Mrs. Dalloway | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Section 2 (Septimus, Rezia, and Others Observe London) | Summary

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Summary

Other London citizens near the flower shop hear the explosion of the motorcar and spread rumors about whose car it is. Bystander Edgar J. Watkiss jokes that it's the prime minister's car. Nearby, Septimus Warren Smith overhears him. As other bystanders, including Mrs. Dalloway, watch the car slow to a stop, Septimus feels rooted to the ground. His wife, Rezia Warren Smith, urges him to keep moving. Septimus snaps at her. She is dismayed because Septimus threatened to kill himself earlier. Rezia helps Septimus cross the street as the motorcar drives toward Piccadilly.

Every Londoner in the street can tell that someone important is in the car; the narrator muses the occupant will be known only after everyone there that day is long dead. Clarissa Dalloway thinks the occupant is the Queen. She watches the car depart and notices how crowded the street has become. For 30 seconds, all the strangers on the street are occupied, noticing the same event; afterward, they feel changed. Their ordinary day disrupted, Londoners think "of the dead, of the flag, of Empire."

As the car continues down St. James's Street, more London citizens feel patriotic and supportive of the government. Some salute, and others gather at Buckingham Palace, eager to see royalty. One man, Mr. Bowley, feels sentimental thinking of the dead in the war.

An airplane appears in the sky. The white trail indicates that the airplane is writing letters, and the observers try to make out the word it's writing. Sitting in Regent's Park, Rezia tries to get Septimus to look up at the airplane. Septimus thinks the plane is signaling to him and becomes overjoyed. He soon begins to feel the trees around him are alive. The sparrows in the park and the sounds around him blend to create a strong sensation. He gets up to walk, despite Rezia's pleas for him to stay where he is.

Rezia despairs that Septimus will never get well. She feels alone in her love for him. Though he fought bravely, he's now considering suicide, which confuses and troubles her. Their doctor, Dr. Holmes, has insisted nothing is the matter with Septimus, which troubles Rezia more. She's lost enough weight that her wedding ring falls off. She thinks about her sisters in Italy and the life in the streets there, comparing Italy's vitality to the somber solitude of England. Septimus continues to talk aloud to himself. He sees his commanding officer, Evans, behind the railings and calls out to him.

Maisie Johnson asks the couple for directions to the tube station at Regent's Park and is dismayed by their "queer" behavior. In London for the first time at age 19, she is overwhelmed and horrified by the city. Mrs. Dempster, eating lunch in the park, thinks about how naïve Maisie Johnson is. Mrs. Dempster has had a hard life but still longs to travel and admires the airplane overhead. Mr. Bentley, a man in Greenwich, thinks the plane proves man's soul and determination.

An unnamed "seedy-looking" man, who is possibly a homeless veteran, observes the plane outside St. Paul's Cathedral. He considers the "tombs with banners waving" that the military represents, and the welcome he's found in the church. The airplane is shown to be spelling the first few letters of toffee.

Analysis

This panoramic scene brings all of London together and introduces the reader to several of its working-class outsiders. The "dove gray" car, with its mysterious occupant, represents formality, British royalty, and leadership. Septimus, stalled in a crowd, feels horrified by the gathering of people. Woolf describes the crowd scene through Septimus's eyes: the heat, the pulse. The effect on readers is to make them feel apprehensive, being plunged into the paranoia and constantly shifting images of Septimus's point of view, as seen in his reaction to the symbols of the plane and trees.

Woolf also knows England's greatness and empire cannot last forever. She reminds the reader that everyone on the street that June day will die, flashing far forward into a future in which the city is "a grass-grown path" and its occupants nothing but bones. The jump to Clarissa's observations signifies that the daily and trivial can stand beside the monumental; small moments and large ones are equally important.

Class distinctions create much of the conflict in this section. The possibly royal occupant of the motorcar is permitted to pass by the traffic. The middle-class Londoners sit impatiently in omnibuses. The poor residents wait at Buckingham Palace for a glimpse of the royalty that fascinates them. The reference to the "heavenly life divinely bestowed" on the royal family indicates Londoners' fading but still present belief in the historical concept of the divine right of kings, which is the belief that the monarchy receives its power from God and that any attempt to criticize or remove the ruling monarch is sacrilegious.

By juxtaposing Septimus's chaotic thoughts with the more mundane observations of Clarissa and other characters—the traffic, the letters written by the airplane—Woolf shows that reality is, in some ways, subjective. Everyone is paying attention to a different aspect of the same scene. Individuals' ideas are informed by their own ages, their countries, and histories. The technique of showing the same scene from multiple points of view is an aspect of Modernist experimentation.

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