The Well-knit Plot of “Mrs. Dalloway”

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      Three years after Jacob's Room, in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway was published. The subject is similar in so far as the principal theme is one personality, affecting and affected by the others who come into contact with it. But in the later book, the composition of the whole is superbly successful. The impression made upon the reader by the central personality is clear and full, whilst a far deeper and wider understanding of the surrounding lives is given than was achieved in Jacob’s Room. The incidents or episodes are themselves even more vivid, but they cohere firmly together and finally leave an impression of unity. In Mrs. Dalloway, a convention or art form has been evolved which is more than adequate to take the place of the older convention of narrative and characterization. The necessary circumscription is imposed by the narrow framework of time; the whole of the action takes place within one day. It moves between Mrs. Dalloway’s preparation for her party in the morning and her presiding over it in the evening of the same day. Within this narrow frame by means of the contact she makes and the memories they evoke in her and in others, her life story from girlhood to her present age of fifty is gradually unfolded. The story of Septimus Warren Smith, who impinges upon her consciousness early in the day and whose death throws a shadow over her party in the evening, is the means of introducing another group of characters, a darker side of life, and a more profound sense of the historic background against which the whole is set. The major characters are no more than five and they stand out from the rest with a distinctive prominence, for it is they alone who reveal their thoughts to the reader in prolonged and repeated soliloquy as well as in conversation. These five major characters move round each other, as it were, in two concentric circles, Clarissa, Peter Walsh and (rather more faintly drawn) Richard Dalloway in the one, Septimus and Rezia Warren Smith in the other. Around each of these two inner circles there is a ring of minor characters, such as Sally Seton, Lady Bruton, Hugh Whitbread, Elizabeth Dalloway and, that important foil to Clarissa, Doris Kilman: round the Warren Smith orbit move. Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw, through whose appearance at the party the two themes are ultimately interlocked. Further in the background are a number of figures, unimportant in themselves, but helping to compose the total scene and each one of them supplying an essential part of the pattern.

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