Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Contributed by Harvey Landy
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Character Analysis
Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway

Aged 52. Very thin, straight, neat, upright. Also, since her near-fatal illness, very white. Not particularly beautiful or clever, but her vivacity makes her a "presence" nonetheless. In a crowded room, she is the one whom people notice and remember. Upper-middle-class. Lives well in Westminster with her husband (a conservative in the House of Commons) and their teenage daughter Elizabeth. Has a wide circle of aristocratic friends. Enjoys her rank in English society, its duties and pleasures. Has spent much of her married life doing "little kindnesses" for others and arranging a comfortable domestic environment. Likes to give parties, is a perfect hostess. Thinks of her parties as works of art, as her "offerings" at the altar of life. Is passionate about life, friendship, beauty, but also has moments of deep depression, self-loathing, jealousy, and rage. Is a cynic: believes that the gods, if they exist, take pleasure in tormenting humanity. Knows her limitations, too: realizes that she is pampered and sheltered and contributes very little to the world. Has trouble with love and sex. Loved Peter Walsh, but felt hampered and smothered by his critical intelligence; loved Sally Seton, has felt attracted to other women too, but has never acted on this; loves the easy companionship and civic virtues of her husband Richard, but cannot make love to him.

Clarissa is the central character in the book. All of the other characters are connected to her in some way (including Septimus, who never meets her: more on that later). Even when they are away from her, they still feel connected to her, and she to them, by "invisible strings." They often find themselves trying to explain her, or else trying to explain themselves by comparing themselves to her. Not everyone likes her, but in one way or another, all must come to terms with her. Though many criticize her for being frivolous, they nonetheless come to her party. And because they come, because Clarissa causes all of the separate lives to gather in one place where they can mix, bump, and recombine, "life" gets created anew. Clarissa is the creative energy that makes things happen, the "life force" animating their small corner of the world. And she believes that because she has made herself so much a part of other people, she will continue to live through them after she dies.

Peter Walsh

Aged 53. Tall, intelligent-looking, charming. Refined enough to impress strangers as a well-bred gentleman, but not over-refined, not affected, not a snob. Loves books and solitude, but loves society equally well¾loves people, gossip, politics, sports, cigars, and especially "the society of women." Has both an analytical mind and a passionate heart. Clarissa was his first and only true love; when she refused to marry him, he fled to India (then part of the British Empire), married a woman on the boat, and started a new life. Living in India, he has done dangerous, exciting work but has also gotten divorced, had many love-affairs, and failed at several jobs. He blames his failures on two things: 1) what he calls his "susceptibility" to impressions and strong feelings, which causes him never to quite fit into society and 2) his long-ago rejection by Clarissa, which he calls the most important event of his life. He has returned to London on and off since he fled; the last time he returned was five years ago. This time, when he meets Clarissa, he notices that she and he have both aged and death-thoughts haunt his mind throughout the rest of the day.

Peter has always admired, even been astonished by, Clarissa’s vivacity and her social grace. He has also always criticized her "frivolity," her worldliness, and her snobbery. He has always detected, too, a cold streak in her, something hard and unyielding. He realizes that, had they married, they probably would have destroyed each other. Even in this late stage of his life, contact with her is excruciatingly painful for him, a mixture of frustration, terror, and ecstasy; but he relishes their meetings after the fact, becomes absorbed in remembering and analyzing what they said and felt and why, and is still surprised by the way revelations about her continue to "unfold" and fill his inner life, long after they have met.

Septimus Smith

Age: mid-twenties. Tall, thin, big-nosed, bright-eyed, a bit hunched. Intense. Was an ambitious but mediocre young poet before the War. Fought bravely during the War, but began to have problems afterwards, when he discovered that he could not feel. He began having nightmares, visions, out-of-body experiences. Two doctors examined him; the second, Sir William Bradshaw, decided to institutionalize him. When Septimus’s wife, Lucrezia, vowed to protect him from the doctors, he finally began to heal. But when he realized that the doctors and "their kind" could not be stopped, he committed suicide. 

From a clinical perspective and that of ordinary people, Septimus is delusional, shell-shocked, self-absorbed, utterly insane. He talks to dead people and trees. From another perspective, more sympathetic but no less ordinary, he is one of the sad "casualties" of a necessary war, a once-promising young man ruined by his unfortunate, prolonged contact with death and destruction. From yet another perspective, however ¾that of many artists, thinkers, and veterans during the 1920s and 30s¾ Septimus is not insane in the least. He is, rather, the sanest person in England, and his response to the War is entirely appropriate. As had many young men, Septimus had fought from a poetic and patriotic sense of duty, but the England and cause for which he thought he was fighting turned out not to exist. Instead, the War became an arbitrary and pointless death machine, a pure expression of the evil in human nature. The slaughter and destruction, they would say, were utterly futile and massive in scale; the political and economic motives for fighting were specious, even criminal. The War was the remorseless cruelty and "rationality" of Sir William writ large. Seen from this perspective, Septimus’s condition is not "madness" but an expression of the unspeakable terror and agony of these truths, which cannot be communicated in ordinary language. Without knowing any of the details of his case, Clarissa takes, instinctively, this latter perspective (at least in part), when she intuits that Septimus’s suicide was an attempt to protect his soul, to communicate something, and to defy men like Sir William, who struck her, too, as "obscurely evil."

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