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Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway Summary


Here you will find a Mrs. Dalloway summary (Virginia Woolf's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Mrs. Dalloway Summary Overview

The narrative revolves around a day in the life of an elite household woman, Clarissa Dalloway, who trots around her London vicinity to arrange the evening party she will host. Upon her return from procuring flowers, she receives an unexpected visit from Peter Walsh, an old friend and previous romantic interest. Despite their consistent critical view of each other, their present encounter mingles with reminiscences of the past, particularly Clarissa's rejection of Peter's marriage proposal, which he has never quite reconciled with. Peter queries Clarissa about her satisfaction with her husband, Richard, but their conversation is cut short by their daughter, Elizabeth's entrance. Peter then departs to Regent’s Park, still hung up on Clarissa’s past refusal. Next, the focus shifts to Septimus, a shell-shocked World War I veteran who was wounded in trench warfare. Together with his Italian wife, Lucrezia, he spends time in Regent’s Park, awaiting his appointment with a renowned psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw. Prior to the war, Septimus exhibited promise as a young poet and was an ardent fan of Shakespeare; he volunteered for the war fuelled by romantic patriotic sentiments. However, he was desensitized by the gruesome realities of war, and the death of his friend, Evans, evoked little grief. Septimus, having lost his will to live and seeing no value in the society he fought to protect, contemplates suicide. Yet, Sir William disregards Septimus's woes, attributing his issues to “a lack of proportion,” and decides to isolate Septimus, intending to send him to a mental facility. Meanwhile, Richard Dalloway returns from lunch with members of the upper crust, intending to declare his love to Clarissa but finds himself unable, a result of long unspoken affection. Clarissa reflects on the emotional divide between individuals, even in marriage, cherishing her personal space but disturbed by the secrets she still holds from Richard. As Elizabeth and her tutor, Miss Kilman, depart for shopping, Clarissa grapples with her dislike for Miss Kilman and her perceived influence over Elizabeth. Concurrently, Septimus and Lucrezia share a peaceful spell before he is whisked away to the asylum. Fearing the impending visit from Dr. Holmes, one of his physicians, and the potential harm to his spirit, Septimus dives out of a window to his death. Clarissa learns of Septimus's suicide at her party. She retreats to ponder his death, empathizing with his struggle, and feels partly responsible for his demise as a socialite. The party concludes with Peter struck by a wave of excitement upon Clarissa's entry.

part 1

Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class woman married to a politician, steps out to purchase flowers for her party, instead of sending a servant. It's a buzzing Wednesday in London, nearly five years after Armistice Day. On this pleasant mid-June morning, Clarissa recalls her childhood summers at her father's estate, Bourton. Despite the potential threats during that time, she still loved life, believing her greatest gift to be her instinctive understanding of people. Running into old friend, Hugh Whitbread, they share a conversation about Hugh's ailing wife, Evelyn. Next to Hugh, Clarissa feels conscious about her hat. She thinks back to her friend Peter Walsh, who didn't favor Hugh. Peter, who had once proposed to her, accused her of wanting to marry a prime minister and be a socialite. Though she still feels hurt by his words, she's also annoyed that Peter hasn't achieved his own ambitions. During her walk, Clarissa ponders about mortality, believing that she lives on in the hustle of London, and in her friends and even strangers. She reads a quote about death from a book displayed in a window. Clarissa admits that she cares overly about others' opinions of her. She imagines reliving her life, regretting her bird-like face and thin physique. Glancing through a glove shop window, she wonders about her daughter, Elizabeth, who shows little interest in fashion and prefers her dog and history teacher, Miss Kilman. Clarissa suspects Elizabeth might be falling for Miss Kilman, a thought that Richard, her husband, dismisses as a phase. Clarissa acknowledges her irrational hatred for Miss Kilman. Clarissa is in the flower shop when a car backfires, leading everyone to speculate about the dignitary in the car. The sight stirs patriotism amongst spectators. Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran, overhears the noise and mistakenly thinks that he caused the traffic jam. His wife, Rezia, is troubled by his odd behavior and his recent suicidal threat. In Regent's Park, Septimus rambles about his connection to nature and his visions of his deceased friend, Evans. He interprets the skywriting from a plane as a coded message meant for him. Rezia, unable to bear his state, walks away, but soon returns after reflecting on her commitment to him. A young woman named Maisie Johnson asks them for directions, finding them peculiar. An older woman, Carrie Dempster, watches Maisie and feels a sense of regret regarding her own life.

