Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Contributed by Harvey Landy
Chapter 11

Clarissa’s household staff worked in high gear, bustling, arranging, cooking, serving. A maid told Mrs. Walker, the cook, that she’d heard the Prime Minister was coming, but "one Prime Minister more or less made not a scrap of difference to Mrs. Walker," who was running herself ragged, sweating and shouting, trying to get the huge, complicated meal ready on time. The doorbell rang constantly; motor cars came and went; orders poured into the kitchen; the servants, running hither and thither, gossiped about the guests, and about how lovely Elizabeth looked. Clarissa, at the top of her stairs, greeted her guests after each was announced. She greeted Peter no differently from the rest, saying, "How delightful to see you!" Peter thought she was "at her worst¾effusive, insincere." He wished he hadn’t come.

Clarissa felt strongly, as she greeted her guests, that the party would be a failure. People were standing around aimlessly, and there was Peter, silently criticizing her. She wondered, "Why, after all, did she do these things?" She blamed Peter for her mood, because his presence made her see herself differently. Then she got angry and thought, "But why did he come...merely to criticize? Why always take, never give?" She tried to brighten, but she felt sick knowing "that it was all going wrong, all falling flat."

Poor, dull Ellie Henderson stood in a corner, watching the party but not taking part. Though Clarissa had not wanted to invite her, she had come anyway; it was a break from her dreary, dull life. She knew was entirely out of her league, here, but she did like to watch. Richard, ever kind, was the only person who spoke to her. They exchanged a few pleasantries, until Peter Walsh approached dragged Richard away. They seemed delighted to see each other again, after so many years.

A window was open, and when the curtain blew into the room, a guest absent-mindedly beat it back, then resumed talking. From this tiny event, Clarissa suddenly knew that the party would be a success after all. (Perhaps because it was a sign of disorder, of unpredictability, of "life" elbowing in.) The party was "something now, not nothing."

And yet, Clarissa still was not quite enjoying it. The guests arrived in droves, and she continued to greet them, but she felt old. Then, to her surprise, Sally Seton (now Lady Rosseter) arrived (uninvited). Clarissa felt a shock: Sally had grown old, had lost her luster. They talked excitedly together, then Sally announced, "I have five enormous boys!" The "simple egotism" of this made Clarissa love Sally again immediately, because it meant she was still herself, after so many years.

The Prime Minister was announced, and Clarissa went to him. Peter watched the Prime Minister making his rounds, and was amused by how ordinary, even small, he looked, like a shopkeeper done up in gold lace. Peter sensed a change in the room as the Prime Minister passed through it, as the guests felt "to the marrow of their bones...this majesty passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English society." "Lord, lord, the snobbery of the English!" he thought. Then Peter noticed Hugh Whitbread and savaged him mercilessly. Hugh was unchanged, he thought, still a prancing fool, a small-minded, self-important toady. Then Peter noticed Clarissa gliding through the room in "her silver-green mermaid’s dress," and realized, happily, that she still had her gift, which was "to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as it passed." But he was not in love with her, he thought.

Finally, Clarissa was enjoying her party. She flitted about, dipping into conversations, bringing people together, arranging things, making it work. She thrilled at having brought all the disparate threads together: Richard, Peter, Lady Bruton, Hugh, Elizabeth, the Prime Minister, Sally (though accidentally), and all the other people who, separately, were one thing, but here, all together, became something else. They were meeting and talking, bumping and laughing, making new combinations and thus creating life. She felt it was a composition, a work of art that she herself had made happen.

Sir William and Lady Bradshaw arrived. Richard had invited them, for political reasons. But Clarissa instantly disliked him. He had a strong reputation (she had even consulted him once), but something about him made her uneasy. She heard Sir William speaking in undertones to Richard, telling him about something that had happened to a patient which confirmed a theory he had about "the deferred effects of shell-shock." Lady Bradshaw drew Clarissa aside and said that one of Sir Williams’s patients had committed suicide. (She was referring to Septimus, of course.)

"Oh!" thought Clarissa, "in the middle of my party, here’s death." She hid away in an empty room, reflecting on the young man’s suicide. She wondered why he had flung his life away. She intuited that he had been trying to "preserve something" from corruption. "Death was defiance," she thought. "Death was an attempt to communicate." She also intuited that Sir William was partly to blame. To her he seemed "obscurely evil ... capable of some indescribable outrage¾forcing your soul, that was it." She imagined the young man going to Sir William for help, and Sir William making him feel, instead, that life was intolerable. Clarissa’s thoughts spiraled down, in despair. But then, gradually, she began to feel well again, thinking, piecemeal, of life’s details, of the things that made it surprising, made it worth living, such as the way the sky looked at that moment, through the window. She repeated, "Fear no more the heat o’ the sun." She felt "somehow very like" Septimus. "She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away."

Sally and Peter wanted to talk to Clarissa, but Clarissa wanted to save them for last, to relish them after everyone had gone. So Sally and Peter passed the time together by observing, critiquing, reminiscing, feeling conspiratorial again, as they had all that summer at Bourton. They talked everything over, summed it all up. Peter spoke intimately of his feelings for Clarissa; he said that a person could only be in love like that once (after so many years apart, Sally was still the only person he could talk to about Clarissa). Though Peter and Sally had aged, their characters had not really changed.

They watched Elizabeth walk across the room to her father, and each silently compared her to hyacinths, lilies, the dawn. They could tell that she and her father were devoted to each other. Richard had been talking to the Bradshaws, and when he saw Elizabeth coming toward him, he asked himself, "Who is that lovely girl?" Then he realized it was his daughter. He told her this, and she felt very glad.

Sally rose to go, saying, "What does the brain matter, compared with the heart?"

Peter sat for a moment, alone. He looked up. He felt suddenly gripped by terror, ecstasy, and excitement. What was it?

"It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was."

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