“Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence”
Mrs Dalloway is a novel set in a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife married to Richard, a Conservative Party politician. It’s the middle of June in London, after World War I. She is preparing for her party in the evening and begins with buying flowers in the morning for the event. A former suitor and old friend, Peter Walsh pays her an unexpected visit, a visit flooded with heavy emotion and related thoughts of each other.
The story shifts to a number of both related and unrelated characters, but the most prominent of these is shell-shocked War veteran Septimus Warren Smith. We see him waiting for his appointment, and later the visit to psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw. Sir Bradshaw’s solution for the suicidal Septimus is to have him in a mental institution in the country. Later that day Septimus jumps out the window and kills himself.
The party guests include people from Clarissa’s past; Peter himself and the once-notorious friend from her youth, Sally, who arrives unexpectedly. Sir Bradshaw arrives late and his wife explains that it was due to a patient’s (Septimus) suicide earlier. Clarissa is not pleased with the news of the suicide being told at her party, but when she finds herself alone thinking about the suicide and her own life, she understands why the young man killed himself.
There are a number of issues explored in this novel, including the political air following the war and the British social system, but what stood out for me was the mental illness and internal struggles of the characters. In this single day of preparing for her party, we learn about who Mrs Dalloway is, through bits that are knitted from her past to the present, and the person she is when she’s with different people. There’s a tussle for balance between what goes on inside her and the reality in the external world, and the result is trouble with communicating what she truly feels. She makes up for this with, for example, giving a good party and being the perfect hostess.
We also catch parts where she appears to be dissatisfied with her own appearance and qualities, where she compares herself to a woman she greatly admires a lot, whose qualities she considers ideal. Clarissa also goes through moments of travelling back to the past with questions and sometimes wishing to have a second chance to live her life again, differently.
Woolf’s writing is not linear and she connects all the dots that paint the whole picture of this particular day through minor characters and the atmosphere in London on that day, but the most distinctive (apart from Clarissa) is Septimus, a foil character. Septimus also gives a deep depiction of mental illness and a struggle with communication and inner turmoil. His mental state shows his internal disintegration as a result of the residues from the war, and his show of protest to being confined is through death, Mrs Dalloway understands how where she struggles to communicate, Septimus’s protest through suicide was his form of communication. She’s left feeling that, unlike him, she lives with this internal confinement and accepts it as her lot, her life as is.
Mrs Dalloway shows why Virginia Woolf was known as a ‘fine stylist’. This one day is neatly laid out into a full, satisfying, absorbing, and intelligent novel. It’s long enough to fill you up and short enough to maintain interest until the end.