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Clarissa Dalloway seems to hold an odd, panpsychist version of extended-mind theory; for her, consciousness can "spread out" into the world, enabling a person to think together with another mind or even feel herself within the trees she passes. If Clarissa could really do this, she would be quite special. I argue that the novel forces the question of Clarissa's exceptional psychological sensitivity onto the reader but provides seriously conflicting evidence bearing on it. Qua reader, I endorse Clarissa's special capacity on the strength of effects arising from the style of Woolf's presentation of her patterns of thought.


My title question has something of the feel of a book club discussion starter, but it has further-reaching implications for understanding Mrs. Dalloway than might first appear. Consider two more mainstream interpretive questions. First, Virginia Woolf's novel places extensive cognitive and aesthetic demands on its readers and thereby participates in the famous "difficulty" of much high-modernist literature. Any interpretation should explain why Woolf thought such a challenge to the capacities and expectations of the reader was necessary or conducive to her purposes. Second, it is an obvious, perhaps the most obvious, feature of the work that it takes the name of a character for its title. That puts Clarissa Dalloway at the center of attention. But why pay attention to Clarissa Dalloway? Puzzlement over that question is modeled for us by Woolf's other characters—notably, Peter Walsh—who ruminate almost obsessively about why Clarissa should matter to them so.1 The pursuit of my title question will suggest a joint explanation [End Page 233] of these other two matters, inspired by following a third strand with a more philosophical flavor.

The philosophical strand I have in mind is Woolf's effort to explore some complicated and unusual forms of consciousness. Woolf is interested in the connection between minds—in what it would be like for one consciousness to blend into another, for one person to experience the thoughts of another directly and feel something of herself in the other person.2 Peter Walsh and Clarissa, for instance, exemplify this type of connection: they effortlessly succeed, even after years apart, not just to complete each other's sentences but to think each other's thoughts.

Such a connection between minds involves an extension of consciousness that is central to the mystery of Clarissa Dalloway. As we discover early in our acquaintance with her, Clarissa has an unusual theory (or, perhaps better: a thought, a hunch) about how consciousness can "spread out" into the world:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking toward Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

(p. 9; cf. pp. 152–53)

It is an extraordinary thought. Clarissa is peddling something more radical than the (suddenly relatively commonsensical-sounding) philosopher's hypothesis of "extended mind" sensu Clark and Chalmers, according to which objects (e.g., notebooks, computing devices) or collaborators can be repurposed as parts of the extended mind through our reliance on them in cognition.3 Clarissa's thought can console her about death only via its suggestion that one's consciousness itself, carrying the deepest sources of personhood, is actually spread out though the environment, and so could survive the "absolute end" of one's narrower biological life. With "the people she knew best," like Peter, this connection is supposed to be strong enough to be perceptibly accessible (they have "lived in each other"). But the really remarkable idea is that similar connections extend outward from there, making Clarissa into a "part" of "people she had never met," and even of nonconscious things [End Page 234] ("the trees at home," "the house there")—extending "ever so far" out into the wider world.

We should not mistake Woolf's ambitions. Her goal is not philosophical theory; she makes no effort to make this version of the extended-mind hypothesis precise or render it plausible, much less to argue for it. On the contrary, she emphasizes the least plausible suggestions in the neighborhood, including the idea that individual consciousness itself extends into the minds of others, and the still more mysterious thought that the mind becomes part of objects like trees and houses, apparently flirting with a panpsychism little countenanced since the more extravagant speculations of the nineteenth century.4 What we get is not careful philosophical development but a speculative fancy attributed to a character—and while this is one of Clarissa's most distinctive and fascinating thoughts,5 there is nothing especially disciplined about Clarissa Dalloway as a thinker. In these respects, Clarissa's theory is extraordinary in the specific sense of its being an extraordinary thing to think (i.e., something highly unlikely, remarkable but implausible, etc.).

