Mrs Dalloway Movie Analysis Essay
Those critics who complain that Mrs. Dalloway has no plot and only minimal characterization are right in the sense that the events of a day in the life of a London society matron have no point or significance in the grand scheme of life. Similarly, except for Clarissa and Septimus, Woolf’s characters are seemingly mere skeletons, stereotypical images of the spurned lover, the dull husband, the ruthless, power-mad doctor, and so forth. Yet Woolf deliberately creates a world in which the consciousness and searches for identity of two strangers can be seen as metaphors for all human existence, for who does not seek identity, love, and purpose? It is this flowing stream of images, thoughts, and feelings that engulfs the reader, who shares a conscious awareness of each individual’s connections to all people over all time, as well as a recognition of the individual’s delicate sense of self, which is threatened by those very people and experiences.
In her introduction to the 1928 Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf admitted that originally Clarissa was to commit suicide at the end of her party, but later Woolf created the suicidal Septimus Warren Smith as Clarissa’s double when her focus changed from a picture of a loveless woman bent on self-destruction to a portrait of the conflicting demands of selfhood and love for others.
For many critics, Clarissa is a woman who is in love with life, one who accepts her secure, passionless life even while she begins to recognize, sadly, that she has missed something—perhaps the ecstasy of erotic love?—and so her character has become hard, almost brittle. For Clarissa, love destroys one by threatening the self, one’s individuality, one’s psyche, complicating one’s life and making one vulnerable to someone who may disappoint or disillusion one.
Like Septimus, whose friends died in the war, Mrs. Dalloway is lonely for her loved ones who have also left, rejected by her—Peter to an adventure in India, Sally to the country as a wife and mother, Elizabeth taken over as Miss Kilman’s “disciple.” Everyone else is merely a “party friend,” with a party face and party manners. She means no more to them than does Septimus, a stranger, a madman, a suicide.
Some critics of the 1930’s and 1950’s have dismissed Woolf as “extremely insignificant” compared to writers such as James Joyce and British author H. G. Wells, and some have even accused her of being a poor, childish imitation of Joyce (Wyndham Lewis, 1934) or have claimed that her novels are merely “tenuous, amorphous and vague” (D. S. Savage, 1950). Most critics, however, agree with scholars such as Reuben Arthur Brower, who says that Woolf has a “Shakespearean imagination” and a wealth of visual and auditory images and symbols that recur throughout Mrs. Dalloway to reveal the “terror” and the joy of life and the fear of interruptions of that joy.
For Mrs. Dalloway, as for Woolf, people are connected by “tenuous” threads to the web of life, love, experience, and one another. For them, the joy of life comes from being part of the wave-like process, but also, standing apart from it, they take joy in the moment while fearing the suspense of “interruptions” of that calm, that peace—life itself. Characters such as Clarissa’s former lover, Peter Walsh, and her daughter Elizabeth likewise experience her love of precious moments, unlike Clarissa’s double, who cannot connect because he is alienated and alone, outside the world, outside life itself.
It is Clarissa alone who recognizes Smith’s suicide as a means of communication, a way of maintaining his rightful independence of spirit, of defying those who would control him—even his wife Rezia, who loves him. Clarissa also has rejected the passionate but controlling love offered by Peter and the purity of feeling offered by Sally, instead choosing the unfeeling and undemanding Richard. Although she has compromised some of her purity, Clarissa has also given back some joy in the moment to those whom she meets and entertains.
By repeating images, symbols, and metaphors such as those of the sea—waves of feeling, of joy, of life—sewing, building, mirroring, Big Ben, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” and solemnity versus love, Woolf connects the fragmented bits of characters, choices, and the day itself with fluidity, kinetic energy, and imagination to suggest her vision of the postwar English life of the contented but loveless Mrs. Dalloway.
