As the novel begins, Clarissa Dalloway is preparing to host a dinner party at her home in Westminster. She goes to the market to buy flowers; on the way there, she sees her friend Hugh Whitbread and talks with him about his wife, Evelyn, who is ill. Afterwards, Clarissa continues her trip and thinks about Peter Walsh, a past lover whose proposition of marriage she turned down.
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She watches a woman named Lady Bexborough prepare for the market, and considers her own sense of identity. Then, she thinks about her daughter, Elizabeth, and wonders if Elizabeth might be in love with her teacher, Miss Kilman, whom Clarissa strongly dislikes. Clarissa then arrives at the shop and chooses her flowers with the help of Miss Pym, the florist.
Outside the flower shop, a crowd of people looks to a car, supposedly with a famous passenger, that is parked on the street. Septimus Smith and his wife, Lucrezia, who left her life in Italy to be with him, are sitting outside. Septimus states that he will kill himself, causing Lucrezia to feel distressed and wonder if anyone heard him. Various onlookers speculate about the identity of the person in the car and then watch it leave. People wait at the entrance to Buckingham Palace, hoping to catch a sight of Queen Alexandra or another royal. The onlookers watch an airplane in the sky trace out letters and argue about what it could be spelling out. Septimus, though unable to discern what the pilot could be trying to communicate, believes the pilot is signaling to him and begins talking to himself about the plane and his surroundings. Lucrezia considers Septimus’s mental state and the toll it has taken on her. She attempts to stop him from speaking to himself aloud.
The perspective briefly switches several times between different onlookers who have varying opinions on the airplane, what it could be spelling out, and the Smiths. The next scene begins with Clarissa arriving home and finding out that her husband, Richard, will be out for lunch with Lady Bruton. Clarissa is offended that Lady Bruton did not invite her. She thinks about her relationship with her husband, and thinks about her old friend Sally Seton. Clarissa had been attracted to Sally and may have even loved her; they once kissed but were interrupted by Peter Walsh. As she examines a damaged dress in her closet, Clarissa again considers her identity and sense of purpose. Lucy, the Dalloways’ servant, offers to mend a damaged dress, but Clarissa refuses and fixes the dress herself. As she works on the dress, Peter Walsh arrives. He and Clarissa discuss shared memories and share stories of their lives since. Peter tells Clarissa that he is in love with a married woman in India and has returned to England to seek legal assistance with the woman’s divorce. As he breaks down in tears, Clarissa considers what her life would have been like if she had married him instead of Richard. Peter begins to ask her if she is happy in her marriage, but Elizabeth Dalloway’s arrival cuts him off. He leaves hastily and Clarissa yells a reminder at him about her party that night.
As Peter leaves, he thinks about how Clarissa has changed over time and considers her negative qualities. He passes a woman on the street and imagines her as his ideal woman, contrasting her with Clarissa. Eventually, he sits down on a bench in the park and falls asleep. He has visions of an elderly woman who represents mothers that have lost sons to war. After waking up, his thoughts return to Clarissa and her penchant for gossip. He remembers the time he spent with Clarissa and Sally Seton at Bourton, as well as when Clarissa met Richard Dalloway. In the same park, Lucrezia Smith sits and thinks about her marriage, which she feels has caused suffering for her. She thinks about Septimus, who talks about killing himself and expresses many delusions. Septimus notices that Lucrezia has taken off her wedding ring, and she thinks that their marriage is done. Septimus has several visions and hallucinations, including one of his old friend Evans that was killed in the war. As this is happening, Peter Walsh passes the Smiths and feels pity for the couple. He thinks about his own youth and the people, such as Sally Seton and Clarissa, that he spent it with. Beginning to think about Clarissa’s positive characteristics, he reassures himself that he is not in love with her anymore. He believes that Clarissa is too good for Richard, and despises her complete dependence on him.
While Peter thinks about Clarissa, a woman in the Tube station begins to sing, catching Lucrezia’s attention. Lucrezia thinks about how unhappy she is in her marriage due to Septimus’s mental health problems. Septimus did not have the strongest constitution before the war, and his experience in the war left a lasting harmful impact on him and his mental health. He met Lucrezia in Milan at the conclusion of the war. Though Lucrezia was enthusiastic and talkative, Septimus was always serious and unemotional. In the present time, Lucrezia attempts to deal with Septimus’s mental health problems with the assistance of his doctor, Dr. Holmes. However, his situation does not improve, and Lucrezia decides to take Septimus to a more well-known and expensive professional, Sir William Bradshaw. Sir William recommends that Septimus spend time in one of Sir William’s country houses, away from Lucrezia. Lucrezia decides that she dislikes Sir William, and the Smiths leave. The story then shifts to Hugh Whitbread, who is going to lunch with his friends Lady Bruton and Richard Dalloway. Lady Bruton invited the two men to lunch because she wants their assistance on a letter she is writing to the newspaper. She is very politically inclined and runs a program that allows young men and women to emigrate to Canada. However, she believes that she would be unable to write an effective letter on her own. Richard and Hugh give her advice and assistance on the letter and then leave together. Hugh sees a necklace that he thinks Evelyn would like, and the two go into a jewelry shop. Richard reflects on the fact that he has only given Clarissa jewelry once before, and she never wore it. Suddenly, he decides that he wants to bring her a gift, and buys a large bouquet of flowers. He starts walking home with the intention to tell Clarissa that he loves her, which he rarely says. Meanwhile, Clarissa sits at home deciding whether or not to invite Ellie Henderson to her party. She finds Ellie dull and doesn’t wish to invite her, but one of her friends is trying to convince her to invite Ellie. Suddenly, Richard arrives home and surprises Clarissa with the flowers. He does not say that he loves her, but Clarissa understands the message anyways.
