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Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway


by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway Section 1 Summary

  • Mrs Dalloway (a.k.a. Clarissa) sets off to buy flowers. She knows that Lucy has a lot of work to do and it’s a beautiful morning, so why not?
  • Leaving the house for the outside world stirs profound feelings in her, reminding her of the feeling of opening a window at Bourton (her family’s country home) and stepping out to breathe the fresh air.
  • She immediately recalls being eighteen years old there, feeling the strange combination of exhilaration and fear; she also remembers how Peter Walsh interrupted her with some silly remark about vegetables.
  • Back in present day, Mrs Dalloway thinks of how Peter Walsh will soon return from India. She thinks of all his annoying quirks, like constantly playing with a pocket-knife. (That sounds more dangerous than annoying to us.)
  • People in Clarissa’s London neighborhood of Westminster recognize her as she walks down the street. (You start to get get recognized after twenty years in the same town.) Scrope Purvis observes her resemblance to a bird; she was recently sick and still looks a bit pale. (Not the nicest thing to say about a woman, but hey.)
  • Living in Westminster, Mrs Dalloway has come to anticipate the hourly sounds from Big Ben. She proceeds down the street, making observations to herself about the various people and things she sees: a vagrant on the steps, cars passing, an aeroplane. Yes, an aeroplane (fun word, right?). It’s a beautiful June day.
  • The war is over and everyone’s incredibly relieved. (This is World War I we're talking about; since the novel was published in 1925, that's not too tough to figure out.)
  • London is full of life and tradition: the king and queen, cricket, shoppers out and about. Mrs Dalloway loves it all. After all, her family history is very connected to England, even with ties to previous kings.
  • Oh, and she’s giving a party tonight. Awesome.
  • While on her walk, she runs into Hugh Whitbread. He’s in London to take his wife, Evelyn, to see a few doctors. Mrs Dalloway doesn’t pry, but it’s clear that Evelyn is not well. Hugh makes Mrs Dalloway feel "schoolgirlish;" neither her husband Richard nor Peter Walsh ever liked that she liked him. You know how it goes.
  • Actually, she remembers some conflict between Peter and Hugh at Bourton, which makes her think of how she and Peter haven’t seen each other for a long time.
  • Peter didn’t see things the way she did. He was dry, unenthusiastic. He didn’t see beauty like Clarissa, but instead thought of Wagner and poetry. Bo-ring.
  • They argued because he wanted to marry her. Richard, on the other hand, gave her more space; Peter had to share everything. Still, she was sad when she heard that Peter had married some woman in India.
  • Clarissa keeps heading through London, watching taxis and feeling the anxiety of everyday living. This walk is getting intense!
  • Mrs Dalloway is a simple woman, reading only memoirs, but priding herself in understanding people "by instinct" (1.16). She never really takes risks (though once she threw a coin into a lake – crazy!). She wonders about death, and how life will go on without her after she dies.
  • Along her walk, Clarissa reads a book through a shop window and thinks about the solitary condition of human beings. She thinks about buying a book for Evelyn Whitbread.
  • Mrs Dalloway has some regrets, and wishes she looked like Lady Bexborough: dark-skinned and stately. She feels invisible, now old, past the age of having children. She’s not Clarissa but Mrs Richard Dalloway. (Check out "What's Up With the Title?" for more on this.)
  • Clarissa absolutely loves Bond Street with its shops full of shoes and gloves, things her daughter, Elizabeth, doesn't care for.
  • Elizabeth spends a lot of time with Miss Kilman, a horrible (in her mind) woman who takes Elizabeth to Catholic meetings. Elizabeth's relationship with Miss Kilman may be exciting, but Mr Dalloway comforts Clarissa by telling her that their relationship is just a phase.
  • Miss Kilman is a tortured soul, a sufferer and a martyr. She wears her poverty and inferiority like a badge of honor. Clarissa becomes physically disturbed at the mere thought of this woman.
