Mrs. Dalloway covers one day from morning to night in one woman's life. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife, walks through her London neighborhood to prepare for the party she will host that evening. When she returns from flower shopping, an old suitor and friend, Peter Walsh, drops by her house unexpectedly. The two have always judged each other harshly, and their meeting in the present intertwines with their thoughts of the past. Years earlier, Clarissa refused Peter's marriage proposal, and Peter has never quite gotten over it. Peter asks Clarissa if she is happy with her husband, Richard, but before she can answer, her daughter, Elizabeth, enters the room. Peter leaves and goes to Regent's Park. He thinks about Clarissa's refusal, which still obsesses him.
The point of view then shifts to Septimus, a veteran of World War I who was injured in trench warfare and now suffers from shell shock. Septimus and his Italian wife, Lucrezia, pass time in Regent's Park. They are waiting for Septimus's appointment with Sir William Bradshaw, a celebrated psychiatrist. Before the war, Septimus was a budding young poet and lover of Shakespeare; when the war broke out, he enlisted immediately for romantic patriotic reasons. He became numb to the horrors of war and its aftermath: when his friend Evans died, he felt little sadness. Now Septimus sees nothing of worth in the England he fought for, and he has lost the desire to preserve either his society or himself. Suicidal, he believes his lack of feeling is a crime. Clearly Septimus's experiences in the war have permanently scarred him, and he has serious mental problems. However, Sir William does not listen to what Septimus says and diagnoses “a lack of proportion.” Sir William plans to separate Septimus from Lucrezia and send him to a mental institution in the country.
Clarissa Dalloway, the heroine of the novel, struggles constantly to balance her internal life with the external world. Her world consists of glittering surfaces, such as fine fashion, parties, and high society, but as she moves through that world she probes beneath those surfaces in search of deeper meaning. Yearning for privacy, Clarissa has a tendency toward introspection that gives her a profound capacity for emotion, which many other characters lack. However, she is always concerned with appearances and keeps herself tightly composed, seldom sharing her feelings with anyone. She uses a constant stream of convivial chatter and activity to keep her soul locked safely away, which can make her seem shallow even to those who know her well.
Constantly overlaying the past and the present, Clarissa strives to reconcile herself to life despite her potent memories. For most of the novel she considers aging and death with trepidation, even as she performs life-affirming actions, such as buying flowers. Though content, Clarissa never lets go of the doubt she feels about the decisions that have shaped her life, particularly her decision to marry Richard instead of Peter Walsh. She understands that life with Peter would have been difficult, but at the same time she is uneasily aware that she sacrificed passion for the security and tranquility of an upper-class life. At times she wishes for a chance to live life over again. She experiences a moment of clarity and peace when she watches her old neighbor through her window, and by the end of the day she has come to terms with the possibility of death. Like Septimus, Clarissa feels keenly the oppressive forces in life, and she accepts that the life she has is all she'll get. Her will to endure, however, prevails.
Peter goes to Clarissa's party, where most of the novel's major characters are assembled. Clarissa works hard to make her party a success but feels dissatisfied by her own role and acutely conscious of Peter's critical eye. All the partygoers, but especially Peter and Sally Seton, have, to some degree, failed to accomplish the dreams of their youth. Though the social order is undoubtedly changing, Elizabeth and the members of her generation will probably repeat the errors of Clarissa's generation. Sir William Bradshaw arrives late, and his wife explains that one of his patients, the young veteran (Septimus), has committed suicide. Clarissa retreats to the privacy of a small room to consider Septimus's death. She understands that he was overwhelmed by life and that men like Sir William Bradshaw make life intolerable. She identifies with Septimus, admiring him for having taken the plunge and for not compromising his soul. She feels, with her comfortable position as a society hostess, responsible for his death. The party nears its close as guests begin to leave. Clarissa enters the room, and her presence fills Peter with a great excitement.
Clarissa is characterized by opposing feelings : her need for freedom and independence and her class consciousness. the fact that she continues to give parties to gain the admiration and approval of others bespeaks a profound dissatisfaction with herself. Her life appears to be an effort towards order and peace, an attempt to overcome her weakness and sense of failure. She needs to make her home perfect, to make her social position glitter,to become an ideal human being. In this way, however, she imposes severe restrictions on her spontaneous feelings. The splintering effects of a tacitly possessive father, the frustration of genuine love, the need to refuse Peter Walsh , a man who would force he to share everything - all this has weakened her emotional axis and split her into two. One part of her lives in helpless, enforced isolation; while the other lives in protective self-glorification; and both parts are at once contradictory and mutually instensifying.
Septimus Warren Smith is an extremely sensitive man who can suddenly fall prey to panic and fear, or feelings of guilt. Despite this, he regards himself as a Messiah come to renew society. The cause of the feelings that brutalize him is his inability to feel, especially in connection with the death of his friend Evans during the war. So he is a character specifically connected with the war, he is a "shell shock" case: he is haunted by the ghost of Evans, he suffers from headaches and insomnia, he cannot stand the idea of having a child, he is sexually impotent.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN SEPTIMUS AND CLARISSA
The plot does not connect Septimus and Clarissa, apart from the news of his death at her party. But they are similar in many respects:
- their response to experience is always given in physical terms, through physical metaphors
- their emotional intensity
- her dependence on Richard for stability, his dependence upon Lucrezia for protection
- their attitudes towards their marriages, both founded on need rather than on love
- Clarissa's frigidity, Septimus's impotence.
The main difference between the two is in their final choice. His psychic paralysis leads Septimus to kill himself. Clarissa, instead, acknowledges her deception, accepts old age and the idea of death, and is prepared to go on. The novel's last line, "For there she was" suggests the idea of selfhood, of a new Clarissa, more fully conscious and perhaps more enduring. With Septimus, her negative self died and now she is stronger. This is the Clarissa neither Peter Walsh nor Richard Dalloway will ever know as the reader knows her, having seen, flash after flash, through her consciousness.