A central metaphor here is that of vision, sight, insight, windows, and mirrors: Smith is a mirror image of Clarissa; if she is without passion in her life, having rejected love twice (with Sally and then Peter) in order to maintain her tentative sense of self, Smith thinks he feels nothing while he is overwhelmingly passionate in his survivor guilt and his love of life and notions of goodness, distorted by the war. She dreams of love while gazing into her mirror and looking out her window to connect with all life, while he sees the world from the outside and only rejoins humanity by killing himself to preserve the integrity of his soul.
Ironically, throughout the novel, the reader senses Clarissa’s fear of death, which occasions her reassessment of her peaceful life, given significance by Smith’s act of throwing his own life away. His suicide leads to Clarissa’s recognition of her own love of life and its momentary treasures. It is the mirroring of passion and life that unifies this impressionistic vision of the falsity of clock time—single lives, as opposed to the true, intuitive, flowing consciousness that connects all humanity. Thus, Mrs. Dalloway identifies with Smith at the precise moment of his annihilation and is inspired to accept the ebb and flow of being, the profusion of hopes and fears, the joys and terrors of life.
*Please note: Woolf did not divide her novel by chapter. For the sake of summary and analysis, I have used her breaks in text to create my own sections.
Part I Section One Summary (page 1-13, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy...were all her fault."):
Clarissa Dalloway took it upon herself to buy the flowers for the party that evening. Lucy had so much other work to do and the morning air was fresh and inviting. Air like this always reminded her of a morning when, at eighteen, she had burst open the French windows to the terrace. Peter Walsh stood within and commented on vegetables. He still wrote to Clarissa, very boring letters, and would be returning from India someday.
Waiting on the curb, Scrope Purvis noticed her, thinking to himself that she was charming. Clarissa thought of the hush that fell over Westminster right before the ring of Big Ben. As the bell rang out, she looked at the people around her, living in the moment, and loved life. It was June and the Great War was over. Life sprang out all around her with a passion, dancing girls and ponies and shopkeepers in their windows. Clarissa was a part of it. Entering the park, she was met with a deeper silence. Hugh Whitbread, an old friend, walked toward her. He assured her that he would attend the party even though his wife, Evelyn, was ill. The Whitbreads always came to London to see doctors. Though she adored him, Hugh had a way of making Clarissa feel underdressed. Richard, her husband, could not stand Hugh and Peter had hated him. But Peter could be like that.
Thinking of Peter again, she looked at the scene around her and knew he would have been lovely to walk with at this moment. She could not stop such thoughts and memories from rushing over her. Peter would not have cared for the sights of the morning. He cared for people's characters and he often scolded her for her superficiality. She would be a perfect hostess. Clarissa found herself arguing again with Peter about why she could not marry him. She knew she was right, he would not have given her any independence, but still it bothered her. Learning that he had married a flimsy Indian woman angered her greatly.
Clarissa knew now not to define or label anyone because she felt at one with the world, both young and old, and omnipresent. Not that she was clever, simply knowing. She knew people very well. Most of all, she loved living in the moment. Yet, she was not irked by the thought of death. Clarissa felt that pieces of herself existed wherever she had ever been. Musing among books, Clarissa could not find a suitable one to bring Evelyn. She wanted Evelyn to look pleased when she walked in. She realized her baseness, always wanting to do things that would make people like her instead of doing them for their own value, as Richard did. If she could do life over again, she would look like Lady Bexborough. She disliked her own little beaked face and stick body. She felt invisible at times.
Bond Street fascinated her. Her daughter Elizabeth was not fascinated by any of the delicate gloves in the shops. Elizabeth was fascinated with Miss Kilman, a callous Communist who made one feel small because she was privately starving and depriving herself for the Russians. The hate that welled up inside of Clarissa scared her. She felt that, since her illness, there was perpetually a monster of hate inside of her waiting to claw or gnaw away at something. She entered Mulberry's florist and was greeted by eager Miss Pym. Miss Pym was happy to help because Clarissa had been very kind. This year, however, she looked older. Clarissa was enraptured by the various smells and colors of the many flowers. She knew Miss Pym liked her and tried to surmount the hatred she had felt when suddenly a pistol shot in the street. Miss Pym looked apologetic, as if the loud motor cars were her fault.