part 2

Returning home, Clarissa Dalloway feels like a cloistered nun, despite her atheistic views. She's annoyed to discover her husband Richard is lunching at Lady Bruton’s without her. In her top-floor bedroom, she grapples with thoughts of death. As Clarissa removes her hat, she senses a hollowness in her life. After recovering from flu, she's grown accustomed to sleeping alone and doesn't mind it. She lacks passion for Richard and feels she's let him down. She harbors an attraction for women and remembers being in love with Sally Seton, a friend from her past. Sally Seton is remembered as a rebellious, cigarette-smoking brunette. Her outrageousness often shocked Clarissa’s Aunt Helena. The two girls aimed to change the world, and under Sally's influence, Clarissa read Plato and Shelley. Her most cherished memory was a stolen kiss from Sally at Bourton. The memory of this moment is interrupted by thoughts of Peter Walsh, whose approval she always sought. The house is humming with preparations for a party, and Clarissa busies herself repairing her evening dress. She's appreciative of her staff and conscious of their efforts. Her quiet sewing time leads her to ponder life as a cycle that continually restarts. A surprise visit from Peter Walsh disrupts Clarissa's thoughts. Peter is critical of Clarissa's life with conservative Richard. He assumes she's been squandering time with parties and society since he left for India, after she rejected his marriage proposal. Peter is in London to sort a divorce for his engaged fiancée, Daisy. He believes the Dalloways see him as a failure. Around Peter, Clarissa feels like a trivial gossip. Peter becomes emotional, causing Clarissa to comfort him. She contemplates whether she would've been happier had she married him. As Peter leaves, Clarissa reminds him of her party that evening.

part 3

Peter departs from Clarissa's home, reflecting on the changes he perceives in her, including a hardness and an increased inclination towards conventionality. He worries about the impact of his unanticipated visit, particularly having shown vulnerability by crying. The joy he experiences from his love for Daisy and his life in India is tainted by his lingering disappointment over Clarissa's rejection three decades ago. The ring of St. Margaret’s bell stirs thoughts of Clarissa's mortality, which in turn prompts his own fears of aging. Peter acknowledges that he may need Richard's assistance in securing future employment. Despite this, he insists he is unfazed by the Dalloway's opinions of him. He admits past failures but remains optimistic about the future, drawing inspiration from a parade of young soldiers. Upon reaching Trafalgar Square, Peter savors his anonymity in London. He finds himself following a young woman, romanticizing her into his ideal woman. He is charmed by her unpretentious demeanor, contrasting it with Clarissa's worldly sophistication. Despite the lack of interaction, Peter feels invigorated by his self-perceived audacity. He remembers his plans to attend Clarissa's party later that evening. Peter opts to spend some time in Regent’s Park before meeting his lawyers regarding Daisy’s divorce. He finds respite in observing the city and reminiscing about past interactions with Clarissa's father. Seated next to an elderly nurse with a sleeping infant, he is reminded of Elizabeth. He speculates that Elizabeth and Clarissa might not get along due to Clarissa's excessive nature. Eventually, he falls asleep. In his dream, Peter, symbolized as a lone wanderer, visualizes various feminine characters. The figures range from a celestial being to a siren and a motherly figure. The dream concludes with a landlady posing a question, leaving Peter uncertain about his intended response. Upon waking, Peter murmurs “The death of the soul,” which triggers a memory from Bourton in the early 1890s. He recalls Clarissa's conservative reaction to a scandal involving an unmarried neighbor's pregnancy, which he perceived as the catalyst for the demise of her soul. Her judgmental and unsympathetic response had made others uncomfortable. Richard Dalloway's arrival for dinner that same evening prompts Peter's realization that Richard is destined to be Clarissa's husband. He decides to confront Clarissa about his feelings, culminating in a conversation at a trickling fountain where Clarissa firmly rejects his proposal. Peter departs from Bourton that night.

