Plot Summary

A Section 1

Mrs. Dalloway begins with a sentence that is also its first paragraph: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The second paragraph mentions that “doors would be taken off their hinges,” so it is possible to determine that there will be an event at Mrs. Dalloway’s house that day, and that Clarissa is going out to buy flowers for the affair.

Setting out for her purchases reminds Clarissa of how she used to “burst open the French doors” at Bourton, the country house of her youth. She also remembers, in connection with Bourton, a close friend of her youth, Peter Walsh. On the way to the flower shop, Clarissa runs into another old friend, Hugh Whitbread. Section 1 ends when, from within the flower shop, Clarissa hears the loud sound of a car backfiring.

B Section 2

The sound of the car backfiring facilitates a shift in which character’s point of view dominates the narrative. Septimus Warren Smith, a major character, is introduced in this way. Septimus and his wife, Lucrezia, are walking along the street where the flower shop and backfiring car are located, on their way to Regent’s Park. Septimus is mentally disturbed, a young man who has come back from World War I (1914-1918) suffering from shell shock. The public sounds of the car backfiring and an “aeroplane” roaring overhead allowed Woolf to register, besides the points of view of Septimus and Lucrezia, the points of view of a number of passersby who are not major characters in the book.

C Section 3

Clarissa arrives home, having ordered the flowers. She finds that her husband has been invited to lunch at Lady Bruton’s. She decides to mend the dress that she will be wearing that evening at her party. Once again, she thinks about various people, things, and her past, and so the novel builds a sense of her character and what issues are pertinent to her. One significant person she thinks about is Sally Seton, a close friend of her youth, with whom she had been in love.

Peter Walsh drops by unexpectedly; Clarissa is not aware that he has returned to London from India. With this visit, the past enters the present forcibly, as the man who preoccupied Clarissa’s thoughts that morning appears in person. She invites him to her party.

D Section 4

Section 4 follows Peter Walsh on an amble about town after he leaves Clarissa’s house. He also thinks about their past, how he loved Clarissa, and how he found fault with her. He thinks about her party that evening and her parties in general. He ends up in Regent’s Park (where the book left Septimus and Lucrezia), where he falls into a slumber on a bench.

E Section 5

This section is very brief and appears to record Peter’s sleeping dream in which a figure referred to as the “solitary traveller” is the principal protagonist.

F Section 6

Peter awakes and ruminates over Clarissa, Bourton, Sally Seton and Richard Dalloway: how he loved Clarissa, had been jealous of Richard, had been close to Sally, and had criticized Clarissa.

G Section 7

Section 7 is the lengthiest of the eight sections of the U.S. edition of the novel (the first published British edition had twelve sections). The location of Regent’s Park, where Peter has been snoozing, and where Septimus and his wife have been sitting on a bench, facilitates a shift from Peter Walsh back to the troubled young couple. They are waiting for their noon appointment with Dr. Bradshaw. Much of this section is Septimus’ point of view, and so the reader gets a glimpse into the workings of his distressed and strained mind. Lucrezia agonizes about her husband’s condition and how people must see that all is not well with them.

Moving back to Peter, the reader finds that he is still musing about the past, how Clarissa is a snob who loves high society, and how her snobbery and love of comfort led her to choose Richard Dalloway over himself for a husband.

As Peter leaves the park, he walks by an old vagrant woman singing a song; Septimus and Lucrezia pass the same woman at the same time, and so the narrative shifts to the couple again. At this point, Septimus’s history is presented: how he came to London showing great promise, but returned from the war traumatized. From Lucrezia’s thoughts, the reader learns that Septimus has threatened to kill himself.

At noon, Big Ben strikes. Clarissa hears it at home while she is mending her dress, and Septimus and his wife arrive for their appointment at the establishment of Sir William Bradshaw. Bradshaw promises to arrange for Septimus to go to a rest home because he sees that the young man’s condition is grave and advanced. The narrative then discusses doctors such as Bradshaw, questioning the methods and assumptions by which they diagnose and practice.

The scene now shifts to Richard Dalloway, at his lunch with Lady Bruton. Hugh Whitbread has also been invited. Lady Bruton wants their help revising a letter she has composed to the Times about the need for emigration; Hugh quickly edits it after lunch.

The two men leave Lady Bruton’s. Hugh stops to buy a gift for his wife and Richard decides to buy and deliver flowers to Clarissa. Clarissa is pleased and informs Richard that their daughter, Elizabeth, is with Miss Kilman, her history tutor.

The narrative now shifts to Elizabeth and Miss Kilman. They go to tea in a department store, and Elizabeth sets out on her own for a bus ride and a short walk before she returns home to ready for the party that evening.

Septimus and Lucrezia, by this time, have returned home to pass the afternoon in their apartment. Dr. Holmes, a doctor Septimus dreads, forces his way inside. Septimus’s madness and his horror of doctors’ control over him leads him to jump from the apartment window to his death.

The sound of Septimus’s ambulance is heard by Peter Walsh, who is on his way back to his hotel.

H Section 8

Clarissa’s party is beginning; guests are arriving. Clarissa is experiencing anxiety, convinced that her party will be a failure. But it seems to be a success, and she makes the rounds of her guests. Sally Seton arrives, surprising Clarissa because Clarissa is not aware that Sally is in London from the country. The prime minister shows up, making everybody feel very satisfied that they are such distinguished company. Sally and Peter chat and wait for Clarissa to mingle with others before she can visit with them. Finally, guests begin to leave. Richard goes to join his daughter, and Clarissa goes to talk to her old friends. Upon seeing Clarissa move toward him, Peter feels great pleasure that this event has ended his day.

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