Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summary of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway"

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Mrs. Dalloway is considered by many critics to be one of Virginia Woolf’s greatest novels revealing a mastery of form and technique for which she became known, stream of consciousness technique. The book itself is not like any other book in the traditional sense that is emphasizing the plot, characters, actions, etc. Rather it traces the reactions and feeling of the characters as they go around London, meeting each other. The narration shifts from one character to another so that the events of the day are told from different points of view. And it consists of two seemingly unrelated narratives, one telling us the story of Clarissa and the other the story of Septimus.

The story takes place in London. The timing is a mid June day and the year is 1, after the Great War.

The story begins at 10 am when Clarissa goes out to buy flowers. She wants to throw a party in the evening of the same day. On her way to the florist, she thinks about her old family house at Bourton, and of Peter her old lover. She sees Hugh Whitbread an old friend of hers and invites him to the party. As she walks down Bond St., she passes by two window shops. The first, being that of a bookshop, displays a verse by Shakespeare “Fear no more the heat of the sun/ Nor the furious winter’s rage.” And the other one displaying dead fish on a block of ice. Clarissa thinks about life and exclaims ”That is all “. She also thinks of her daughter Elizabeth and her tutor Miss Kilman. We come to know that Clarissa hates miss Kilman for introducing Elizabeth to religion.

Clarissa gets to the florist and in the mean while two incidents paralyzes the motion in the street. One is a very important looking motorcar and the other is an airplane soaring in the sky. Among those in the street were Septimus and his wife Lucrezia. The couple was on their way to see a Dr. Bradshaw.

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Clarissa returns home and Lucy, her servant, tells her that Lady Bruton has invited Richard, her husband, alone to lunch. This makes her feel left out and insulted. Clarissa retires to her attic. Woolf here insinuates about sexuality and virginity mentioning the white starched bed sheets. She tells us about Clarissa’s sexual life. Clarissa reflects her sexual life and wonders if she has failed Richard sexually. She recalls here homosexual encounter with Sally Seton when she kissed her on the lips. She then goes down to mend he green dress and to her surprise Peter Walsh comes in. he tells her that he is in London because he wants to see about a divorce for a married girls he is in love with in India. All in all, the meeting was not a successful one and Peter greets Clarissa quickly and rushes out as Elizabeth comes in.

Peter now annoyed and irritated wonders in the streets of London. He walks to Regent’s Park, smokes a cigar and falls in a deep sleep. He sees a vision and wakes up. He recalls the scene at Bourton in which he knows that Clarissa would marry Richard and not him.

During this time Septimus and Rezia are in Regent’s Park. Rezia leaves Septimus for a walk; feeling embarrassed because of the strangeness of her husband and asks herself why should she suffer. Peter thinking how London has changed and of Clarissa again, sees the couple arguing and thinks that it is a lovers’ fight.

Now the narration shifts to Septimus. We are told his story of how he has volunteered to go to war. He wanted to be a good soldier, that is why he forbidded himself from feeling. In the aftermath of the war, he realizes that all his romantic believes about the war and patriotism are nothing but idiocy and that his lack of feeling is a great crime. Woolf here tells us the experience of Septimus with doctors, Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw. We kind of hear her own voice echoing in the background.

The couple heads to see Bradshaw and as they reach his clinic, the doctor knows immediately that Septimus is severely ill and that it is best if he be treated in an asylum. Rezia here feels angry and deserted.

The narration shifts now to tell us about Hugh Whitbread. Woolf ironically describes his aristocratic manners. He meets with Richard and goes to Lady Bruton’s house for lunch. We know later that Lady Bruton has invited them both only to use them. She wanted to make use of Hugh’s style in writing letters and of Richard’s ideas as a politician to write a letter to the Times magazine about emigration to Canada. Also Lady Bruton intimidated Richard by telling him that Peter Walsh is in town. In fact, Richard did feel jealous and intended to tell Clarissa that he loves her in so many words when he goes home.

And as he intended he buys Clarissa some flowers and when he gets home he gives her the flowers but could not find the words to tell her that he loves her. In a way Clarissa understood. Very little happy time was spent together, and Richard goes off to mind his business. Clarissa now alone, wonders how she had never had any interest in politics. Her interest was always throwing parties. She feels great pleasure in it and thinks that it is her gift. It is her offering to the world, she thinks.

The door opens; it is Elizabeth telling her mother that she is going with Miss Kilman to the Army and Navy Surplus stores. Miss Kilman hates Clarissa as much as Clarissa hates Miss Kilman. Kilman finds refuge in religion while Clarissa finds the notion detestable and cruel. Clarissa feels that this lady wants to take her daughter from her. In fact Clarissa was right to think so because Miss Kilman’s intention was to do influence Elizabeth and make her hate her mother.

Clarissa then thinks about love and religion. To her both create the urge to control and dominate. She overlooks the old lady next door and to her this lady is a symbol of independence and privacy.

Miss Kilman and Elizabeth are now at the stores drinking tea. Kilman wanted to pour her unhappiness onto Elizabeth to gain her sympathy. Although Elizabeth is influenced by Miss Kilman’s ideas but she cannot but find her disgusting and overpowering. Elizabeth leaves Miss Kilman alone and wonders off home. Kilman now sits alone like a defeated beast and then heads for a sanctuary of religion. And Elizabeth wondering in the streets of London, reaches Strand, a working quarter of London, she thinks about Miss Kilman’s ideas about the poor and about professions being open to women of her generation. Elizabeth does not want to be like her mother, throwing parties and caring only about societal conventions, but she aspires to have a career of her own.

Septimus now overlooking the Strand feels normal. He has overcome his fear some how and sits chatting normally with Rezia who is sewing a hat. All was well until Dr. Holmes barges in; he wanted to take Septimus to the asylum. Septimus wanted to escape this fate and found the window an only exist. He enjoys the rays of the sun till the last minute and then throws himself out.

Peter Walsh sees the ambulance carrying Septimus’s body and considers it a sign of civility. When he reaches his hotel he finds that Clarissa has sent him a letter. He dines out and then decides to go to Clarissa’s party after all. When he reaches the Dalloway’s, he finds servants running around in final preparations for the party. He sees Clarissa nervous greeting her guest as they arrive. Clarissa is worried that the party will be a failure and feels defensive under Peter’s critical eye. He thinks that all English people are snobs.

The prime minister is announced and then a Lady Rosseter who turned out to be no one but Sally Seton. Both Sally and Peter sit together talking. Clarissa sees them as a link to her past. The Bradshaws were also invited and they showed up late at the Party. Sir William Bradshaw tells Richard about some of his patients among those Septimus. And Lady Bradshaw tells Clarissa that Septimus has committed suicide that same evening. It is noted that all the characters of the novel are present at Clarissa’s party, all but Rezia and Septimus.

Clarissa affected deeply by the news of Septimus’s suicide, she retires to be alone in a room. She identifies herself with the pain of Septimus and then considers him as a Christ figure, sacrificing himself for her to have her parties.

In the mean while Peter is searching for Clarissa and as she appears he feels great happiness “for there she was”. This conclusion is very much a beginning as it is an ending.

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