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Literature / Mrs. Dalloway

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"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."
Opening line

Mrs Dalloway is a 1925 novel by English author Virginia Woolf, part of the Modernist movement, and one of her most famous works. It is also considered an important work of early feminist literature, due to its sympathetic portrayals of complex, free-thinking, and independent women and its exploration of the social forces that act upon them.

Set over the course of a single June day in London, the novel centres on upper-class Clarissa Dalloway's preparations for an evening party. The abrupt reappearance from India of her Old Flame Peter Walsh, however, triggers a deep and uncomfortable reappraisal of her life.

As of 2021, the book has entered the Public Domain.

A film adaptation was made in 1997, directed by Marleen Gorris and starring Vanessa Redgrave.

This work contians examples of:

  • Alliterative Name: Septimus Smith and Sally Seton.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Elizabeth Dalloway. She may have taken after Clarissa in this aspect, but Clarissa isn't pleased about it one bit - mainly because she dislikes Miss Kilman, the woman that Elizabeth forms a Pseudo-Romantic Friendship with.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Septimus was very close with his fallen comrade, has a loveless marriage that he only agreed to out of fear that he could no longer feel emotions, and tries to confess a crime, which could be homosexuality given that it was a crime at the time the book was written.
    • A case could also be made for Ambiguously Bi, given his pre-war infatuation with Miss Isabel Pole.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Peter Walsh to Clarissa in their younger days. She turned him down, and both have had to grapple with the consequences ever since.
  • Arc Words: "The leaden circles dissolved in the air", indicating Big Ben's marking of the hours as the day passes by. The passage of time and the irrevocable nature of the past are major themes of the novel.
    • "Fear no more the heat o' the sun", a line from the Shakespeare play Cymbeline, also appears in a number of contexts throughout the novel.
  • Big Fancy House: This being a novel largely about the British upper and upper-middle classes in the early 20th century, there are a few of them.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Clarissa has her party, all the old friends she's spent the book reminiscing about make appearances, and everyone seems to have a good time. Meanwhile, Septimus is overcome by his mental illness and kills himself. Woolf wanted to represent ordinary life, making room for both its joys and its darkness.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Richard Dalloway wants very badly to tell his wife, Clarissa, that he loves her, but finds himself unable to do it "in so many words." He buys her flowers instead, and she seems to understand his meaning.
  • Cast Full of Gay: Clarissa is described in-text as being attracted to both men and women. Meanwhile, Sally, Elizabeth, Septimus, Miss Kilman, and Lady Bruton all show signs of bi- or homosexuality to varying degrees. It's worth noting that Virginia Woolf herself was bi.
  • Character Tics: Peter has a bad habit of flipping open his pocketknife and playing with it while he talks.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: We know that Clarissa has recently recovered from a serious illness, but we never learn any specifics. There is one brief reference to her having had influenza at some point in the past, so—given when the book takes place—it's very possible she had the Spanish Flu.
  • Driven to Suicide: Septimus jumps from a window after being prescribed involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hosipital.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The entire novel recounts a single Wednesday in June 1923.
  • A God Am I: Some of Septimus's more grandiose delusions verge on this.
  • Happily Married: All things considered, both the Dalloways and Sally end up like this in the end.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Virginia Woolf really liked the word queer. Gay appears now and then, too.
  • Holier Than Thou: This is the attitude of the pious Miss Kilman, especially towards the irreligious Clarissa Dalloway. (As the book progresses, we learn that Miss Kilman's religion is little more than a front for her own insecurity and hurt.)
  • Hollywood Atheist: Averted by Clarissa. The book states that "not for a moment did she believe in God," but she takes a great deal of joy from life and has a personal ethos of paying kindness forward. Even her disdain for the devout Miss Kilman is ultimately based more in her fear that the other woman is trying to steal her daughter from her than in any deeply-held anti-religious sentiment.
  • Homage: The entire book could be read one of these (or maybe a Take That!) to James Joyce's Ulysses, which was published in its completed form just a year before and also consisted of a perspective-hopping, stream-of-consciousness journey through a single June day in a major city in the British Isles. (Woolf was of the opinion that, while Ulysses showed flashes of brilliance, it failed as a complete work.)
