The events of this novel take place in the course of one day.
On a bright June morning in London, 1923, Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, who was preparing to give a party that evening, went to buy flowers. As she walked through the city, she felt, thought, and remembered many things. She recalled a remarkable summer she had spent at her family's country home in Bourton, when she was 18. She had almost married a young man named Peter Walsh. She had loved him, but marrying him would have been a mistake. The trouble was summed up in his attitude toward her parties. He had always criticized her for giving them, but she took them seriously: They were her "offering" to life.
A limousine backfired and stopped across the street from the flower shop. Passersby briefly glimpsed an important-looking face in the window. Everyone wondered who it was, if perhaps it was the Queen. In the crowd was a War veteran named Septimus and his Italian wife, Lucrezia. Septimus had been acting strange lately and had threatened suicide. The limousine approached the gates of Buckingham Palace, where an anxious crowd had formed, but just as it arrived a skywriting airplane buzzed overhead, and everyone looked up. They tried to read the writing, but the wind kept breaking it up. In the park, Septimus also saw the skywriting, but he thought it was a message to him from the dead.
When Clarissa returned home from the shop, she reflected on her marriage. She had always failed Richard in bed. She seemed to lack passion. Yet, she had felt ardor, on occasion, for women-had even been in love once, with her wild friend Sally Seton, who had stayed that summer at Bourton.
Clarissa began mending a tear in her party dress. Suddenly, Peter Walsh burst in. He had been in India; they had not seen each other for many years. Their reunion was bittersweet. Each felt chaotic emotions; each grieved, privately, that Clarissa had rejected Peter thirty years before. Then Peter announced that he was in love with a married woman in India (Daisy). When Peter left, Clarissa called after him to remember her party.
Peter walked the streets, reflecting and reminiscing as Clarissa had done that morning. He felt alternately empty (to be without Clarissa, forever) and free (to be, for the moment, alone and unknown in London). He spied an attractive young woman and followed her until she disappeared. He walked on, noticing how the War, though horrible, had modernized England. He sat on a bench in a park, then drifted off to sleep.
An elderly nurse was also sitting on the bench, knitting. She seemed like some kind of guardian spirit, whom a solitary traveler might see hovering in the sky.
Peter woke up confused and distraught. He had dreamed about an incident at Bourton when he and Clarissa had fought. Afterwards, he had found Clarissa talking to Richard Dalloway. Wracked with jealousy, Peter had hurt her by calling her "a perfect hostess." Later, he had tried to win her back. When he finally proposed, Clarissa rejected him. He had fled to India; Clarissa had married Richard.
Lucrezia and Septimus were also in the park. Septimus, having visions, talked to himself, to the trees, and to his dead comrade Evans, who had been killed in battle. Septimus had fought bravely and well in the War, but when peace came he discovered that "he could not feel." He had then descended into what ordinary people would call madness. But to him it was enlightenment, a state of heightened knowledge about the true meaning of the world, which he found at once exquisitely beautiful and intolerably evil.
A physician named Dr. Holmes had examined Septimus and concluded that nothing was wrong with him. Today, Lucrezia was taking Septimus to a new doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, who had a fine reputation. Sir William diagnosed Septimus as shell-shocked and insane, and insisted he be committed to an institution. Sir William seemed cruel to both Lucrezia and Septimus, and they left hating and fearing him.
It was now 1:30. Richard Dalloway was lunching with Lady Bruton, who mentioned that Peter Walsh was in town. Suddenly, Richard decided that he must tell Clarissa that he loved her. He went to her, bringing flowers, but he could not say the words. She understood anyway. After he left, Clarissa had an altercation with Miss Kilman, her daughter Elizabeth's history tutor. Clarissa hated Miss Kilman, whom she thought cruel and conniving, and Miss Kilman hated Clarissa, for being beautiful and rich. Miss Kilman and Elizabeth went out. Miss Kilman pitied herself for being poor and ugly. Elizabeth appreciated her tutor's knowledge and religious devotion, but disliked her habit of self-pity. After they parted, Elizabeth struck out alone to explore the city. As she walked, she imagined different futures and careers for herself.
Meanwhile, Septimus was beginning to get better. Gradually, he began to recognize the ordinary reality of objects in his home. He also felt awed by his wife's goodheartedness and her brave renunciation of the doctors. Lucrezia rejoiced as Septimus slowly became himself again. Then they heard Dr. Holmes coming. Lucrezia ran out to stop him, but he pushed her aside. Septimus waited until the last moment, then hurled himself out of the window.
Clarissa's party was beginning. Important guests arrived in droves, but Clarissa felt the party was failing. Sir William was there, and when Clarissa learned that one of his patients had committed suicide, she felt depressed. Then she intuited 1)that the young man had killed himself to protect his soul and to communicate something; 2)that Sir William, who seemed evil to her, must have driven him to it; and 3)that the young man was somehow like her.
Meanwhile, Peter and Sally Seton (now Lady Rosseter) sat together, reminiscing and speaking intimately about Clarissa and the past. Peter admitted that Clarissa had been his one true love. When Clarissa reappeared, Peter looked up at her with a mixture of terror and ecstasy.
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