Part One Section One Analysis:
Woolf begins the novel in her typical fashion, symbolically and methodically. We meet Clarissa in the first sentence, in a proclamation of independence. She will get the flowers because Lucy has work to do. The proclamation is thus tinged with a sense of irony because though Clarissa has chosen to handle the burden of work herself, the work only consists of buying flowers. The irony inherent in the entire text will be fleshed out as we continue but, the very first sentences hint at the underlying theme of social commentary which Woolf instilled in order to illustrate the superficiality of the members of Mrs. Dalloway's social circle.
However, Clarissa's character is not meant solely to represent the vainness of a certain social group. Much deeper and more intense symbolism exists in the novel and in this central character. The novel is one of moments. Moments of time and life are highlighted and intensely analyzed. The narrative, though in third person, focuses on Clarissa but moves from character to character, and often provides insight into the persona of Clarissa. Clarissa, unlike her double whom we will meet shortly, loves life and embraces the present.
The two exclamations which begin the third paragraph are symbolic of Clarissa's attitude toward life and the moment to moment structure of the book. The ejaculations are short, stark, and positive. They give the language a bursting feeling which will tie into the overarching theme of the sea in the novel. Note how the second exclamatory sentence ends with the word "plunge." Other imagery at the beginning of this section adds to the feeling of jumping into a pool of water. Clarissa thinks of opening French doors and bursting into the fresh, morning air. She is plunging into life, into memory, and into self-evaluation. She is opening the windows of life and plunging into it. The language has a light airy feel supported by the name of Clarissa herself. The name originates from the word clarity and alludes to the "luminous Saint Clara," as described by Nadia Fusini.
The sea imagery arises again when Clarissa nears Big Ben. The bells which Big Ben ring break the hush that Clarissa feels before the bells are to ring. The effect of the bells is described as, "The leaden circles dissolve in the air." This image reminds one of water after a body has plunged into it. Once water is disturbed, a ring of circular ripples emanates outward from the central point. This idea provides an insight into the very writing of Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway's character, as well as the character of Septimus and a few outside occurrences, sends ripples outward into time and life, affecting the being of those around her. Scrope Purvis notices and thinks about Clarissa, and we enter those thoughts. We also enter the thoughts of Miss Pym, allowing the reader the knowledge that Clarissa had been very kind, in the past tense. We wonder what is meant but are told no more. The reader receives glimpses into the ripples which are effected by day to day living.
The writing reflects the sea and rippling wave imagery broadcast through the character's intuitions. Woolf refused to follow the conventional format for writing a novel. A member of the Bloomsbury group and a peer of James Joyce, she did not feel a need to prescribe to traditional organization, thus allowing for a much more loose form in terms of syntax, plot, and narrative voice. As critic Irene Simon stipulates, "It is just the purpose of Virginia Woolf to abolish the distinction between dream and reality; she effects this by mixing images with gestures, thoughts with impressions, visions with pure sensations, and by presenting them as mirrored on a consciousness." Thus the language too is moment to moment, short, and dense. She writes in a flow of consciousness, floating from sensation to sensation and from the mind of one character to the next.
Though often descriptive, every thought and phrase in Woolf's writing has a distinct and analyzable purpose. We learn that Clarissa was sick and now feels a deep, intense anger inside which never seems to completely disappear. The enigmatic character of Miss Kilman brings about the fury inside of Clarissa though Woolf's description of why is confusing. Again, the text mirrors the feeling within it. The sentences run-on in a rush of anger, sentences begin with lower case letters, and adjectives and nouns are chosen such as encumbered, scraped, brute, and hooves which spark harshness and hurt. Woolf constantly blurs the distinction between dream and reality, both within the plot and the text itself. Clarissa enters the flower shop overcome with embarrassment, trying to hush her anger, but she is soon overcome and distracted by color. She opens up her eyes, an allusion to the first metaphor with the open window, and takes in the flowers. She is transported back to the moment and we are reminded of how transparent the present is within Woolf. The episode also foreshadows the theme of doubling, as Clarissa quickly rushes between hatred and love, which will surface with the introduction of Septimus.
