Mrs. Dalloway: Analysis of Characters and Style

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  • 1:38 Characters
  • 3:19 Plot
  • 6:50 Style
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Farran Tabrizi
This lesson outlines the characters, major plot points and style of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel 'Mrs. Dalloway.' We'll discuss how free indirect discourse informs both the style and substance of the novel, and how memory and interpretation are valued more highly than relaying concrete events.

Mrs. Dalloway

We're talking today about Mrs. Dalloway. This is published by Virginia Woolf in 1925.

It's gotten a lot of play in the last decade or so thanks to a book and film called The Hours by Michael Cunningham. In that movie, Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, wearing a big fake nose. It's worth checking out for the prosthetic aspect of it. Meryl Streep plays a modernized version of Clarissa Dalloway, who is the Mrs. Dalloway of the title.

You can watch that movie for fun, but don't think it gives the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. It doesn't. I'm about to do that, so watch me!

It's basically a novel that takes place in a single day in June, which is mentioned over and over again. Now, there is a long tradition of one-day plot things. But it was kind of new, maybe not quite revolutionary, but certainly different at the time when it came out. Ulysses, which is James Joyce's big Modernist book, did it in 1922. So they're kind of dovetailing off of each other.

But now it happens in TV and movies all of the time, like 24, where the premise is that it's a single day over a whole TV show. There's also Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which is one day, Training Day, Dude, Where's My Car?, etc. A lot of movies use this because it gives narrative tightness. And that's what goes on here.

Characters

Basically, the story is constructed around interlocking character storylines. You've got Clarissa Dalloway, who is the Mrs. Dalloway of the title. She's about 52. She's going to have a party. She starts out planning it and, at the end of the single day plot, she throws it.

She's got her husband Richard, who works in politics. She's got her daughter Elizabeth. And she just loves, loves, loves throwing parties. It's a way for her to express her individuality.

I hate throwing parties. I can't really identify with that, but maybe some of you guys out there can. I think it's scary and terrifying. But she loves it and thinks it's really fulfilling and interesting.

The other main character we have to deal with is Septimus Smith. He's kind of entirely unrelated to Clarissa Dalloway. He's basically a shell-shocked World War I veteran. He's got his wife, whose name is Lucrezia; they call her Rezia for short.

He's back in London now and going around to see psychiatrists to figure out what they should do, because he used to be a vibrant young man. He was into poetry, but now he's not able to do anything because of the shock of the war.

We've also got Peter Walsh, who's an old friend of Clarissa's. He had proposed to her back in the day. She said no, so he's back in town and going to marry this woman named Daisy. He doesn't seem that into it.

These are basically the people that you're going to run into. They don't really do that much. But since the book is more about their memories and their thoughts, they kind of do a lot.

Plot

Mrs. Dalloway wanders around London, buying things and preparing for the party. But all of this is while she's thinking about whether she should have married Peter. She also remembers being in love with a woman named Sally Seton. She's thinking that maybe she should have pursued that. In terms of what she does, she goes home, she mends her dress and she oversees the party preparations.

Then we get a scene with her husband, who's out to lunch with some friends. He returns home and brings her roses. He wants to say that he loves his wife, but he can't do it.

We get a lot of the internal narrative of these characters. That's really what makes it interesting. He doesn't just come home with roses and give them to her. No, we get all of the internal angst about why he's doing it and then he can't say he loves her. That's the interesting bit.

We get this with all of the characters. We get this with Peter Walsh. He going to talk to lawyers to figure out how he's going to marry Daisy, because Daisy needs to get divorced. Then he observes Septimus and his wife Rezia fighting. He thinks they're just having a lovers' quarrel but we, as the readers, know that something worse is going on.

That's how Woolf plays with perspective in that way. What people observe and what people are like on the inside is very different. We get that with Peter watching them.

Septimus and Rezia were actually on their way to go and see this renowned psychiatrist named Dr. Bradshaw. He recommends that Septimus ought to be institutionalized away from his wife. This is the decision that eventually prompts Septimus to kill himself by throwing himself out of a window when the dudes come to take him away to go to the institution.

This Septimus storyline is kind of seen as a commentary on how mental illness was dealt with at the time. Woolf suffered from various bouts of depression. It comes off as being pretty critical of the way people who were mentally ill were dealt with at the time.

Then, coincidentally, Dr. Bradshaw, the doctor who recommended that Septimus be institutionalized, is actually a guest at Mrs. Dalloway's party later in the evening. He tells her that one of his patients committed suicide and that's kind of upsetting. She thinks about it and she kind of feels that even though she doesn't know Septimus, she admires him in a way for doing it.

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