Virginia Woolf is a celebrated British novelist. She is extremely sensitive and suffers from a debilitating and frightening mental illness that sometimes leaves her unable to write. Her mental instability concerns her family greatly. In the Prologue Michael Cunningham reveals Woolf's suicide, in 1941, but the novel focuses on a day in 1923 when she is working on her novel Mrs. Dalloway, for which she has high hopes.
Clarissa Vaughn lives with her daughter, Julia, and her partner, Sally, in an expensive apartment in the desirable Greenwich Village area of New York City. Clarissa is a confident, strong, and successful woman who generally is satisfied with her upper-class city life. But her longtime friend Richard Brown is dying of AIDS, and caring for him has brought back memories of the love they might have had if she hadn't rejected him. Now, Clarissa begins to doubt that rejecting Richard was the right choice. She's happy in her current life, but she feels her life's deepest, truest love might have been with Richard.
Laura Brown strives to be the perfect suburban wife and mother but feels she constantly falls short. She knows her goal of conformist perfection is a performance that betrays who she really is at heart. She longs to escape her stifling, trivial life—whether by running away or even committing suicide—and her discontent is revealed in her cold indifference to her young son, Richie.
Richard is a brilliant and sensitive poet with a charismatic personality. Decades ago he and Clarissa were a couple, experiencing a perfect love, but later she rejected him and he began pursuing a gay lifestyle. By the late 1980s, Richard is dying from AIDS. The disease is not only wasting his body but also destroying his mind. He remains friends with Clarissa, who comes to his apartment nearly every day to care for him. Richard is the son of Laura Brown, and in the "Mrs. Brown" chapters he is known as Richie. Richie is an anxious three-year-old who senses his mother's emotional distance and fears she will abandon him.