Mrs. Dalloway is a complex and compelling modernist novel by Virginia Woolf. It is a wonderful study of its principal characters. The novel enters into the consciousness of the people it takes as it subjects, creating a powerful, psychologically authentic effect. Although quite rightly numbered amongst the most famed modernist writers--such as Proust, Joyce, and Lawrence--Woolf is often considered to be a much gentler artist, lacking the darkness of the male contingent of the movement.
With Mrs. Dalloway, though, Woolf created a visceral and unyielding vision of madness and a haunting descent into its depths.
Mrs. Dalloway follows a set of characters as they go about their lives on a normal day. The eponymous character, Clarissa Dalloway, does simple things: she buys some flowers, walks in a park, is visited by an old friend and throws a party. She speaks to a man who was once in love with her, and who still believes that she settled by marrying her politician husband. She talks to a female friend with whom she was once in love. Then, in the final pages of the book, she hears about a poor lost soul who threw himself from a doctor's window onto a line of railings.
This man is the second character central in Mrs. Dalloway. His name is Septimus Smith. Shell-shocked after his experiences in World War I, he is a so-called madman who hears voices. He was once in love with a fellow soldier named Evans--a ghost who haunts him throughout the novel.
His infirmity is rooted in his fear and his repression of this forbidden love. Finally, tired of a world that he believes is false and unreal, he commits suicide.
The two characters whose experiences form the core of the novel--Clarissa and Septimus--share a number of similarities. In fact, Woolf saw Clarissa and Septimus as more like two different aspects of the same person, and the linkage between the two is emphasized by a series of stylistic repetitions and mirrorings.
Unbeknownst to Clarissa and Septimus, their paths cross a number of times throughout the day--just as some of the situations in their lives followed similar paths.
Clarissa and Septimus were in love with a person of their own sex, and both repressed their loves because of their social situations. Even as their lives mirror, parallel, and cross--Clarissa and Septimus take different paths in the final moments of the novel. Both are existentially insecure in the worlds they inhabit--one chooses life, while the other commits suicide.
A Note on Style: Mrs. Dalloway
Woolf's style--she is one of the most foremost proponents of what has become known as "stream of consciousness"--allows readers into the minds and hearts of her characters. She also incorporates a level of psychological realism that Victorian novels were never able to achieve. The every day is seen in a new light: internal processes are opened up in her prose, memories compete for attention, thoughts arise unprompted, and the deeply significant and the utterly trivial are treated with equal importance. Woolf's prose is also enormously poetic. She has the very special ability to make the ordinary ebb and flow of the mind sing.
Mrs. Dalloway is linguistically inventive, but the novel also has an enormous amount to say about its characters.
Woolf handles their situations with dignity and respect. As she studies Septimus and his deterioration into madness, we see a portrait that draws considerably from Woolf's own experiences. Woolf's stream of consciousness-style leads us to experience madness. We hear the competing voices of sanity and insanity.
Woolf's vision of madness does not dismiss Septimus as a person with a biological defect. She treats the consciousness of the madman as something apart, valuable in itself, and something from which the wonderful tapestry of her novel could be woven.