Part I Section Two Summary (p. 14-29 "The violent explosion...writing a T, an O, an F."):
The loud noise had come from an important looking motorcar. Passers-by claimed to have seen a distinguished face in the window. Even after the car had moved on, the disturbance it created did not. Rumors that the face had belonged to the Prince or Queen flew about. The street came to a stop and Septimus Warren Smith, an apprehensive looking man of thirty, could not get by. Septimus, a veteran who had been mentally and emotionally devastated by his experience in World War I, pictured that he was the cause of the stop and anticipated horror. His wife, Lucrezia (Rezia), hurried him, angering Septimus. She could not help but believe that others noticed his strangeness, his abruptness. She was so embarrassed and imagined that they all knew that Septimus had wanted to kill himself. He tried to please her, since she knew no one in England, but his efforts had become half-hearted.
Clarissa hoped that the face belonged to the Queen. The car was delayed until the chauffeur spoke to a policeman, who allowed the car to pass. Clarissa felt touched by magic. She imagined Hugh Whitbread at Buckingham Palace and her own upcoming party. The people on Bond Street took a few moments to return to daily life. The car continued through Piccadilly. Meanwhile, a crowd formed at Buckingham's gates. Suddenly, Emily Coates, a woman watching the events, noticed an airplane making letters out of smoke. The letters were hard to decipher and everyone guessed at the words. Weaving across London's sky, the plane's trail mystified its observers.
In Regent's Park, Rezia tried to show Septimus the letters since the doctor had suggested distracting him with things outside of himself. Septimus believed the letters were signaling to him. The beauty brought tears to his eyes. The voice of a nursemaid nearby vibrated in his ears and brought the trees gloriously to life for him. Rezia hated when he stared into nothingness. People must notice him, she thought. She wished he were dead. She walked to the fountain and back to distract herself. She could tell no one about his state and felt alone. He was not the same man she had married. The doctor, though, said nothing was wrong with him. Septimus sat, hearing the sparrows sing in Greek and babbling aloud. When Rezia returned, he jumped up, moving them away from people and ignoring her.
Maisie Johnson, a girl fresh from Edinburgh, asked the couple directions to the subway. Rezia gestured abruptly, hoping Maisie would not notice Septimus' madness. Maisie was unnerved by both and would remember them for years. She was horrified by the look in Septimus' eyes. Mrs. Carrie Dempster, an older woman in the park, noticed Maisie and was reminded of her younger days. She imagined Maisie getting married, asserting that she, Carrie, would have done things differently if she had a second chance. She looked to Maisie for pity. Meanwhile, Mr. Bentley, a man sweeping around his tree in Greenwich, thought the airplane's effort represented the concentration of a man's soul. In front of St. Paul's Cathedral, a seedy looking man was awed by the thought of the members of society who were invited into its halls. The plane continued aimlessly, letters pouring from its perpetually looping motion.
Part One Section Two Analysis:
The explosive situation with the car allows us two specific insights into the text. One, it again highlights the emphasis of the British culture on figure heads and symbols. No one is sure which great figure resides within the important looking car, but each onlooker feels touched "by magic," as Clarissa notes. Traffic slows and onlookers halt and then rush to Buckingham Palace. The car, as with many of the objects with which Clarissa surrounds herself, is an empty symbol. What is inside does not matter. The shell of the car, in a postmodern sense, represents the empty significance that is often placed on social status within the world of Mrs. Dalloway's London.
