Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (Mariner Books, 1990) is a stream of consciousness novel based on the thoughts and interactions Clarissa Dalloway experiences in one day of her fifty-second year of life. Having married well to Richard, a man who provides security and comfort for Clarissa’s need for the ultimate Bourgeois life, this singular day is in preparation for one of her lavish parties. Clarissa Dalloway’s life seems oppressively sedate, common, and quiet, but through the stream of consciousness the reader is exposed to, Woolf allows us insights into the depths of Clarissa’s heart and youth.
If Woolf only allowed us to get to know Clarissa from her own limited point of view, this novel would have been extremely boring and commonplace. It is mostly through the point-of-view of those who know her that we get an authentic portrayal of this famous protagonist. The truth is that Clarissa Dalloway has led a very uncomplicated and quite sedate existence. This reveals the limitations of women’s lives in her era. Women found the perfect match for themselves, marrying men who would be able to provide a life of security and ease, which allowed them to tend to the domestic sphere of the family’s existence. Clarissa does this well, assuming the role of wife and mother without reservations and with stoic dignity.
From her thoughts, we encounter this stoicism, this practicality in her nature, as a permanent fixture in the inner workings of her character. When it came time to choose a husband for herself, Clarissa was given two options: Richard—refined, gentle, constant, and successful, or Peter Walsh—passionate, inconstant, emotional, and a fool for love. She chose Richard over Peter, keeping in mind the kind of life she wanted to have for herself, and this is a choice she never regretted, for the man who fell in and out of love with various women, his heart on his sleeve, was not the kind of man Clarissa needed. As vacuous and premeditated as this choice sounds, Woolf depicts this marriage as full of tenderness and love—the kind of love that is quiet, reserved, and ever-binding—for Richard and Clarissa do love one another in this way, and it’s actually quite beautiful and serene to observe as a reader.
Clarissa Dalloway is not without passion, and we encounter the ardent side of her in many instances. As a young woman, she finds the kind of love and intimacy men seek out in women in her youthful friend, Sally Seton. During the summer of her youth when she chose Richard over Peter, Clarissa and Sally shared an intimate kiss, and this experience is a place of joy and love that Clarissa has given up on, since women were not allowed to have this kind of experience with other women.
Part of Clarissa’s attraction to Sally was Sally’s polar opposition to Clarissa. She was bold, poor, came from a broken home, made comments just to get a rise out of people, smoked cigars, and ran naked across lawns. She was free-spirited and adventurous, in possession of traits that were unbecoming in women, and that Clarissa would never dare to take possession of. She loved this side of Sally and loved how Sally made her feel, and when years later, Sally crashed one of Clarissa’s party of elites, Clarissa was surprised that this girl had made the kind of concessions she herself had made in marriage and life. Sally married a wealthy self-made man, and her biggest accomplishment—of which she was openly proud—was that she had given birth to and raised five strong sons.
In the closing pages of the novel, we see Clarissa in the center of her party—the kind of party that she organizes frequently, for her husband’s sake, as she tells us, since he is an aspiring political figure. Her parties represent not only the Bourgeois tastes of her society, but also her love of bringing people together in one room, in her home, under her control. Like a conductor, she matches people together based on their interests, and she finds great joy in this simple and selfless act. In this one party, under the roof of her home, the past and the present collide, the youthful and the old are forced to mingle, and the reviled and the loved are pressed together over wine and cheese, brought together by the one person they all have in common: Clarissa Dalloway.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.