Mrs. Dalloway | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Section 1 (Clarissa Goes to the Flower Shop) | Summary

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For the purpose of analysis this study guide breaks the text into sections based on shifts in point of view.

Summary

Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway decides to buy flowers on her own for a party she's giving that night. It's a Wednesday in June 1923. She remembers summers spent in Bourton when she was 18. Now she feels as she did then—that despite the lovely, trouble-free day, something awful is about to happen. She has lived in Westminster for about 20 years and still feels suspense before Big Ben, the large Westminster clock, strikes the hour. She walks down Victoria Street toward the flower shop and observes the colorful chaos of London, noticing the omnibuses and carriages on the ground and airplanes overhead. She is grateful that World War I, which ended almost five years earlier, is over.

In St. James's Park, Clarissa runs into old friend Hugh Whitbread, and they exchange pleasantries. Hugh is in London so his wife, Evelyn, can see a doctor. Hugh promises to come to Clarissa's party. Seeing Hugh makes Clarissa think of another old friend, Peter Walsh, with whom she spent time in Bourton. Though she argued with Peter frequently, she misses him. Clarissa reminds herself she had been right not to marry Peter. Her life with her husband, Richard Dalloway, is more peaceful and private. Peter compelled her to share everything. When she found out, however, that Peter had married a woman he met on the boat to India, she was horrified. She considers this marriage an example of Peter's failed choices in life.

At the gates to Green Park near Piccadilly, Clarissa stops. She wonders whether her life and death will matter. On Piccadilly she reads a book in a shop window with a quotation from Shakespeare: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun/Nor the furious winter's rages." The war and the changes in the world have bred "tears and sorrow" in many people, she considers. She looks for a book to give to Evelyn Whitbread but cannot find one she likes.

Clarissa considers what she would do differently if she could live her life over again—she'd be more "dignified" and "sincere." She frequently makes decisions based on what other people will think, rather than deciding independently, as her husband does. She looks into the window of a glove shop and considers buying gloves. Her daughter, Elizabeth, doesn't like gloves or shoes as her mother does. Elizabeth prefers her dog and is devoted to studying with her history tutor, Miss Kilman. Clarissa dislikes Miss Kilman, who is dedicated to helping other countries but lives a simple life of "positive torture" to herself. She recognizes that her feelings toward Miss Kilman represent the "brutal monster" of mental illness and self-torture inside her, rather than anything specific to Miss Kilman herself.

Shrugging her dark thoughts off as "nonsense," Clarissa enters Mulberry's, the flower shop, on Bond Street; Miss Pym greets her. Clarissa, overcome by the beauty of the flower shop, is happily selecting flowers when she hears what she thinks is a pistol in the street outside. Miss Pym reassures her that what she heard was only a motorcar.

Analysis

Woolf immediately gives the reader contradictions in Clarissa Dalloway's life and character. She is wealthy enough for servants, yet does some work herself; she appreciates the beauty in flowers and a fresh June morning, yet she worries about impending terrible events, as symbolized in the airplanes flying overhead. The contradictions reveal that Clarissa's inner life, like the inner lives of the characters to be introduced, is complicated and worthy of attention. Despite her solitary motions throughout this section, she feels a sense of kinship to others. She identifies with the "most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps" and the government's failure to take care of them, especially after the war.

The musical cadence of the sentences as Woolf describes London "in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar," show the constant motion of the city and its role as an object of beauty in Clarissa's life. Motor vehicles, still fairly new in 1923, as well as planes, play an important role in the London background—they signify change, fear, and awe.

Hugh represents to Clarissa an idealized London where politics works—a concept she's not sure she believes in. Her family of "courtiers" might be English aristocracy, but Clarissa is not content with marrying a prime minister and being the "perfect hostess." Rather, she is considering the lives that might have been. This concept, imagining how a life would be different if one or two important details were changed, recurs throughout the novel. For instance, Clarissa and Peter wonder about their lost life together. Though she appreciates the space Richard gives her, and the separateness of their lives (she doesn't ask Richard about his job), Clarissa seems to long for the deep connection she would have shared—and still does—with Peter.

The opening section also begins to consult two major themes: age and mortality along with the passage of time. Clarissa feels like an outsider in her own life; an observer rather than a participant, "far out to sea." This view of life is an essentially Modernist one, which Woolf's fragmented style reflects. The loss of control of the narrative, and the sense of the narrative's end upon death, fuels many of the major characters' stream of consciousness thoughts. Clarissa imagines she is invisible already, known only as her husband's wife.

Clarissa's thought process may be hard to follow. In one moment she thinks about how dangerous life can be; in another she prides herself on her gift of knowing people; in another she imagines her life's path if she looked healthier and showed interest in politics. In a way she has lived several alternate lives in less than an hour. The rapid changes in Clarissa's thoughts show time can pass quickly internally, a result of memory and projection, within a small amount of time in the real world.

Woolf often adds references to real-time action in parentheses, like the policeman holding up his hand while Clarissa is in a reverie crossing the street. This style implies that inner thought is more important than outer events—that characters create their own realities.

Clarissa's anticipation of "interminable talk of women's ailments" reveals that women focus on their interior lives. The force of cultural expectation also drives this talk; upper-class women, who can afford expensive treatments, are permitted and even encouraged to be frail and weak. Evelyn Whitbread and Clarissa Dalloway are two examples. Clarissa seems to despise this expectation, even though she participates in it through her own illness.

The reference to Clarissa's distaste for Miss Kilman shows the diminishing role of the church in London society in general, and in Clarissa's life in particular. Clarissa does not see the need for sacrificial religious gestures. Miss Kilman represents an austerity and devotion that has fallen by the wayside after the war. God did not prevent the war; besides, the English had already suffered plenty. Why not enjoy earthly pleasures?

Clarissa's appreciation of the flowers at Miss Pym's shop and of the merchandise in the other shop windows reflects this enjoyment. The loving description of the flowers' diverse colors and scents, and the pastoral scenes they recall, adds to the color imagery that pervades the novel. Woolf juxtaposes this scene with the violent, surprising image of a pistol shot in the street. The motorcar represents the rapid advance of technology, making the city unrecognizable from previous years.

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