It's no surprise that Clarissa Dalloway is our main protagonist – heck, the book is named after her. We don’t see through her eyes the entire time, but she’s the center of the action, especially as she plans the party where all the characters will come together that evening. Clarissa is a complex character in part because Woolf doesn’t make her totally sympathetic (that means we don't love everything about her). Because really, even though she feels the oppression of society, she is still very much a part of the very world she critiques. This is a classic case of pot and kettle.
Her parties are all Clarissa really has; they are her "gift," and they bring people like Ellie Henderson and the prime minister together. Her work as the "perfect hostess" is her greatest pleasure. She reflects:
Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background, it was possible to say things you couldn't say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper. (6.17)
Clarissa wants her parties to be profound events, to have meaning for everyone involved. (Don't we all?) Usually Mrs Dalloway seems very disconnected, but her parties suggest the possibility of people not being completely and utterly isolated from each other. A nice thought.
On the surface, Mrs Dalloway seems like a pretty shallow lady. She doesn’t really read and she's not interested in politics or anything outside of her Westminster neighborhood. Everyone who knows her, including the men who love her (Peter and Richard), wonders why she cares so much about the parties she throws (other than the fact that they're awesome.) Though she considers herself a kind and sympathetic person, Clarissa is clearly a big snob: she’s the wife of a government worker, which makes her part of the higher ranks; she looks down at anyone who doesn’t abide by the correct social standards; and having a country home and numerous servants are a big part of her identity.
We have to remember something, though. Sure, Clarissa is attracted to these shallow pleasures, but they might just be a distraction from the anxiety and depression that she experiences on a daily basis. Like everyone else, Clarissa is affected by World War I and can’t help but see the changes going on in society around her. On top of the effects of the war, the narrator even mentions that Clarissa witnessed her own sister being killed. Just because she doesn't think about it all the time, that was surely a traumatic experience. She just learns to deal with it in her own party-girl way.
So before we judge Clarissa for her superficial desires, we have to remember that there's always something more below the surface (anyone who's ever seen a teen comedy can attest to that).
Clarissa doesn't seem to look on the bright side of things: she's always up in arms about something. For example, she thinks that doctors like Sir William Bradshaw, who practice psychotherapy and try to control super vulnerable people, are society’s worst villains. She thinks that Dr Bradshaw's philosophy of "Conversion" and "Proportion" is really just a way of seeing patients as inhuman science experiments. We're not saying we disagree, but that's definitely a pessimistic way of seeing things.
Mrs Dalloway also makes no attempt to cover up her dislike of religion, and Miss Kilman’s success in luring Elizabeth to attend religious classes makes her really mad. In fact, Clarissa has little faith in anything but her own social gratification (being cool). Although she had her own lesbian attraction in her youth, she has no sympathy for Elizabeth’s relationship with Miss Kilman. At her age, she believes in being a lady, performing certain social gestures, and having the manners appropriate to her class.
Although Clarissa cherishes her independence, relationships are incredibly important to her. The three most meaningful relationships she has had are with Sally Seton, Peter Walsh, and Richard Dalloway (her husband). These three relationships are actually all quite intertwined in Clarissa's mind – each one would not be what it is without the others.
Though Peter has always loved her desperately and emotionally, Richard shows some reserve; he lets her have space and even encourages her to sleep alone in the attic (strange). Whereas Peter bursts into tears in front of her, Richard can’t even bring himself to say "I love you." Even with these two men in the mix, Sally Seton is still the only person who ever gave Clarissa an erotic thrill. Their memorable kiss in the garden at Bourton is something she still cherishes thirty years later. So what is it that Mrs Dalloway wants from a relationship? Passion? Love? Status?
We can begin to answer this question by thinking about the relationships that Clarissa forms in her mind with other characters. By the end of the novel, Clarissa has made two vital but surprising connections: one to Septimus, whose death she sees as a sort of redemption, and one to the lady across the way, who finally makes eye contact with her, acknowledging Clarissa’s presence. It seems as though Mrs Dalloway may just be looking for some way to connect her inner turmoil to the world around her. What do you think?
Fear is a central component of Clarissa's character. Though we don’t know exactly what’s wrong with Clarissa – as we do in the case of Septimus – we know she experiences daily anxiety and sometimes faces terrible fear of tasks as small as crossing the street. We also know she was once a patient of Dr Bradshaw and that just being in his office terrified her.
Though Woolf never offers a final diagnosis, our sense is that the oppressions of daily life in patriarchal England have forced Clarissa to live a very closed-off life, to the point that she is afraid of everything the outside world has to offer. The sense of freedom she feels when she opens the door of her house indicates how seldom she finds herself in that world, but how much she craves the connections it offers.
Wandering around London helps Clarissa to think about what she enjoys in life:
Clarissa identifies with all of these grand signs of Englishness: "[…] the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs," for this "was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June" (1.4). The urban surroundings are where she can experience the exquisite moments of life. Because of her constant fear of death, these moments are crucial.