylistic similarities, Mrs Dalloway is commonly thought to be a response to James Joyce's Ulysses, a text that is often considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (though Woolf herself, writing in 1928, apparently denied this). In her essay "Modern Fiction," Woolf praised Ulysses, saying of the scene in the cemetery, "on a first reading at any rate, it is difficult not to acclaim a masterpiece." The Hogarth Press, run by her and her husband Leonard, had to turn down the chance to publish the novel in 1919, because of the obscenity law in England, as well as the practical issues regarding publishing such a substantial text.
Woolf laid out some of her literary goals with the characters of Mrs Dalloway while still working on the novel. A year before its publication, she gave a talk at Cambridge University called "Character in Fiction," revised and retitled later that year as "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown."
The novel has two main narrative lines involving two separate characters (Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith); within each narrative there is a particular time and place in the past that the main characters keep returning to in their minds. For Clarissa, the "continuous present" (Gertrude Stein's phrase) of her charmed youth at Bourton keeps intruding into her thoughts on this day in London. For Septimus, the "continuous present" of his time as a soldier during the "Great War" keeps intruding, especially in the form of Evans, his fallen comrade.
Septimus, as the shell-shocked war hero, operates as a pointed criticism of the treatment of mental illness and depression. Woolf criticises medical discourse through Septimus' decline and suicide; his doctors make snap judgments about his condition, talk to him mainly through his wife, and dismiss his urgent confessions before he can make them. Rezia remarks that Septimus "was not ill. Dr Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him."
Woolf goes beyond commenting on the treatment of mental illness. Using the characters of Clarissa and Rezia, she makes the argument that people can only interpret Septimus' shell shock according to their cultural norms. Throughout the course of the novel Clarissa does not meet Septimus. Clarissa's reality is vastly different from that of Septimus; his presence in London is unknown to Clarissa until his death becomes the subject of idle chatter at her party. By never having these characters meet, Woolf is suggesting that mental illness can be contained to the individuals who suffer from it without others, who remain unaffected, ever having to witness it. This allows Woolf to weave her criticism of the treatment of the mentally ill with her larger argument, which is the criticism of society's class structure. Her use of Septimus as the stereotypically traumatised veteran is her way of showing that there were still reminders of the First World War in London in 1923. These ripples affect Mrs. Dalloway and readers spanning generations. Shell shock, or post traumatic stress disorder, is an important addition to the early 20th century canon of post-war British literature.
There are similarities in Septimus' condition to Woolf's struggles with bipolar disorder. Both hallucinate that birds sing in Greek, and Woolf once attempted to throw herself out of a window as Septimus does. Woolf had also been treated for her condition at various asylums, from which her antipathy towards doctors developed. Woolf committed suicide by drowning, sixteen years after the publication of Mrs Dalloway.
Woolf's original plan for her novel called for Clarissa to kill herself during her party. In this original version, Septimus (whom Woolf called Mrs. Dalloway's "double") did not appear at all.
When Peter Walsh sees a girl in the street and stalks her for half an hour, he notes that his relationship to the girl was "made up, as one makes up the better part of life." By focusing on characters' thoughts and perceptions, Woolf emphasises the significance of private thoughts rather than concrete events in a person's life. Most of the plot in Mrs Dalloway consists of realisations that the characters subjectively make.
Fueled by her bout of ill health, Clarissa Dalloway is emphasised as a woman who appreciates life. Her love of party-throwing comes from a desire to bring people together and create happy moments. Her charm, according to Peter Walsh who loves her, is a sense of joie de vivre, always summarised by the sentence: "There she was." She interprets Septimus Smith's death as an act of embracing life and her mood remains light, even though she hears about it in the midst of the party.
As a commentary on inter-war society, Clarissa's character highlights the role of women as the proverbial "Angel in the House" and embodies sexual and economic repression and the narcissism of bourgeois women who have never known the hunger and insecurity of working women. She keeps up with and even embraces the social expectations of the wife of a patrician politician, but she is still able to express herself and find distinction in the parties she throws.
Her old friend Sally Seton, whom Clarissa admires dearly, is remembered as a great independent woman: She smoked cigars, once ran down a corridor naked to fetch her sponge-bag, and made bold, unladylike statements to get a reaction from people. When Clarissa meets her in the present day, Sally turns out to be a perfect housewife, having married a self-made rich man and given birth to five sons.
Clarissa Dalloway is strongly attracted to Sally Seton at Bourton. Thirty four years later, Clarissa still considers the kiss they shared to be the happiest moment of her life. She feels about Sally "as men feel," but she does not recognise these feelings as signs of homosexuality.
Similarly, Septimus is haunted by the image of his dear friend Evans. Evans, his commanding officer, is described as being "undemonstrative in the company of women." The narrator describes Septimus and Evans behaving together like "two dogs playing on a hearth-rug" who, inseparable, "had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other...." Jean E. Kennard notes that the word "share" could easily be read in a Forsteran manner, perhaps as in Forster's Maurice, which shows the word's use in this period to describe homosexual relations. Kennard is one to note Septimus' "increasing revulsion at the idea of heterosexual sex," abstaining from sex with Rezia and feeling that "the business of copulation was filth to him before the end."
Dutch film director Marleen Gorris made a film version of Mrs Dalloway in 1997. It was adapted from Woolf's novel by British actress Eileen Atkins and starred Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. The cast included Natascha McElhone, Lena Headey, Rupert Graves, Michael Kitchen, Alan Cox, Sarah Badel, and Katie Carr.
A related 2002 film, based on Michael Cunningham's novel of the same name, is The Hours, starring Meryl Streep as New York editor Clarissa, Julianne Moore as Los Angeles housewife Laura, and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. The Hours is about a single day in the lives of three women of different generations who are affected by Mrs Dalloway: Woolf is writing it, Laura is reading it, and Clarissa is living it out.
Mrs Dalloway also appears in Virginia Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out, as well as five of her short stories, in which she hosts dinner parties to which the main subject of the narrative is invited:
- "The New Dress" â" a self-conscious guest has a new dress made for the event
- "The Introduction" â" whose main character is Lily Everit
- "Together and Apart" â" Mrs Dalloway introduces the main protagonists
- "The Man Who Loved His Kind" â" Mrs Dalloway's husband Richard invites a school friend, who finds the evening uncomfortable in the extreme
- "A Summing Up" â" a couple meet in her garden
The stories (except for "The Introduction") all appear in the 1944 collection A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, and in the 1973 collection Mrs Dalloway's Party.
- Project Gutenberg Australia hosts a free eBook of Mrs. Dalloway; note that copyright may apply in countries other than Australia - Zip file, Text file, HTML file
- Mrs. Dalloway at the Polyglot Project
- Mrs. Dalloway at SparkNotes
- Character in Fiction