Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Contributed by Harvey Landy
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Chapter 1

It was a bright June morning in London, 1923. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway was going to give a party that evening, and she told her servant Lucy that she would buy the flowers herself. As Clarissa walked to the flower shop, the sights and sounds of the bustling city answered her mood, which was at once cheerful and anxious. She remembered feeling the same way on a similar morning long ago, before the War, when she was a young girl summering at her family’s country house in Bourton. (It would have been in the 1890s.) Her friend Peter Walsh had been there. Peter was in India now; Clarissa had not seen him for many years.

Clarissa felt, thought, and remembered many things in response to what she saw and heard as she walked. When Big Ben struck the ten o’clock hour, she thought of life’s inevitable march toward death. Yet the thought of death did not make Clarissa unhappy; rather, it made her love life more. She thrilled at the thought of how, despite everything, we still go on, "making it up" as we go. An airplane buzzing overhead reminded her of the War, but the War was over now, the dead had been buried, life was creating itself anew, and she loved it all "with an absurd and faithful passion."

At the height of this reverie, Clarissa met, by chance, her old friend Hugh Whitbread, whom she adored. Hugh was a court official and a well-bred English gentleman. Clarissa considered how Peter Walsh and her husband Richard both detested Hugh because he was shallow and stupid. But Clarissa enjoyed him for what he was; his manners made him pleasant to walk with; she did not ask for anything more.

When she and Hugh parted, she reminded him to come to her party. Alone again, she thought more about Peter and felt increasingly bitter. She had cared passionately for him. But he had been incapable of enjoying life as she did: "It was the state of the world that interested him" instead. He thought Clarissa was frivolous. He had hurt her deeply once when he had said that "she had the makings of the perfect hostess." It hurt her again to remember it.

That painful memory triggered others, and Clarissa became more distraught as she walked. Peter had proposed marriage to her that summer at Bourton, and she had refused him. He would have smothered her, would not have allowed her to be herself, to enjoy life. She knew she had been right to refuse him. Nevertheless, in her heart she had never stopped grieving over the decision. After she had rejected him, Peter had run off to India¾even married a woman on the boat. In Clarissa’s opinion, his life since then had been a failure. This made her terribly angry. Perhaps, deep down, she blamed herself.

Clarissa stopped to compose herself. She became calm, which allowed her a moment of philosophical clarity: "She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that." She refused to destroy the wholeness and beauty of life by analytically carving it up, as Peter did. Life had to be accepted as it was, and enjoyed from moment to moment. This conviction gave her strength, but its implications also frightened her. Living so intensely was dangerous. She continued walking, then stopped when she noticed a page of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline spread open in a bookshop window. She read: "Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages." The lines seemed to be speaking to Clarissa in her fear and pain, and also to her war-wounded country in its fear and pain. The lines seemed to be sending a message, urging her and her country to be calm and stoical, to endure.

Clarissa resumed her walk, and her mind turned to a new theme: her teenage daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth worried Clarissa. She was so serious, and seemed to dislike everything that Clarissa found beautiful or fun. Clarissa partly blamed Elizabeth’s friend Miss Kilman, a lower-class woman who was a religious fanatic and a also socialist who resented and hated the rich. Miss Kilman had a powerful effect on Clarissa. Clarissa hated her inordinately, and her hatred felt monstrous to her, evil. It gave her nightmares and physical pain; it made her whole existence seem a fraud.

Clarissa found that she had upset herself again. Having finally reached the flower shop, she rushed in. The sight and smell of flowers and the smile of the florist, Miss Pym, calmed her at once. Miss Pym was poor, but unlike Miss Kilman, she was kind; she seemed to admire Clarissa, did not reproach her for being rich. Surrounded by what she thought were beauty and love, Clarissa felt herself rising above the hatred Miss Kilman aroused in her. Then suddenly, she heard a pistol shot. Miss Pym went to the window and found that it was not a gun, only a car, a limousine actually, backfiring. Significantly, Miss Pym’s reaction was to apologize to Clarissa for the noise, as if it had been her own fault.

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