Showcasing a post-World War I London, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of a single day. While many characters’ consciousness takes charge of the narrative, the two major plots remain that of the title character Mrs. Dalloway, an upper-class socialite married to a member of the Parliament as she spends her day preparing for a party and a young war veteran Septimus Warren Smith, who attempts to get through the day as he struggles with the fresh scars of his experience. Although the characters seem very unlikely to have any relation to each other, by the end of the day, although they never meet in person, the novel appears to be an interweave of stories, connected by characters both Mrs. Dalloway and/or Septimus are acquainted with, as the narrative constantly shifts from one stream of consciousness to the other.
It is a Wednesday in mid-June and the plot opens to the titular character, Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway as she is seen walking outside to buy some flowers when suddenly she looks up to notice a plane sky-writing in the air. She is unable to interpret the message and wonders as to its actual meaning. All the while, Clarissa is lost in her own thoughts as well, as she reminisces about the days that have gone by, such as when, thirty years prior, she had rejected the proposal of the unpredictable Peter Walsh in favor of the sensible Richard Dalloway. This is continual throughout the novel; using a third-person narrative, Virginia Woolf takes us to the deepest corners of Clarissa’s thoughts. We are taken back to several flashbacks as well as made aware of her discrepancies about the present and the future.
After returning from her errands, Clarissa is surprised to find Peter Walsh visiting her house. It can be sensed from the tight conversation, that the rejection is still fresh in both their minds. Peter Walsh had never quite forgotten Clarissa and asks her aloud if she believes she made the right choice by rejecting his offer when suddenly the conversation halts to an abrupt start as Clarissa’s teenage daughter Elizabeth enters the room. Peter leaves the room without learning Clarissa’ reply and decides to visit Regent’s Park. He is left unaware of the fact that the same question he had been wondering about had also entered Clarissa’s mind due to his sudden visit. While she decidedly approves of her choice in marriage, she is left thinking about a certain girlfriend, Sally Seton, for whom she had carried a forbidden torch of attraction while they were both young.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to the second major character of the story, Septimus Warren Smith, who is wandering around the street with his wife, Lucrezia. Septimus seems a bit dazed and it is revealed that he is struggling with shell shock, hearing the sound of his comrade’s voices in his head. A small introduction is provided about the man before the war. Before World War I, Septimus Smith was an educated literary with a fondness for the works of Shakespeare. He had decided to join the war because of his belief in the cause. However, the man after the war is a completely different one, having changed drastically due to an injury that left him paralysed and the death of his good friend, Evans.
As they roam the streets, they reach Regent’s Park where they have an encounter with Peter Walsh. Lost in his own thoughts, Peter, in his observation of the young couple, decides that it is only an innocent miff. On the contrary, it seems that Septimus has decidedly lost all lucid thoughts and is teetering on the edge of suicide. He is regularly visited by hallucinations in the form of Evans and carries on conversations with him about the decreasing value of life. The once patriotic Septimus has been diminished to a man who has lost his will to live. His actions have started to worry his wife who had arranged an appointment with a psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw. After careful assessment, Sir Bradshaw suggests that Septimus be assigned to a mental institution for psychiatric care, a decision that will end up leading to a tragic incident that very day.
The plot again shifts towards the elite society; this time focusing on a lunch between Richard Dalloway, Clarissa’ husband, and his fellow acquaintances, Lady Bruton and Hugh Whitbread. The men help write a letter to the newspaper while Richard is uncomfortable as he understands that Clarissa had seemed upset that she had not been invited. On his way home, he attempts to ameliorate the situation by buying a bunch of roses for his wife and express his love for her. Although he is successful in offering the gift, he is unable to tell Clarissa how much he loves her, due to the increasing distance between the couple. It has been, after all, so many years since he has even uttered those words to her. At the same time, the readers are given a taste of Richard’s point of view of the marriage, they are also privy to Clarissa’s thoughts during the exchange. She concludes that separation of compassion is common, even between married couples. Although she agrees that it is this lack of emotional intimacy that has enabled her to maintain a successful relationship with Richard, she cannot help being a bit miffed that even after thirty years, her husband is not aware of every little thing about her.
More characters are introduced as the plot follows such as Elizabeth’s history teacher, Miss Kilman. Clarissa and Miss Kilman do not see eye to eye on things, instead harboring a mutual hatred for each other. After her conversation with Richard, Clarissa checks up on her daughter who is going through a lesson with Miss Kilman. Clarissa is threatened by Elizabeth’s friendship with her tutor, seeing the latter as a threat while the latter herself disapproves of Clarissa’s social background and lifestyle. Blissfully unaware, Elizabeth goes off shopping with her teacher as Clarissa sees them off.
The narrative again shifts towards Septimus as he spends time with his wife, Lucrezia, inside their apartment. A moment of peace is disturbed by the arrival of two men who have been appointed by Septimus’s doctor in order to take him away to a mental facility. The already depressed Septimus is pushed to his edge and he concludes that the only way to escape such an imprisoned life is by giving up on it entirely. During the commotion, he jumps through the window and falls to his death.
While he is on his way to Clarissa’s party that evening, Peter hears the sirens of an ambulance that is racing by to pick up the deceased body of Septimus Warren Smith. Nevertheless, Peter Walsh makes an appearance and we are introduced to more characters that have been mentioned throughout the course of the novel. Sally Seton is nothing like the young free-spirited woman of Clarissa’ memories; throughout the years, she has changed into a more traditional individual. She is married to a Lord and is the mother of five children. Septimus’s psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, who had prescribed mental care for his patient (a decision that had lead to Septimus’s death), is also present at the party with his wife, who explains their lateness due to the demise of a patient of William’s.
This is the moment when the two major characters, Clarissa Dalloway’s and the deceased Septimus Smith’s stories intersect. After hearing about the young war veteran’s death, instead of continuing to being the perfect host to the party she had painstakingly put all her efforts to, Clarissa excuses herself and quietly retreats to a small room. She contemplates about the decision Septimus made to end his life and instead of pitying him or disapproving of his choice, she is impressed by his ability to take the high road by not compromising his soul for the sake of the society. She also admits to herself that she is partly responsible for his demise as a member of the upper-class elites who make life intolerable for the middle-class citizens.
As Clarissa prepares herself to re-enter the hall, the party has begun to end. Richard Dalloway has yet not been able to renew his affections for Clarissa while Peter Walsh is eager to speak to his unrequited love. He is again unaware of Clarissa’s own thoughts about the matter; such as he is not aware that the entire time of the party Clarissa had been intentionally avoiding Peter, fearing his overt nature of criticizing.
Clarissa finally does make a last appearance as the party has slowly dwindled to an end and so has the novel. She is unexcited by the clear success of the party, a party that had been the center of her attention throughout the entire course of the plot. The plot itself ends on a dubious note as we are left with the great excitement on Peter Walsh’s part as he sees Clarissa again.