“It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? . . . So That to know her, or anyone , one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.” [152-3]
Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing style requires utmost concentration, as her scenes not only shift swiftly and imperceptibly between past and present, primarily through Clarissa’s, Septimus’s, and Peter’s memories, she also combines interior with omniscient descriptions of characters and scene. Often unbeknownst to her readers, she leaps from one character’s thoughts to the mind’s eye of another or a physical locale. As abruptly as she changes the perspective, Woolf handles such transition between the interior and the exterior very smoothly that, upon meticulous perusal of the text, with the constant announcement of time, one can discern a structure of the novel (instead of random tangents of thoughts) and perceive the pace of the characters’ lives. Most noticeable of this device is Big Ben’s striking noon that takes place at the novel’s exact midpoint.
Mrs. Dalloway covers one day from early morning to evening in one woman’s wife. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife, walks through her London neighborhood to prepare for the party that she will host that evening. When she returns from the florist in the morning, an old suitor and friend, whom she had influenced like nobody had ever done, pays her an unexpected visit at the house. Peter Walsh’s arrival allows us to be privy to Clarissa’s meandering thoughts, which focus on that summer thirty years ago when she chose to marry Richard Dalloway, who never shares her desire to truly and fully communicate. Much of Clarissa’s thoughts remain private, as she is inclined toward introspection that gives her a profound capacity for emotion. As the wife of someone in public office, Clarissa keeps up the public relations to high society. But privately she is aware that she has, in rejecting Peter and choosing Richard, she has sacrificed passion for the security and tranquility of an upper-class life. At the same time, in the midst of her chores, in her private contemplation of the fear of death, Clarissa strives to establish the channel for communication and throws parties in an attempt to draw people together.
In all this there was a great deal of [Richard] Dalloway, of course; a great deal of the public-spirited, British Empire, tariff-reform, governing-class spirit, which had grown on her, as it tends to do. With twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes—one of the tragedies of married life. With a mind of her own, she must always be quoting Richard—as if one couldn’t know to a tittle what Richard thought by reading the Morning Post of a morning! [76-77]
Much of Clarissa’s personality is seen through Peter Walsh, whose most consistent character trait is ambivalence. Middle-aged, fearful of having wasted his life, and highly skeptical of the society, he can never commit to an identity, nor can he decide what he feels. His unhealed hurt renders him very critical of people, the Dalloways in particular. He detests Clarissa’s bourgeois lifestyle, though he blames Richard for making her into the kind of woman she is—sterile and conventional. In his thoughts he often reflects upon Richard and his actions with such negative connotation, and indeed, Richard struggles out of his stiffness but fails to even express his love in words:
Bearing his flowers like a weapon, Richard Dalloway approached her; intent he passed her; still there was time for a spark between them—she laughed at the sighte of him . . . But he would tell Clarissa that he loved her, in so many words. He had, once upon a time, been jealous of Peter Walsh; jealous of him and Clarissa . . . He was holding out flowers—roses, red and white roses. (But he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words) [116-118]
Peter’s often fidgeting with a pocket-knife indicates his indecisiveness toward the English tradition that older citizens like Aunt Helena and Lady Bruton champion. He doesn’t know whether he abhors the English tradition or he just accepts the English civilization as a norm, as the failure of the British empire began to show in 1923. His attitude toward death is also drastically different from that of Clarissa, who has come to term with her mortality, despite her dread of aging.
Woven into Clarissa’s day of preparation and reflection is the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock. Hallucinations reel him as he sits on a bench at Regent’s Park raving about seeing his friend Evans, who perished in war. Although he is mad, the former poet shows many traits that he could be Clarissa’s double. Indeed Woolf saw Septimus Warren Smith as an essential counterpoint to Clarissa Dalloway. He regards human as evil after the war and resorts to his internal world. Skeptical of his surrounding, Septimus fears that people in the world have no capacity for honesty or kindness. It seems to me that Woolf intended for Clarissa to speak the sane truth and Septimus the insane truth, and Septimus’s detachment enables him to judge people more harshly and indiscriminately than Clarissa is capable of. He also offers a contrast between the conscious struggle of a working class veteran and the blind opulence of the upper class.
The end of the novel tracks back to and makes sense of the lines I have quoted at the beginning of this review. That is, Clarissa’s reflection of people. To know someone beyond the surface, one has to seek out the people and places that completed that person. What does this mean? It means one has to be experiencing the social and physical environment in which the people inhabit. The structure of Mrs. Dalloway supports this “theory” of Clarissa, since most of the novel concerns people’s thoughts instead of the surface actions. The open-air omnibus, for example, symbolizes the ease with which friends could once share their deepest thoughts. The automobile with the blind drawn, in which Septimus and his wife sit, symbolizes the repression that have confined many British people. It becomes very clear toward the end that death, which most characters have dreaded throughout the book, is a communication, means of preserving one’s soul. That is when Clarissa and Septimus converge.
She felt somehow very like him [Septimus]—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. 
197 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]