My Penguin edition has a great little summary on the back cover: Clarissa Dalloway, elegant and vivacious, is preparing for a party and remembering those she once loved. In another part of London, Septimus Warren Smith is shell-shocked and on the brink of madness. Smith's day interweaves with that of Clarissa and her friends, their lives converging as the party reaches its glittering climax. Past, present and future are brought together one momentous June day in 1923.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning - fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen [...].What a perfect start! Every time I open this book, I feel like Clarissa plunging into the early London morning. I've read those starting paragraphs as many times as the Lolita ones and I can safely say they are my favourites. Woolf introduces every theme of the novel in few words. It's like the first movement of a sonata. We have the party, the vitality of Clarissa Dalloway, her reflections on life and death, the past at Bourton and the 'something awful'.
Clarissa possesses a high degree of self-awareness and analyzes her actions as she does them. As she says, she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. However, when she is most herself, she is criticized as emotional and fake. The reasons after her party are discussed several times throughout the novel, but none are given. My take is that it is Clarissa living for herself. For there she was. And Woolf uses this character, along with that of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to show the stark difference between how we are perceived and how we want to be perceived. In that, she reminded me of Proust.
We then follow Clarissa for a while, until we are passed like a ball to different people looking a car passing, then up at the sky where a plane is writing letters, until we meet Septimus and Lucrezia Smith. We follow both stories seamlessly through Clarissa's party guests, threading together the stories of the Dalloways and the Smiths. Woolf portrays shell shock (I think what we would call PTSD nowadays) with an insider's knowledge of madness. It's unfair to always report Woolf's work to her personal life, but Septimus' breakdowns are all too real not to factor in Woolf's own breakdowns and final suicide. I sympathized with Septimus, and pitied his wife, Lucrezia. Her swaying between hate for Septimus' supposed selfishness and love for what he was before is as real as it gets for someone so misinformed. Her final reaction of regret, sadness and a tittle of relief over her husband's death says it all.
Among the many things Woolf does marvelously in this novel is portraying homosexuality as natural. One thing that always surprises me while reading a classic is acceptance of homosexuality. I forget we aren't the first to fight for LGBT rights. There is no doubt that Clarissa feels attracted to woman, and in particular, to Sally Seton.
The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one's feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up. [...]
She could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy (now the old feeling began to come back to her, as she took out her hairpins, laid them on the dressing-table, began to do her hair), with the rooks flaunting up and down in the pink evening light, and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall “if it were now to die ’twere now to be most happy.” That was her feeling—Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton! [...]
She and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it—a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!Clarissa is the more obvious choice, but Septimus had a special relationship with his friend Evans too. The wording is such thay they could have been really good friends or something more, and we don't know for sure though.
It was a case of two dogs playing on a hearth-rug [...]. They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other. [...] Rezia who had only seen him once called him “a quiet man,” a sturdy red-haired man, undemonstrative in the company of women.In the flow of the novel, the only thing marking the pace is time. Big Ben, other clocks, the fading light, meals. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Time reminds Clarissa that her party is coming and the Smiths, their doctor appointment first and their dreaded separation later. It makes all come together and eases the way for Clarissa's own thoughts about getting older and ultimately death. From her coffin-like bed, at the start of the novel, to the final reflection in a mirror that is the old lady who lives opposite, Clarissa is intimately tied to death:
A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.
The writing is of course excellent. Virginia Woolf used stream of consciousness with great dexterity and chose her words and metaphors with care. One of my favourite scenes is the 'battle' scene that takes place between Clarissa and Peter when they first meet after so many years. Stately Clarissa summons her guards, while impetuous Peter rushes to the battle as a stallion. I would quote it, but it really is long (like three whole pages long and we all know that this review has already gotten out of hand).
I don't think it is a difficult read by any means. It's just a thread of thoughts and impressions to follow, and I think everyone thinks in a form similar to this one. A slow read, maybe, if you are used to gimmicks and action that move the plot forward. This plot, as life itself, moves itself forward. So don't be afraid of Virginia Woolf and read her books (see what I did there). You'll be glad you read them.