No matter how underdeveloped, though, the thought is also extraordinarily well put, and that is where Woolf's ambitions reside. We are captivated not by the irresistible progression of an argument but by the subtle flow of Clarissa's stream of consciousness, as it comes up against the obstacle of mortality, pulls up short to consider, and then rushes headlong downstream across the beautiful inconsequence of that transition from the thought of "ending absolutely" to the contrary thought of nevertheless surviving "in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things." Clarissa's inconsequence is smoothed over by the smallest possible gesture—Woolf's refusal to capitalize "but" ("that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London . . ."), which elides an (expected?) full stop, and transforms what would have been a sharp contrast ("On the one hand, I must end absolutely; but on the other, I might survive through my extension into others") into a continuity of thought rooted in Clarissa's governing emotional feeling ("Do I resent my disappearance? No, it's consoling to end absolutely. . . . Or rather, it's consoling because I will survive in my extended form").

The feeling of consolation then assumes striking form in the repeated image of trees (the trees Clarissa loved at home, where she will live on, which can hold up a mist of the sort her extended self will one day be, trees that are so like the people she knows best, whose branches will lift her extending mist so that it may "spread ever so far, her life, herself").6 So it is an odd thought, but as Woolf presents it, oddly compelling, [End Page 235] and proof of an artistry that is ready to match its spread against that of Shakespeare himself in the famous act of quotation just following, when Clarissa interrupts her own ruminations to think: "But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchards' shop window? What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn in the country, as she read in the book spread open: Fear no more the heat o' the sun / Nor the furious winter's rages" (p. 9).

I can now put sharper points onto my title question: Woolf offers us the novel of a character, Clarissa Dalloway; we are invited to follow along for a day in her life—a day that will end in her throwing a society party—to follow her mind as it thinks its way through that day. But what are we to make of it all? Are these thoughts worth thinking? Do they repay the intense complexities of their depiction? Are they the poignant flutterings of that most precious of animals, the finite human spirit, so capacious of conception and yet so painfully, bravely aware of its essential vulnerability? Or are they just the vague musings of a coddled, undisciplined mind, its life wasting away inside a gilded cage furnished with an "inlaid table . . . and old valuable English tinted prints" (p. 43)? Is Woolf's own magnificent verbal artistry the measure of the inner grandeur of its subject, or an elaborate joke designed to expose Clarissa's shocking shallowness (and then also to poke fun at us for taking such poverty so seriously)? In short, is Clarissa Dalloway special, or is she an empty shell "afloat on the cream of English society" (p. 103), like her friend Hugh Whitbread?7


We now have a preliminary understanding of the title question, but if we are to grasp its stakes, we will need to sense something of what it would be like to think like Clarissa (or anyway, like she would if she were special). Famously, we meet Clarissa Dalloway as she walks out to the florist's ("Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her" [p. 3]), and Woolf takes the first ten pages or so to introduce us to the patterns of Clarissa's thought through passages like the one quoted, written largely in free indirect style8 and following the stream of her consciousness. It is the novel's next gesture, however, that reveals both the steep challenge Woolf intends to pose for her reader and also the stakes that will attach to the consciousness theme introduced by Clarissa's panpsychist version of the extended-mind hypothesis. [End Page 236]

Just as Clarissa detaches from the street bustle and begins to experience the flowers, carried away by scents and colors, by roses, delphiniums, and sweet peas, she is violently interrupted by a gunshot—but no, it is just a car backfiring in the street outside (p. 13). We readers, too, are pulled up sharply by a space break between paragraphs, and then a single sentence of flat, fully objective, omniscient narration, before the minds of Woolf's characters crowd in again and we are sent whirling off through the London streets. The ensuing set piece covers some fifteen pages, starting from the scene in Bond Street outside the flower shop, following the motorcar through town, across Piccadilly, through crowds outside Buckingham Palace (the car now lost), and then up into the sky following a skywriting plane. But we are transported not under the guidance of a narrator who sees everything in the fictional world but instead by leaping from one mind to another through a bewildering array of perceptions and experiences of the London cityscape—first the thought of one character, then the perception of another, the feeling of a third, and a fourth, fifth, sixth, and on—most of whom we never reencounter.9

Note how subtly Woolf shows her hand. The passage begins,

The violent explosion which made Mrs. Dalloway jump and Miss Pym go to the window and apologise came from a motor car which had drawn to the side of the pavement precisely opposite Mulberry's shop window. Passers-by who, of course, stopped and stared, had just time to see a face of the very greatest importance against the dove-grey upholstery, before a male hand drew the blind and there was nothing to be seen except a square of dove grey.