part 4

Peter observes a child in Regent's Park bump into Rezia. Rezia assists the child and ponders over her inability to handle Septimus's peculiar behavior. Septimus expresses his belief in the wickedness of people. He once proposed suicide to Rezia and feels he understands the universe's essence, even witnessing a dog morph into a man. Rezia yearns for her old life in Milan and tells Septimus it's time for his doctor's visit. Septimus mistakes Peter approaching them in the park for his deceased friend, Evans. To Peter, the Smiths appear to be a young couple quarreling. He is astonished by how much London has changed since his last visit five years prior. He admires the fashionable women and appreciates the liberal tone in the papers and the new sexually progressive generation. Peter recollects Sally Seton's disagreement with Hugh Whitbread over women's rights. He dislikes Hugh's snobbishness yet is envious of his success. He views Richard Dalloway as boring but decent. He recalls Richard advising against reading Shakespeare's sonnets, comparing it to eavesdropping. Peter often drifts into thoughts about Clarissa but assures himself he isn't in love with her anymore. He reflects on her sophistication and love for tradition. He regrets Clarissa's marriage, which restricts her personal opinions. Peter recognizes her talent for gathering young individuals and artists. He wonders if she gains wisdom from the philosophers she read as a girl, Huxley and Tyndall. Despite witnessing her sister Sylvia's death, Clarissa remains optimistic. Peter questions his love for Daisy, as he doesn't agonize over it as he did with Clarissa. He desires to marry her mainly to prevent her from marrying someone else. Hearing a song about love and death sung by an old woman in the park, he empathizes with her and offers her a coin. The perspective shifts to Rezia in the park. Initially, she empathizes with the old woman, but the song gradually uplifts her. She hopes that psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw will heal Septimus. The narrative perspective changes again, revealing Septimus and Rezia's past. Before the war, Septimus was a budding poet in love with Miss Isabel Pole, a lecturer on Shakespeare. His boss at the time, Mr. Brewer, saw potential in him but noticed his frailty and suggested sports. Septimus went off to war and formed a close bond with his officer, Evans, who later died. His emotional numbness scared him, leading him to marry Lucrezia when he was stationed in Milan. Septimus starts to perceive everything as ugly. Rezia desires children, but Septimus prefers not to procreate to avoid passing on his suffering. His condition worsens, and Dr. Holmes is called to treat him. Holmes attributes Septimus's issues to nerves and advises entertainment and a healthy diet. Septimus views Holmes as a symbol of cruel humanity sentencing him to death for his lack of emotions. Holmes eventually advises them to consult specialist Sir William Bradshaw if they lack faith in his treatment.

