(Close reading of the passage between pages 184-186, “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? . . . She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.”)
In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf explores themes like mortality, repression, and the richness and importance of the inner life. The brilliance of the novel is not the rise and fall of the action in the story, but the way Woolf uses a modern, descriptive internal narrative structure as a way to build insight into the motivations of each character, rather than relying on purely on character interaction and exposition. Since the characters tell the story to us through their internal monologue, and since each character has their own agenda, the reader is allowed the time to slowly build and change their perception of each player in the story. Nothing is objectively stated. The narration follows a cast of interconnected characters, hour by hour, over the course of a single day in post-World War I Britain, centering on the titular Mrs. Dalloway, an aging society wife, as she makes last-minute preparations for a party.
The climax of the novel, as I see it, takes place as the party finally comes together. Sometime after midnight, Clarissa overhears some of her guests discussing the tragic suicide of a young veteran earlier that afternoon, and she is incensed to have the specter of death descend on her meticulously planned party. She retreats to another part of the apartment to think, away from her guests. The fear of mortality has been troubling Clarissa for a while, having recently recovered from a bout of ill health. During the course of the story, the constant tolling of Big Ben follows Clarissa and other characters as they go about their day, representing the constant flow of time and often inspiring reflection. Her daughter is nearly grown and the relics of her past at Bourton are just memories—Sally is now the picture of a wife and mother, Peter is in town purely to arrange his girlfriend’s divorce, and her relationship with Richard is seemingly successful but notably distant. Though she tries to deny it, Clarissa is a woman with regrets. Her internal monologues are extensive and she clearly has an active mind, a fact of which she is aware, and her self-consciousness about aging and the passing of time is amplified by it. She is a woman defined by her passions and her subsequent attempts to suppress them, and she finds it hard to believe all that activity will end at her death. Early in the novel, she allays her fear of death with the thought that a piece of her would go on living in her home, the streets she walked, in her relationships with her friends and family. But Clarissa is also aware that every day, something in her becomes more “obscured” in her efforts to conform to society life—she “lets drop” the thing that most matters, her own self.
Septimus Smith, however, sees death in another way. Very much a parallel character to Clarissa, his shell-shock and inability to communicate with those around him fuels his isolation. He sees death as the ultimate act of self-determination, especially when faced with Doctor Holmes’ and Bradshaw’s plans for his treatment. Clarissa also sees the autonomy in his suicide; she compares it to her own most defiant moment—throwing a shilling into a lake (184). While Clarissa is so scared of death that she would continue living in a society where her identity is stunted daily, Septimus chooses death rather than life in this “wicked” place. Clarissa feels ashamed; she sees much of the same corruption and wickedness as Septimus, but she chooses to continue her life of comfort rather than dying on principle.
As Clarissa leaves her party guests to think in solitude, the metaphor of the room comes to prominence. In Mrs. Dalloway, the “room” is representative of the inner self. Throughout the novel, Clarissa’s drive to properly socialize is often at odds with a desire for solitude and quiet, and the points when she is alone in a room are points at which her internal monologues become even more personal, like when she retreats to the attic room she stayed in during her sickness. Other characters, like Mrs. Kilman, also emphasize the “room” as a personal, introspective space. Sir Bradshaw invokes the room metaphor when confronted with Septimus’ madness; he is offended by Septimus’ disregard for order and distrust of doctors. Bradshaw twice mentions that action must be taken when someone “comes into your room” (99) and challenges your beliefs. Septimus, feeling trapped by the expectations of a society he doesn’t respect, throws himself from a window to escape the room, representing his freedom from the frustration he feels at his surroundings. He states he didn’t want to die; it was other humans, not life itself, which troubled him.
Clarissa looks out the window across the way and is startled to finally see her neighbor looking back at her. For a minute, Clarissa watches this other old woman in her own bedroom go about her nightly routine. There’s a loud party going on outside in Clarissa’s apartment, but this other individual is quietly going to sleep. Clarissa feels more at ease and she notes the beauty of the late sky, like she had always done at Bourton and Manchester. The clock strikes three and for the first time Clarissa is unconcerned with what time it is, instead refocusing on her earlier conclusion that she lives her life because she enjoys the act of living, regardless of her regrets. She refuses to pity Septimus as she still sees the merit in his act, but Clarissa makes a different choice. She leaves her little room to return to her party.