It is at this moment that we also meet Septimus Smith. At the same time when Clarissa is frozen in delight, imagining the Queen and Prince and parties, Septimus is frozen by apprehension and fear. Many critics describe Septimus as Clarissa's doppelganger, the alternate persona, the darker, more internal personality compared to Clarissa's very social and singular outlook. However, a few critics hint that to characterize Septimus as Clarissa's double is too limiting for both of their characters. Perhaps the best way to describe their relationship is to think of it as a means to flesh out the intensity of the human mind. The novel takes the reader through only one day in Clarissa and Septimus' lives, and yet we learn so much more about their characters and about humanity in general. These two personas allow the reader to discern how two seemingly opposite characters correspond and interrelate. Clarissa and Septimus never meet and yet, their lives are intertwined from the moment in the street to the news of Septimus' death at Clarissa's party.
We also meet Rezia, Septimus' wife, in this section of the book, as she struggles through the embarrassment of having a crazy husband. The way Septimus is told that nothing is wrong with him alludes to circumstances in Woolf's life. With her fragile mental state, she encountered many psychologists, most of whom did not know how to treat mentally ill patients. Often, they did more harm than good. Septimus is the victim of this psychosocial establishment in post-War England. As a representative of the "lost generation," a topic touched on by many of Woolf's contemporary's most noticeably T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, Septimus suffers from delusions and hallucinations. The husband and wife, as a result, can no longer communicate as they once had.
Another confused symbol of communication exists in the form of the airplane that spreads incomprehensible words across the sky, gaining much of London's attention after the excitement of the important car passes. Letters are strewn about but no character agrees on the message delineated. Ironically, however, many people are connected through the inability to communicate symbolized by the plane's skywriting. In his sickness, Septimus believes the plane is talking to him. Yet, the other characters who view the plane believe in much the same idea.
Part I Section Three Summary (p.29-48 "'What are they looking at'...very far away as Peter Walsh shut the door."):
Clarissa returned home, wondering at what everyone was looking. Stepping into her cool house and hearing the motion of her servants, she felt as a nun returning to her daily habit. She breathed in happily while Lucy stood by, hesitant. Clarissa noticed a note that read that Lady Bruton had requested Richard's company for lunch. Clarissa felt snubbed. Lucy knowingly helped her with her parasol and left her alone. The lunch parties were supposed to be quite amusing. Clarissa felt alone. She withdrew upstairs to the solitary attic room that she had occupied ever since her illness. There, she liked to read Baron Marbot's Memoirs. The room had a very virginal feel, with the stark white sheet stretched tightly across the narrow bed. She wondered if she had failed Richard and thought back to her close connections with women, namely her old best friend, Sally Seton. She had known what men feel toward women with Sally.
She remembered Sally sitting on the floor, smoking, saying she was descended from Marie Antoinette, being so utterly crude that Clarissa's family thought her untidy. Sally taught Clarissa about life, sex, men, and politics, things from which she was shielded at Bourton, her home before marriage. Her feelings for Sally were protective and pure. She remembered the excitement she felt the nights Sally dined with them and the exquisite moment they shared when, as they were walking, Sally stopped to pick a flower and kissed Clarissa on the lips. A moment later, Peter Walsh and Joseph, an old family friend, had intruded, perhaps purposely, since Peter was prone to jealousy. Clarissa was horrified at the intrusion.
Turning her thoughts to Peter, she wondered if he would think her older when he returned from India. Since her sickness, she had become nearly white. She thought her face pointed and her body shaped like a diamond. She was a good woman, she thought, even if Lady Bruton had not invited her. Clarissa found her loveliest green dress and took it downstairs to mend. Lucy asked if she could help mend but Clarissa declined. Suddenly, the doorbell rang and she heard the voice of a man demanding to see her. Abruptly, her door opened and she turned to hide her dress, as if she were protecting her chastity.
Peter Walsh entered, taking her hands and kissing them. They both trembled. Peter noticed that she looked older. Clarissa observed that Peter was very much the same. He played with his pocketknife. Peter asked about her family and imagined that Clarissa had been mending her dress and attending parties continuously during the time he had been gone. Clarissa asked him if he remembered Bourton. He did but it pained him to remember as it reminded him of her refusal to marry him. Clarissa too was caught in the wave of emotion. The memories brought Peter close to tears. Peter realized that his new love, Daisy, would pale next to Clarissa. He did not want to tell her about Daisy because Clarissa would think him a failure. He felt that Clarissa had changed for the worse ever since marrying Richard.