part 5

As the clock strikes twelve, Clarissa prepares her green outfit and the Smith's make their way to Harley Street for Septimus's consultation with the renowned psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw. Sir William, despite his reputation for empathy, quickly determines that Septimus is suffering from a severe mental and physical breakdown. When asked about his war service, Septimus dismisses it as "a little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder." He attempts to confess a crime to the doctor, but Rezia quickly denies this, leading to a private conversation between her and Sir William. Rezia reveals Septimus's suicidal tendencies, prompting Sir William to recommend extended bed rest in his countryside retreat, away from Rezia. Avoiding the term "madness", Sir William describes the issue as a "lack of proportion." He expresses disdain for Septimus's appearance and sophistication, resulting from his own working-class upbringing and lack of time for reading. Sir William tries to reassure Septimus that depressive episodes are normal and that he has a promising future ahead. However, Septimus feels tormented and attempts to confess a crime he can't remember. He manages to utter "I," but the psychiatrist urges him not to dwell on himself. Dismissed abruptly, Rezia is left feeling that Sir William has let them down and is unkind. Sir William's approach focuses on achieving a sense of proportion through weight gain and isolation. He confines his patients, barring them from having children and forcing them to adhere to his standards. His methods are criticized by the narrator as an attempt to mold individuals to societal expectations and extend his control, much like colonialism. Lady Bradshaw, his wife, lost herself 15 years ago under his influence and now keeps busy with hobbies and various causes. Patients occasionally question Sir William about life and death being a personal decision. While indifferent to the existence of God, he firmly opposes the notion of choosing death over life. Instead, he encourages career success, bravery, and familial love. Patients deemed to have uncontrolled "unsocial impulses" are sent away. His desire for control is seen as oppressive, particularly towards the vulnerable.

part 6

Hugh Whitbread checks out footwear in an Oxford Street shop before dining at Lady Bruton's with Richard Dalloway. Hugh is an old-fashioned gentleman, always bringing Lady Bruton carnations, despite her assistant, Milly Brush, not caring for him. Lady Bruton, in her sixties, holds Richard in higher regard than Hugh but sees Hugh's kindness. She dislikes unnecessary conflict. After a lavish lunch, which seems to have materialized out of nowhere, she reveals she needs their help with an issue to be discussed post-lunch. Richard respects Lady Bruton, a descendant of a famous general, and appreciates the idea of a strong woman from an esteemed lineage. Lady Bruton is eager to discuss her issue but waits till coffee is served. She mentions Peter Walsh's arrival in town, which triggers memories of Peter's turbulent past and unfulfilled love for Clarissa. Richard resolves to express his love for Clarissa after lunch, a notion that Milly secretly empathizes with. They all remember Peter fondly but deem him beyond assistance due to his character defects. Lady Bruton's mission is to promote emigration to Canada, but her poor letter-writing skills hinder her from writing to the Times about it. She hopes that Hugh and Richard can assist her. Hugh's letter pleases her, leading her to affectionately refer to him as her "Prime Minister". Richard, intending to write a history of Lady Bruton's family, is assured that all necessary documents are ready. Before leaving, Richard reminds Lady Bruton of Clarissa's upcoming party. After the men depart, Lady Bruton reclines on the sofa, reminiscing about her childhood. Hugh and Richard's connection to her seems tenuous, fading as they distance themselves. The men browse an antique shop, with Richard feeling life's emptiness. Heading home, Richard decides to buy Clarissa a large bouquet of roses, reflecting on their miraculous life and marriage post-war. He ponders social reform when he sees a homeless woman who laughs at him. He senses Clarissa needs his solidarity. At home, Clarissa is annoyed about her unglamorous cousin attending her party and her daughter praying with Miss Kilman. When Richard returns, he can't express his love to Clarissa verbally, but shows it by holding her hand. After he leaves for a meeting, Clarissa feels upset with Peter and Richard's criticism of her love for parties. She realizes she holds parties because she cherishes life and sees them as her offering.