  • Mrs Dalloway finally enters the flower shop, where she’s greeted by Miss Pym. Clarissa walks through the flowers, when suddenly a sound like a shot comes from the street outside. A car backfired.
  • The noise of the car draws the attention of everyone on the street. The car belongs to someone important: a government figure, perhaps. Rumors circulate, pedestrians speculate. Who can it be behind the car’s curtain?
  • Septimus Warren Smith is walking down the street, too. His face shows the fear he has in his heart.
  • Clarissa looks at the car and Septimus does, too – but they don’t know each other.
  • Septimus is deeply disturbed, and he fears that the world will "burst into flames" (1.33).
  • Septimus’ wife, Lucrezia, grows concerned and tries to hurry him along. She, too, stares at the motor car. Is it the queen?
  • Lucrezia and Septimus have been married for four or five years. Septimus has threatened to kill himself, so it hasn't been easy going. Lucrezia wants to scream, right there on the street, for help. She also just wants to hide him from people. She's ashamed of him.
  • The motor car continues on its way. No one knows who it was, but everyone feels a sense of having been in the presence of greatness. Mrs Dalloway thinks it was the queen. The queen!
  • The traffic is terrible as the car tries to get through. Perhaps there’s a party at Buckingham Palace tonight. Clarissa is having a party tonight, too, in case you forgot.
  • The car leaves the crowd feeling all patriotic and emotional as it pulls away. People think of "the dead; of the flag; of Empire" (1.46). Bystanders are full of pride. The end of war will really do that to people.
  • A crowd gathers in anticipation outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. The people are poor but hopeful, feeling dignity just from being in the presence of someone important, whoever it may be. Random people – Sarah Bletchley, Emily Coates, Mr Bowley – get a thrill from the car and the Palace and all of the ideas associated with royalty. This is like the Will and Kate wedding!
  • Suddenly an airplane passes overhead, doing some skywriting as onlookers try to make out the word up in the clouds. Glaxo? Kreemo? Toffee? (We hope it’s the last one.)
  • The car passes through the gates unnoticed. The plane disappears behind the clouds and then emerges again.
  • Back to the Septimus story. At Regent’s Park, Lucrezia, acting on Dr Holmes’s advice, tries to distract Septimus with the airplane. They’re signaling me, he thinks. He begins to cry: he’s overwhelmed by beauty.
  • The trees distract Septimus; they’re rising and falling, but he shuts his eyes so that he doesn’t go mad. (We're really starting to feel for this guy.)
  • Lucrezia wishes he were dead; it’s too much to see him behave like a madman. She thinks he’s a coward for threatening suicide, but he was brave in the war. Dr Holmes insists nothing is wrong with Septimus.
  • But Lucrezia suffers. She misses Italy:the people are alive there; not like Londoners. She feels very alone in Regent’s Park. She wonders: at night, does the park go back in time and look just like it did when the Romans lived there?
  • Septimus is lost in thoughts of God and crime. A bird sings to him in Greek (but of course).
  • Still sitting on the park bench, he sees a man (Evans) emerge from behind some railings. Lucrezia returns to her husband’s side, interrupting his hallucination. Together, they proceed to the Regent’s Park tube station.
  • A stranger, Maisie Johnson, asks them for directions, noticing how odd the couple seems. She’s only nineteen and just visiting London for the first time. Lucrezia and Septimus give her the creeps.
  • An unknown character, Mrs Demster, can’t help but notice Maisie Johnson. Mrs Demster looks at Maisie and thinks she’ll marry someday, but that she, too, is lonely. She looks at the plane and thinks of how she once longed to travel; the farthest she's been is on a boat in sight of shore.
  • A man passes St. Paul’s Cathedral and thinks of religion: it gives a sense of belonging. He thinks, why not enter the church?
  • There are a lot of people coming and going in this book – get used to it. They're not all main players, but their presence is important.

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