  • Hope Spot: Septimus has an extended moment of lucidity just before he kills himself, which he uses to joke and laugh with the wife he's spent most of the novel distancing himself from. It's a truly touching scene, and makes what follows all the more heartbreaking.
  • In Love with Love: Peter Walsh is constantly fawning over new women and reminiscing about old love, even though he doesn't actually seem to enjoy being in a relationship very much when it happens.
  • In Medias Res: The book's famous first line, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself", drops the reader right in the middle of the "action"—in this case, Clarissa's party preparations.
  • Love Dodecahedron: In the flashback sections. Clarissa loves Sally Seton, but also falls quite quickly for the man she will eventually marry, Richard Dalloway. Peter Walsh is madly in love with Clarissa, and Clarissa reciprocates somewhat, but she also knows it would never work out and tells him as much. Meanwhile Hugh Whitbread tries to make a move on Sally Seton (i.e. kisses her against her will), but Sally (who may or may not be interested in Clarissa, and doesn't want to be married anyway) despises him.
    • There's also a slightly more traditional Love Triangle going one with Septimus and Lucrezia Smith. Septimus fell in love with a woman named Isabel Pole before the war, but she didn't reciprocate his feelings. After the war Septimus married Lucrezia, more out of obligation and panic than real attachment, and, though she legitimately loves him, he's too caught up in his memories of Miss Pole and his (now-dead) friend and possible lover, Evans, to pay her much mind. The couple do reconcile just before Septimus kills himself, however.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Sally Seton is this for Clarissa in the flashback sections. Sally shows up at Clarissa's ancestral home without a penny and, with her idiosyncratic behavior (smoking cigars, running naked along the hallway when she forgets the soap) and lack of concern for the judgments of others, she helps both to awaken Clarissa's bisexuality and to show her that there are possibilities outside the stuffy parameters of British upper-class society.
  • May–December Romance: Peter Walsh is in the process of divorcing his wife for a much younger woman.
  • Mood Whiplash: The scene of genuine intimacy and reconciliation Septimus and Lucrezia share after spending the whole novel at odds with one another is one of the most heartwarming moments in the book. It's followed immediately by Septimus's suicide.
    • The whole book is characterized by this trope to some degree, given the stream-of-consciousness format and the Switching P.O.V.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: Hugh Whitbread.
  • Proper Lady: Clarissa, much to Peter's past and Miss Kilman's present resentment.
  • Protagonist Title
  • Sesquipedalian Smith: Septimus Smith. Woolf even lampshades this trope:
    London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith; thought nothing of fantastic Christian names like Septimus with which their parents have thought to distinguish them.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Septimus Smith, traumatised by his experiences in World War I.
  • Shout-Out: There are lots of references to Shakespeare and other notable European artists and historical figures throughout the novel. A line from Cymbeline ("Fear no more the heat o' the sun") even serves as one of the book's arc phrases.
  • Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters: As with all of Woolf's work, this one leans heavily to the characters side.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Though Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith are the two most central characters, the narrative is constantly jumping into the head of whoever else happens to be in the vicinity at the time. This creates a panoramic effect, and serves both to illustrate the differences between people and their connectedness in the world.
  • There Are No Therapists: Played with. Septimus sees someone who is described as a specialist. This doesn't help him, and he commits suicide anyway.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Sally and Clarissa have shades of this, with Sally as the cigar-smoking, free-spirited tomboy and Clarissa as the more proper society lady.
  • Wall of Text: Woolf's trademark style, as exemplified throughout this book, is long, lyrical, intricate sentences joining together into long, lyrical, intricate paragraphs. The stream-of-consciousness mode in which Mrs. Dalloway is written especially lends itself to this. She was a master, though, and the effect can be stunning.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Peter Walsh admits to having been this when younger. He's more realistic now, but internally he still holds on to many of his old convictions and feelings.

Alternative Title(s): Mrs Dalloway