part 7

Elizabeth finds her mother, Clarissa, in her room while Miss Kilman waits on the landing, visibly poor. Miss Kilman feels slighted by Clarissa, who she perceives as frivolous and patronising. Having been a victim of anti-German bias during the war, which cost her job, she turned to religion, and now considers herself above women like Clarissa. Clarissa's attempt to welcome Miss Kilman is met with a conspicuous hostility. Miss Kilman's resentment stuns Clarissa, who feels her daughter, Elizabeth, has been co-opted by this woman. However, Clarissa quickly recovers, bids farewell, and reminds her about the upcoming party. Alone, she reflects on how love and religion can be ruthlessly destructive. Observing an elderly woman in the house opposite, Clarissa ponders on the sanctity of personal space and how neither Miss Kilman's faith nor Peter Walsh's love can unravel the intricacies of the human spirit. Each of them has their own room, she muses. Believing Clarissa has mocked her appearance, Miss Kilman wrestles with her longing to emulate her. She finds solace in praying, caring for Elizabeth, food, and small comforts. She considers it unfair that she endures hardship while Clarissa lives comfortably. In the Army and Navy Stores, she purchases a petticoat while Elizabeth assists her. They later have tea, where Miss Kilman indulges in food while harboring envy toward a child eating a desired cake. She advises Elizabeth about women's opportunities and the plight of the less fortunate. Elizabeth feels sadness about Clarissa and Miss Kilman's strained relationship, even as Clarissa makes efforts to mend it. Overwhelmed by Miss Kilman's self-pity, Elizabeth leaves her, causing Miss Kilman to desperately pray in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth then catches a bus to Strand, journeying through a bustling working-class area unfamiliar to her family. As her beauty gains attention, she finds herself attending parties but yearns for countryside life with her father and dogs. She contemplates potential careers but dismisses these thoughts as nonsensical. Aware that Clarissa would want her home, she takes a bus back.

part 8

Septimus contemplates sunlight on the wallpaper, remembering a line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Fear no more.” His behavior unsettles his wife, Rezia, as he often talks incoherently or experiences visions. Rezia feels their relationship has drastically changed, almost as if they're no longer husband and wife. Rezia creates a hat for Mrs. Peters, their neighbor’s married daughter. Septimus momentarily engages in a lucid conversation, noting the small size of the hat. Enjoying a moment of normalcy, they design the hat together, with Septimus guiding the color design. He feels content and proud at the outcome of his work. The hat becomes a symbol of their happier times for Rezia. When they hear a knock, Rezia fears it's Sir William, but it's merely a young girl delivering the newspaper. She shares a joyful moment with the child, which elevates her spirits. Septimus, however, starts feeling tired and the laughter around him morphs into crying sounds in his mind before he falls asleep. Awakening in panic, Septimus realizes Rezia has left to return the child home. Feeling isolated, he loses sight of the beautiful afternoon and calls out for Evans, to no avail. Rezia reappears, working on the hat and reminiscing over their first encounter when Septimus resembled a young hawk. Anticipating Sir William’s message, Septimus questions his authority to dictate his actions. Rezia reminds him he had threatened suicide. Septimus instructs her to destroy his written theories on beauty and death, but Rezia preserves them, finding some of his thoughts beautiful. Rezia promises to follow Septimus wherever he goes. He perceives her as miraculous. As Rezia packs their belongings, she hears someone downstairs, fearing it's Dr. Holmes. She races to stop him from climbing the stairs. Panicking, Septimus contemplates suicide by different methods and decides to jump from the window. As Dr. Holmes arrives, Septimus throws himself onto the railings below. Dr. Holmes labels Septimus a coward, and Rezia comprehends the horror of her husband's action. Holmes gives her a sedative to calm her down. He insists she should not view Septimus’ mutilated body. Drowsy from the sedative, Rezia watches Holmes’ silhouette against the window, thinking, “So that was Dr. Holmes.”

