Mrs. Dalloway | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Section 17 (Clarissa's Party) | Summary

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Summary

Lucy and Agnes hurriedly prepare food for guests. Extra staff, hired for the party, arrive along with the wealthy guests. Anxious, Clarissa Dalloway feels her party will be a failure because everything seems to be going wrong. Peter Walsh doesn't like her insincere manner. Ellie Henderson, invited at the last minute, feels left out and ashamed of the cheap pink flowers she brought. Richard engages her in conversation. Peter greets Richard. As other guests file in, Clarissa feels apart from the event, as if it's unreal. Sally Seton, now called Lady Rosseter after her marriage, arrives and greets a surprised Clarissa. Peter notices Hugh at the party and thinks about all the harm Hugh has done.

Clarissa, energized and tender in her middle age, greets more friends. She's more comforted by the idea of enemies like Miss Kilman, however, and by the certainty of death. She greets her guests—friends, academics, high-ranking officials—and makes small talk. The prime minister—"this symbol of what they all stood for, English society"—arrives, and Lady Bruton withdraws with him to a small, private room. Aunt Helena Parry, over 80 years old, arrives, surprising Peter who thought she had died. Clarissa and Lady Bruton speak briefly and reminisce about the past. Lady Bruton contemplates the tragedy of India and the possibilities of England's empire. When Clarissa sees Sally and Peter talking, she wants to reconnect with them. She considers the situational irony that free-spirited Sally ended up marrying a rich man and having five children. Sir and Lady Bradshaw arrive "shockingly late." With Richard, Sir Bradshaw discusses a proposed bill to help veterans with shell shock. Lady Bradshaw takes Clarissa aside to tell her about Septimus's death.

Clarissa is first dismayed by the news and the timing of Lady Bradshaw's announcement. She goes into a room by herself to think. Though she doesn't know why Septimus killed himself, she feels convinced his soul is preserved. Besides everyone at her party will grow old and die. She feels a kinship to Septimus and a renewed joy in life, despite her fear.

Peter and Sally catch each other up on their lives. Peter reflects on the changes he sees in Sally after motherhood and upper-class living. They discuss their feelings for Clarissa, which have evolved over the years to friendship and respect, and her marriage to Richard. Richard meanwhile thinks that his daughter is getting older and unrecognizable as a poised, secure adult. He feels proud. As the night comes to an end, Peter is filled with an inexplicable excitement as he sees Clarissa.

Analysis

The party shows the final evolution in Clarissa's character, from distraught, overwhelmed, and disingenuous to content and sincere. The novel's panoramic scenes, giving a sentence or two to many different characters, evoke the diversity and mystery in large crowds. Everyone at Clarissa's party is putting on an act, concerned about how they'll be perceived, but interacting with others anyway. Elizabeth, for instance, isn't recognized by many of the guests because of her formal wear and bearing. At first Clarissa dislikes the charades of her guests, but she comes to realize the bravery of their performance. Like everyone, they're looking for a connection in the world.

The inclusion of Ellie Henderson's point of view adds another outsider, one presented sympathetically. Ellie is clearly making an effort, and she also experiences the "mild beam" of clarity and purification that comes with aging after 50. Her carnations continue the motif of flowers associated with women; pink, modest, not showy, and almost apologetic. When Aunt Helena Parry remembers her past, she focuses on orchids, associated with long-ago English colonialism and empire in the East. Helena is a welcome sight for those who thought she was dead, proof that life can still surprise.

Sally and Peter experience a similar clarity to Ellie's. Though Peter is dismayed at how pedestrian Sally's thoughts and reflections have become, he is still able to talk to her as candidly as he ever was. This preservation of the past inspires Peter to take his love for Clarissa seriously. Peter is also becoming disillusioned with the very English society he hopes to reenter: he recognizes that Hugh's kind gestures are only condescending and conciliatory, not effecting real change. Lady Bruton still has hope for England, as she looks around at the guests. Her devotion to empire has a dark side, especially after the war's destruction and the negative aspects of imperialism. Lady Bruton reflects positively on the war, the only character to do so. Her war images are associated with pride, victory, and conquering nations for the English. Patriotism is tied to her soul, while Hugh gives only the appearance of being a patriot.

True feelings come to the forefront as the party continues into the night. The reader learns Sally's true emotions for Clarissa: Sally recalls they had been friends, and Clarissa was charming and pure hearted. But Sally thinks Clarissa is a snob at heart and is the reason the Dalloways never have accepted her invitations to visit. Though Clarissa pretends to dislike Lady Bruton, she really pities her. Clarissa's meditations on the death of Septimus bring repeated motifs full circle. The clock strikes again; the cloudy sky feels new; Clarissa repeats the mantra "Fear no more the heat of the sun." She understands Septimus's act in a way she cannot explain to others. Clarissa feels a new compassion for her party guests as she realizes they're all fighting against death and oblivion in very different ways. They're all doing their best. The beauty of life is in its impermanence, and the hours of the clock come to represent the gift of time. This change in perspective gives Clarissa confidence to participate in the world the way Septimus could not.

The idea of how well anyone can really know others recurs toward the end. Sally believes that knowing others well is impossible. Peter believes it can be done. In the final scene he's confronted with the mystery of Clarissa. Transfixed by the excitement of the unknowable, he feels Clarissa represents a great mystery. He realizes what Sally meant by "what does the brain matter ... compared with the heart?" Facts and truth may have deserted people after the war, but they can still experience curiosity, anticipation, and surprise. With these possibilities, everyone at the party may begin to feel a new hope.

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