The two talk about Richard’s day, Clarissa’s dilemma about the party invitations, and Elizabeth and Miss Kilman. Richard then goes to take a nap, and Clarissa is left thinking about her marriage and times when Peter Walsh criticized her in the past. Elizabeth looks through the door at her mother and say goodbye before her and Miss Kilman leave to go shopping. As they leave, Clarissa reminds them about the party. She watches a woman in the house across the street look through the window and then move about her room. The perspective switches to Miss Kilman and Elizabeth on their shopping trip. Miss Kilman tells Elizabeth that women in Elizabeth’s generation have many more opportunities and career choices open to them than Miss Kilman’s generation did. They also talk about Clarissa’s party; Elizabeth plans on going for her mother’s sake, and Miss Kilman is generally against parties because she rarely receives invitations. Suddenly, Miss Kilman panics and asks Elizabeth not to forget her, fearing that she will lose Elizabeth. Elizabeth says nothing and leaves, taking a bus home. While on the bus, Elizabeth pictures herself as a doctor, a farmer, and a politician. She soon feels silly, and decides she must go home because her mother would disapprove of her being out alone. Back at the Smiths’ house, Septimus lays on the couch and has visions.
Lucrezia watches him and thinks about their marriage, which she does not consider a real marriage. Septimus is having trouble deciphering what is real and what is part of his visions, and so he begins to ask Lucrezia questions. He makes jokes, and the two begin to laugh and enjoy each other’s company for the first time in a long while. Lucrezia decides that even if Septimus’s doctors try to take hin away, she will not let them. Dr. Holmes comes to try to see Septimus; Lucrezia tries to stop him from coming in, but he pushes past her. Panicking because of Holmes’s presence, Septimus begins considering methods of suicide. He sees the open window and jumps out of it, killing himself. The doctor and Lucrezia rush upstairs and stumble upon this window and see the body. Dr. Holmes and Mrs. Filmer, the Smiths’ neighbor, stop Lucrezia from seeing the body and convince her to lie down. Peter Walsh watches the ambulance sent for Septimus go by and thinks about life and death. He considers his relationship with Clarissa and becomes excited about a letter has received from her. The letter, which simply says that Clarissa enjoyed seeing him, makes him think about how she always tries to please him. Although he cares about her, he believes a possible marriage between them would not have worked. He looks at a picture of Daisy, the girl from India whom he is in love with, and thinks about how much simpler his feelings for her are than his feelings for Clarissa. He decides that he will attend Clarissa’s party because he wants to discuss the political and social climate in India with Richard. The scene shifts to the Dalloway household preparing for the party.
A rumor goes around that the Prime Minister will be in attendance. As Peter arrives, Clarissa worries that the party will fail, and thinks about how much she actually dislikes the role of hostess. Ellie Henderson stands alone in the corner, and Richard tries to start a conversation with her. Just as he does so, Peter approaches him to talk. Sally Seton arrives and tells Clarissa about her husband and five children. The Prime Minister arrives, and Ellie Henderson observes how ordinary he looks. Clarissa does not find the experience completely satisfying or enjoyable. She realizes that she does not truly enjoy the company of most of the guests; her dislike for Miss Kilman is more genuine than the way she acts towards her guests. She mediates arguments between guests and works hard to ensure that everyone is enjoying her party. Finally, her and Peter meet. She promises him that they will talk later, and goes to speak with Lady Bruton. Later, Sir William Bradshaw and his wife arrive. Sir William tells Clarissa about Septimus’s suicide, and she is shocked and saddened by the fact that this news has interrupted her party.
She considers the lack of true fulfilment and satisfaction in her life, but also considers her feeling of happiness. She reenters the party, where Sally and Peter are catching up. The three old friends realize how they have each changed with age. Peter realizes the true effect that his relationship with Clarissa has had on him. Sally thinks about how she feels emotions more strongly as she ages, and talks about how young people like Elizabeth does not yet experience emotion this strongly yet. Richard looks at Elizabeth and thinks about how proud he is of her. Sally decides to go and talk to Richard. The story ends with Peter looking at Clarissa and realizing that she truly does make him happy.
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