Although the time covered in this complex novel is only one day, Virginia Woolf, through her genius, manages to cover a lifetime unraveling and exposing the mysteries of the human personality.
The central character of the novel is the delicate Clarissa Dalloway, a disciplined English gentlewoman who provides the perfect contrast to another of the book's characters, Septimus Warren Smith, an ex-soldier whose world is disintegrating into chaos. Although Clarissa and Septimus never meet, it is through the interweaving of each one's story into a gossamer whole that Woolf works her genius.
The book is set on a June day in 1923, as Clarissa prepares for a party that evening. Unfolding events trigger memories and recollections of her past, and Woolf offers these bits and pieces to the reader who must then construct the psychological and emotional makeup of Clarissa Dalloway in his own mind. We also learn much about Clarissa through the thoughts of other characters, such as her one-time lover, Peter Walsh, her friend, Sally Seton, her husband, Richard and her daughter Elizabeth.
It is Septimus Warren Smith, however, driven to the brink of insanity by the war, an insanity that even his wife's tender ministrations cannot cure, who acts as Clarissa's societal antithesis and serves to divide her world into the "then" and the "now."
In this extremely complex and character-driven novel, Woolf offers her readers a challenge. The novel is not separated into chapters; almost all of the action occurs in the thoughts and reminiscences of the characters and the reader must piece together the story from the random bits and pieces of information each character provides. The complexity of the characters may add to the frustration because Woolf makes it difficult for the reader to receive any single dominant impression of any one of them. This, however, forms the essence of the novel and displays the genius of Woolf: It is impossible to describe any human being in a simple phrase or collection of adjectives. We are many things to many people, all of them somewhat different, none of them the same, just as we are many things to ourselves.
Throughout the book, the reader is constantly called upon to compare and contrast Peter Walsh and Richard Dalloway, the two significant love interests in Clarissa Dalloway's life. Compared to Peter, an adventurer, Richard Dalloway appears more than a bit reserved and dour. But, readers must constantly question this view of Richard as his personality seems to alter with his altering relationships.
Intimacy, particularly emotional intimacy, and the preservation of one's uniqueness are two of Woolf's continuing themes. We find that Clarissa married Richard, in part, to preserve her sense of self; Peter would have demanded far more of her than she was, perhaps, willing to give. Here, Clarissa and Septimus, so outwardly different, would find they share much in common. While Clarissa feels threatened by her daughter's tenacious tutor, Miss Kilman, as well as by Peter, Septimus feels threatened by his doctor. Each feels the others are asking too much. Septimus and Clarissa even agree on the subject of death: "There is no death," Septimus declares, while Clarissa, the atheist, secretly believes that bits and pieces of her will remain intact forever.
Although some characters in this book may, at first, appear to be one-dimensional, we soon learn that all are extraordinarily complex. There is Sally, impulsive yet considerate; Richard, bashful yet timid; Peter inhibited yet adventurous; Septimus, insane yet credible. And Clarissa? She is all of these things and more.
It is, however, Woolf's torrential stream-of-consciousness prose that makes this novel a true masterpiece. Even those who find the plot of little interest will be drawn in by the exquisiteness of Woolf's language. This is a complex, character study in the fullest sense of the word, one with no easy answers, for Woolf, in the end seems to be telling us that perhaps, at our essence, we are all unknowable, even to ourselves.