Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway  (1925) follows a set of characters as they go about their lives on a normal day. The eponymous character, Clarissa Dalloway, does simple things: she buys some flowers, walks in a park, is visited by an old friend and throws a party. She speaks to a man who was once in love with her, and who still believes that she settled by marrying her politician husband. She talks to a female friend with whom she was once in love. Then, in the final pages of the book, she hears about a poor lost soul who threw himself from a doctor’s window onto a line of railings.

Septimus Smith is the second important character in Mrs. Dalloway. Shell-shocked after his experiences in World War I, he is a so-called madman, who hears voices. He was once in love with a fellow soldier named Evans – a ghost who haunts him throughout the novel. His infirmity is rooted in his fear and his repression of this forbidden love. Finally, tired of a world that he believes is false and unreal, he commits suicide.

The two characters whose experiences form the core of the novel — Clarissa and Septimus — share a number of similarities. In fact, Woolf sees Clarissa and Septimus as more like two different aspects of the same person, and the linkage between the two is emphasized by a series of stylistic repetitions and mirrorings. Unbeknownst to Clarissa and Septimus, their paths cross a number of times throughout the day – just as some of the situations in their lives followed similar paths.

Clarissa and Septimus were in love with a person of their own sex, and both repressed their loves because of their social situations. Even as their lives mirror, parallel and cross-, Clarissa and Septimus take different paths in the final moments of the novel. Both are existentially insecure in the worlds they inhabit –one chooses life, while the other commits suicide.

Woolf’s style – she is one of the most foremost proponents of what has become known as ‘stream of consciousness’ – places readers directly into the felt experience of her characters. She also incorporates a level of psychological realism that Victorian novels were never able to achieve. The everyday is seen in a new light: internal processes are opened up in her prose, memories compete for attention, thoughts arise unprompted, and the deeply significant and the utterly trivial are treated with equal importance. Woolf’s prose is also enormously poetic. She has the very special ability to make the ordinary ebb and flow of the mind sing.

Mrs. Dalloway is linguistically inventive, but the novel also has an enormous amount to say about its characters. Woolf handles their situations with dignity and respect. As she studies Septimus and his deterioration into madness, we see a portrait that draws considerably from Woolf’s own experiences. Her stream of consciousness style leads us to experience madness. We hear the competing voices of sanity and insanity.

Woolf’s vision of madness does not dismiss Septimus as a person with a biological defect. She treats the consciousness of the madman as something apart, valuable in itself, and something from which the wonderful tapestry of her novel could be woven.
A film adaptation of this novel appeared in 1997 (  featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Michael Kitchen, both of whom give highly intelligent performances. Further, the absolutely wonderful film The Hours of 2002 ( is the story of how the novel Mrs Dalloway affects three generations of women, all of whom, in one way or another, have had to deal with suicide in their lives.
Virginia Woolf

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