Clarissa asked about his life. There was too much to tell her, but he mentioned that he was in love with a girl in India who was still married to a Major in the Indian Army. He had come to London to see about a divorce. Peter's life had been such a folly, thought Clarissa. Still, she was happy for him. Peter suddenly began to weep. Clarissa comforted him, kissing him, and stroking his hands before she retained control and sat back. She felt very much at ease with Peter now and realized this gaiety would be hers always if she had married him. She wished he would take her with him. The next moment, her passions subsided. Clarissa joined Peter by the window. He seized her by the shoulders and asked if she were happy with Richard. Suddenly, Elizabeth entered. Clarissa said, "Here is my Elizabeth." Peter greeted her and rushed out the door. Clarissa ran after him, yelling to not forget her party.
Part One Section Three Analysis:
We see many echoes of Woolf within the character of Clarissa during this chapter. The theme of the virgin, symbolizing seclusion, independence, and sexual aridity, takes over as we move from Clarissa, excited with life, to Clarissa, secluded, reflective, and lonely. Her relief at returning home is compared explicitly by Woolf to a nun returning to her habit and yet, ironically, she only ventures to her virginal, narrow attic room when she feels snubbed by society. Because of this snub, we learn further how much Clarissa cares about societal issues as she meditates on her worth as a result of it. Conversely, we learn that she enjoys being alone to the extent that she has slept alone in the attic since her illness. Directly after Woolf describes Clarissa's starch white sheets pulled tightly over her narrow attic bed, an overt metaphor for virginal sexuality, she includes that Clarissa wondered if she had failed Richard. She also states that Clarissa had loved Sally as a man loves a woman, implying that Clarissa had never truly loved Richard in this manner, and perhaps had never loved any man in this manner. The flaws of communication and intimacy between Richard and Clarissa are foreshadowed. In the eyes of some critics, Woolf insinuates that Clarissa was stifled in her homosexual love for Sally by the standards of society and her own conservatism.
Sally was Clarissa's inspiration to think beyond the walls of Bourton, to read, to philosophize, to fantasize. Woolf describes the kiss between Sally and Clarissa as an epiphany of sorts, an ecstasy,
Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world may 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! (35-36).
As Clarissa's relative loneliness and lack of intimacy in marriage is symbolized through the metaphor of a virginal nun, the most intense sexual moment in Clarissa's life is symbolized through intense religious feeling. Thus, the kiss represents and understates the sexual attraction and revelation that Sally brought to Clarissa. The present given to Clarissa, the diamond, the flower picked, the "radiance burnt through," all symbolize this sexual experience. It is not surprising, then, that Clarissa feels so violated when men intrude upon her moment. Peter and old Joseph's intrusion symbolizes the dominance of men in society and the conservatism of sexual relations that would not allow for Clarissa's true yearnings. Whether Woolf had sexual feelings toward women or not, biographers describe her relationship with her husband as a strong, caring friendship without much sexual intimacy. This sexual component is similarly lacking in her proponent's life.
Clarissa's continued longing for Peter also illustrates that her relationship is lacking with Richard. At one point in her conversation with Peter, she wishes that he would take her away. The moment subsides, but the intensity between the two remains throughout the novel. Peter's tendency to play with his pocketknife is a phallic metaphor, symbolizing Peter's repressed sexual urges toward Clarissa. He not only invades Clarissa's peace, but her virginal sense of self as well. Woolf describes Clarissa's reaction to the moment of Peter's entrance as, "She made to hide her dress, like a virgin protecting her chastity, respecting privacy."(40) Yet, she does feel passion in Peter's presence, a fleeting gaiety and vivacity for life. Representative of the everyman, Clarissa is prone to wonder what if. These emotions come and go like waves, synecdochal for the theme of the sea. The waves of time are introduced by the bells of Big Ben.