(p. 14)

Omniscient narration intervenes here, as rudely as the pistol shot Mrs. Dalloway heard, and we learn directly, authoritatively, that it was no pistol but the car opposite—indeed, "precisely" opposite. The objective tone lasts for that one sentence plus a half ("of course" people stopped, stared), just until the direct object of the second sentence is withdrawn from our view to reveal Woolf's real quarry, the minds of the anonymous passersby, who cannot see the person inside but only his (her?) importance. Free indirect discourse has certainly returned, for in contrast to the authoritative narrator (who could know—or better, make true—which personage sits behind the shade), we see things through the eyes of those who saw but could not recognize the face, or of Clarissa, who did not see, having looked out after the shade was down (but she thinks it is the Queen). Fed by this ignorance, "rumours were at once in circulation . . . [End Page 237] passing invisibly, inaudibly, like a cloud, swift"—for instance, Edgar J. Watkiss (who's he?) claims that it is "the Proime Minister" (p. 14)—and with that, we are whisked off through the minds of Watkiss, of Septimus Smith and his wife Lucrezia (Rezia) passing by, back to Clarissa, and from there onward through the crowds in the shops, and men standing in the street as the car passed, and a Colonial insulting the Windsors, and his offended hearers, and Moll Pratt on the pavement, and the police, and the crowd outside Buckingham Palace, and on up into the sky—not from place to place but from mind to mind, as these different people experience their fragments of the London day. Here, the difficulty of Woolf's prose arises from the way the reader is constantly challenged to follow who is thinking, perceiving, emoting now.10

In my view, the main organizational structure for this whirlwind tour points back to Woolf's interest in connections between consciousnesses. Our clue is the function of the backfiring car that launches the sequence; it is the loud and sudden sound that yanks us out of Clarissa's reverie and into the street, from whence we begin our journey from mind to mind. In the ensuing fifteen pages, many (though not all11) of the important transitions from one mind to another are likewise marked by some sudden or loud sound, which seems to shunt the narrative focus out of one mind's train of reflections and into another's. After the backfire pulls us out of the shop into the street, we bounce among anonymous spectators until Watkiss blurts out that it's the prime minister, a sound that calls the attention of Septimus Smith (p. 14). We spend about a page in the company of his mind, until interrupted by the voice of his wife, which startles Septimus (p. 15) and pulls our attention into Lucrezia's thoughts (pp. 15–16), until her next remark on crossing the street sends us back into Septimus (p. 16). Similarly, it is the "sound of an aeroplane" (p. 20) that draws our attention from the patriotic emotions of "little Mr. Bowley" in front of Buckingham Palace to follow the perceptions of Mrs. Coates and Mrs. Bletchley as they follow the skywriting, and the noise of the same plane ("suddenly, as a train comes out of a tunnel" [p. 21]) takes us back to Regent's Park and the mental worlds of Rezia and Septimus—first exploring the disturbed reflections of Septimus (pp. 21–23) until they are interrupted by her exclamation ("'Septimus!'. . . He started violently. People must notice" [p. 23]) and we are pulled into her thoughts (pp. 23–24)—then back to his, when his talking aloud to himself recalls her (and our) attention (pp. 24–26).

