Clarissa Dalloway is the protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa is a 50 year old woman who invests such a large portion of her time and energy into being high society hostess, throwing parties, keeping in step with fashion, and the like, that she has come to be known as “Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; but as Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (Woolf 10). Throughout the novel she struggles to find the balance between the life that she leads and the façade that she presents to society and the life that she wishes that she had. Much of her interaction with others takes place at her shindigs and consists of convivial chatter, and as such few people, if any, know much about the true thoughts and aspirations of Clarissa Dalloway. In her younger days, Clarissa was romantically involved with Peter Walsh, another prominent character in the novel. Although she cared very much for Peter, she felt that they were very different and was not confident in her ability to keep up with him; She was afraid to rebel against social standards and follow her heart, and instead left Peter and married Richard Dalloway, a man who was both financially and socially well to do. Clarissa spends much of her time pondering about what her life could have been like if she had chosen to follow a life of freedom and adventure rather and a life of security. Clarissa is disappointed when her old friend, Sally, now Lady Rosseter, unexpectedly attends her party. When the two were younger Clarissa admired Sally quite a bit, both physically and in character. Sally possessed “a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything” (Woolf, 32). Flashbacks to earlier times with Sally also suggest that Clarissa may have had interest in exploring a romantic relationship with her, as suggested by Clarissa’s statement that “the whole world might have turned upside down” when she was kissed by Sally (Woolf, 32). Her disappointment at the appearance of such a former free spirit who now led a life very much like her own exemplifies Clarissa’s hidden desires to be free of her actual life and pursue a life of rebellion.
Clarissa Dalloway provides a unique example of the difficulty there is in finding happiness in the world. In the beginning of the novel, we see Clarissa as an upper class woman who seems to be a bit shallow. Her marriage to Richard is not presented as one that is full of passion but none the less it provides the superficial comforts that people desire. She is well taken care of and spends most of her time out shopping, taking walks, and planning parties. She has servants who take care of the house work for her and she is privileged with the company of the upper crust of society.
As the novel goes on however, we see a more troubled Clarissa. The superficial comfort is broken by the visit of Peter Walsh, who she was previously in love with. The reasons given for the end of their relationship were all based on Clarissa not wanting to be forced into the depth of relationship that Peter desired. More basically, Clarissa decided she would rather have a life of continuous superficial comfort than to deal with the real and deep emotions that caused her highs and lows with Peter. The visit shows that Clarissa is still torn by that decision 30 years later.
Later in the novel the contrast between the superficial happiness offered by Richard and the deep feelings that would have come with a relationship with Peter are presented in a different situation. Clarissa thinks to herself during her party that she preferred the feelings of hate toward Miss Kilman to the dull pleasantry of seeing even someone as important as the prime minister.
This study speaks to the purpose of the humanities in exploring the depth of the human experiences. I find the fight between the easiness of superficial happiness and the extreme feelings of deep relationships to be a primary struggle of every person’s life. To truly be happy, we must inevitably accept the risk of deep sadness that Clarissa was afraid of when she chose to end her relationship with Peter. As Clarissa finds, there is no true joy in superficial happiness, and at the end of the day she finds it better to feel passionate hate than to comfort without passion.
Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, struggles with the life that she wants to live and the life that she is currently living. Clarissa Dalloway presents herself as a high society housewife who enjoys throwing parties, loves fashion, and is concerned with how society views her. She is the perfect housewife and is known as “…being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; [but as] Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (Woolf 10). Through her flashbacks at Bourton, Clarissa reveals a different side to herself seemingly perfect life. Although her life is glamorous, it is safe. We learn that she yearns for a different life filled with adventure and independence.
Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Clarissa is struggling emotionally. During one of her first flashbacks, Clarissa speaks highly of her friend Sally Seton. “…Her first impression of Sally – she sat on the floor with her arms round her knees, smoking a cigarette…all that evening [Clarissa] could not take her eyes off Sally. It was an extraordinary beauty of the kind she most admired, dark, large-eyed, with that quality which, since she hadn’t got it herself, she always envied – a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything (32).” When Sally kissed Clarissa on the lips Clarissa felt like “the whole world might have turned upside down (35)!” From the way that Clarissa speaks about Sally, we can deduce that Clarissa aspires to be like Sally. She wants to be reckless, different, and adventurous which would be completely out of character for Clarissa. When Sally unexpectedly comes to Clarissa’s party as Lady Rosseter, Clarissa’s first thought is that Sally looks nothing like what she remember — all the lust that she had for her was gone. Sally is now married to a self-made rich man and has five children. The Sally that Clarissa remembered and the Sally that was presently in front of her do not compare. Sally was the woman that she aspired to be and now they were equals. Clarissa’s disappointment in the present day Sally showed Clarissa’s true aspiration of her yearning to be rebellious and independent.
Clarissa contemplates whether she made the right decision marrying Richard Dalloway. Clarissa was passionately in love with Peter Walsh before she met Richard. Peter lived life to the fullest but Clarissa realized at the time that she would never be able to join Peter in his adventures. To Clarissa, her and Peter’s values and beliefs were too different. She was too afraid of abandoning societies expectations of her and doing what she wanted to. She sacrificed the passion and excitement that she had with Peter for the security and financial stability that she could have with Richard.
Although Clarissa Dalloway aspires to live an adventurous and unordinary life, she does not. She plays it safe which is a true signifier of her character. She has the dreams but not the drive to follow those dreams. She lives vicariously through others and will always question whether she is doing the right thing. Ultimately, Clarissa will always want to be anything but herself.
It seems to me that Clarissa was showing symptoms of minor mid-life crisis. After years of marriage with Richard, a well established person in society that provides her with wealth and stability, she should be content with her life at this point. However she never ceased to ponder about her own life especially her choice in marrying in Richard. It was as if she wanted to start her life all over again with somebody else. On the morning of her party while walking through the streets of London shopping for flowers, she started thinking about her old friend Peter. Even though she rejected his proposal a long time ago, she still felt a sense of intimacy for him. She liked him for his charm and distinct personality. Instead of following her heart, she chose Richard for his social status and wealth. Ultimately, she justified her marriage to Richard by concluding that she wouldn’t be able to live with Peter on a day to day basis because she wouldn’t be able to get any privacy. It wasn’t long before she started to think about another person romanticly. While resting in her room after shopping for flowers, she started to think about her friend Sally. Rather than looking at Sally as a possible life partner, her feelings for Sally was in the form of lust and curiosity. She liked Sally for her independence and expressive personality. These innate thoughts of doubts about her life decision allowed the reader to look pass her composed appearance on the outside. Richard and Sally represented the unexplored possibilities in Clarissa’s life. There is a possibility that over the years Richard may have ignored many of Clarissa’s emotional needs due to his busy schedule working as a member of the parliament. This is reflected through Clarissa’s acclimation of Richard leaving in the morning without telling her where he was going.