part 9

Near the British Museum, Peter Walsh observes an ambulance speeding to retrieve Septimus's body. The sight underscores his appreciation for London's health care system and the city's overall sense of community. As he heads to his hotel, memories of Clarissa flood his mind, reminding him how they used to explore the city and her belief that one's true identity was shaped by their experiences and relationships. He acknowledges the profound influence Clarissa has had on his life. Upon reaching the hotel, Peter reflects on the time he and Clarissa spent in Bourton, discussing literature, people, and politics. He is disheartened when he receives a letter from Clarissa, recalling earlier times, which starkly contrasts with the hotel's cold anonymity. He imagines Clarissa regretting her decision to reject his marriage proposal and shedding tears while writing the letter. Peter then contemplates a picture of Daisy, his potential bride. The prospect of marrying Daisy leaves him torn, as it would require her to abandon her children and face society's judgement. Despite his reluctance to commit, the thought of Daisy being with someone else is unbearable. He assures himself of Daisy's love for him, and contemplates a future spent writing books post-retirement. At dinner, Peter's self-assured demeanor and serious attitude towards his meal earn him the admiration of other hotel guests. They appreciate his firmness in ordering Bartlett pears and wish to converse more. Later, he enjoys a casual chat with the Morris family in the smoking room. Resolving to attend Clarissa’s party, he hopes to get insights on the Conservatives' actions in India and to catch up on the latest gossip. On the hotel steps, Peter observes the night scene. He notes the changes brought about by daylight saving, the changing social dynamics, and the youthful energy of passersby. As he heads to Clarissa’s party, he anticipates an enriching experience. Upon arrival, he mentally prepares himself, opens his pocketknife, and steps into the party.

part 10

The Dalloway home is bustling with the frantic energy of party preparations. Despite the impending visit from the prime minister, the cook, Mrs. Walker, is too engrossed in her work to care. After dinner, the women retreat upstairs, and the men request a sweet wine, Imperial Tokay. Elizabeth, concerned about her dog, asks a servant to check on it. The party grows as more guests arrive and the men join the women upstairs. Clarissa maintains a cheerful facade, greeting everyone with an enthusiastic “How delightful to see you!” This display of insincerity irks Peter, who regrets attending. Clarissa is anxious about the success of her party and feels Peter's scrutiny. Yet, she’d rather risk the failure of her party than live a dull, uneventful life like her cousin, Ellie Henderson. A gust of wind moves a curtain, and Clarissa catches a guest casually pushing it back. This mundane act gives her hope that her party may be successful. More guests pour in, but Clarissa struggles to enjoy the festivities. She feels replaceable as a hostess, yet takes pride in the growing success of her party. The butler, Mr. Wilkins, introduces Lady Rosseter, who is none other than Clarissa's old friend Sally Seton, now married. Sally's unexpected presence overwhelms Clarissa, but she thinks Sally isn't as vibrant as before. Nonetheless, they share a joyful reunion, and Sally reveals she has “five enormous boys.” The prime minister's arrival interrupts their reunion. After making his rounds, he retreats to a room with Lady Bruton. Peter watches Clarissa, noting her “silver-green mermaid’s dress,” and the way she still influences his thoughts. However, he insists that he's no longer in love with her. After seeing off the prime minister, Clarissa reflects on her lack of enthusiasm for her guests. She would rather feel the intense hatred sparked by Miss Kilman than feign interest in others. As she mingles, she realizes that many of her guests carry an aura of unfulfilled dreams. After Mrs. Hilbery remarks that Clarissa resembles her mother, she feels deeply moved. Amidst the ongoing chatter about the past, Sally tries to catch Clarissa's attention, but Clarissa promises to chat later. She has an obligatory conversation with the Bradshaws. Clarissa tolerates Lady Bradshaw, who informs her about Septimus's suicide, but despises Sir William. The news upsets Clarissa, who retreats to a quiet room to be alone. She feels that the Bradshaws have brought a dark cloud over her party. Reflecting on Septimus's death, she feels he's preserved something she's lost. She even empathizes with his decision to end his life. Looking out the window, she sees an old woman across the street going to bed. Behind her, the party continues. Clarissa recalls a quote from Shakespeare's Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat of the sun.” She feels connected to Septimus, even grateful that he chose death over life. As she returns to her guests, Sally and Peter are reminiscing about the past and wondering about her whereabouts. Clarissa's arrival fills Peter with a mix of fear and delight.

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