The same pattern governs when Maisie Johnson's interruption to ask directions (p. 26) provokes a dramatic (overloud?) reaction from the [End Page 238] embarrassed Rezia, kicking us out of Septimus's reverie and into Maisie's, until her absentminded squeaking of a knob on the iron railing (p. 27) shifts us into the mental life of Mrs. Dempster (looking at Maisie), where we stay until the airplane noise pushes us along again, into the world of a Mr. Bentley, mowing his lawn, and then an anonymous "seedy-looking" man on the steps of St. Paul's experiencing some vague spiritual crisis (p. 28). The sequence draws to a close only when the plane pulls off into such distance that the sound fades: "It was strange; it was still. Not a sound was to be heard above the traffic. Unguided it seemed; sped of its own free will. And now, curving up and up, . . . like something mounting in ecstasy, in pure delight, out from behind poured white smoke looping, writing a T, an O, an F" (pp. 28–29). Schluss.

Woolf thus constructs a pattern of sound transitions that push the narrative line from one character's mental life into another's. That pattern is echoed throughout by one of the novel's most resonant and compelling images, the sound of Big Ben ringing out the hours—figured by the narrator's striking thought, "The leaden circles dissolved in the air" (p. 4)—which first sets the tone as Clarissa embarks on her walk to the florist and then recurs to mark key transitions in the day.12 The underlying logic for this pattern is telling. The loud or sudden sound draws the attention of several characters—and hence also the focal point of the narrative line that has been moving along with one of them—to some common target of attention. This can happen at different scales: the car and the plane unite the attention of entire crowds or even people in different parts of the city, while Rezia's exclamations draw the notice of just the small group (her pair with Septimus, or their triad with Maisie Johnson). But once the common attention is established, it is as if the minds of the co-attenders are joined, and that conjunction of consciousness permits the narrative line to slip from one to another, so that it can leave the joint consciousness moments later attached to a new mind, thereby smoothing over the mind-to-mind transitions that carry us through the sequence. Woolf's text calls out the phenomenon: "Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked" (p. 15); or again, "The sound of the aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. . . . Everyone looked up" (p. 20), causing them to miss the car (!) as it pulls into the gates of Buckingham Palace.

One point of Woolf's set piece, I submit, is to train the reader in a mode of attention that is needed to appreciate the work.13 A large part of her game in the novel will be to let the narrative thread slip from mind to mind in this way,14 and it is clearly a challenge to follow along. [End Page 239] In this early stretch we get a practice zone in which to go through our paces and get the drift.

By way of comparison, recall Lisa Zunshine's hypothesis that part of the difficulty in following Woolf's moves through the mental worlds of Mrs. Dalloway derives from the intrinsic psychological difficulty (established by empirical research) of tracking many nested levels of intentionality, beyond the three or four we routinely master in everyday life.15 For example, in reading Mrs. Dalloway we must successfully follow how "Woolf intends us to recognize . . . that Richard is aware that Hugh wants Lady Bruton and Richard to think that because the makers of the pen believe that it will never wear out, the editors of the Times will respect and publish the ideas recorded by this pen" (WWR, p. 33)—six levels (according to Zunshine16), marked by the italicized intentional verbs.

The set piece described above reveals that such nested intentionality is not the only domain where the novel demands difficult mental gymnastics from the reader. Whereas Zunshine highlights a (relatively familiar) phenomenon of "vertical" integration of mental attitudes that are about others' attitudes, and thus take those further attitudes as objects to form a nested hierarchy representing the social situation (form: Richard sees that Lady Bruton knows that Miss Brush thinks that Hugh's beliefs about the sentiments of the Times editors are bunkum), by contrast, what is demanded in the jaunt around London is a facility for navigating "horizontal" connections joining the thoughts of one person to those of another, so as to permit the smooth flow of consciousness across different minds. Such horizontal connections are unfamiliar from everyday life. After all, the possibility of consciously transitioning from one person's thought to another's in real life (as opposed to in the fictional world) would seem to depend on the truth of something like Clarissa's implausible thesis that consciousness can extend from one mind into another, flowing across the juncture created by common attention.17 Since ordinary readers cannot be expected to have experience of this, Woolf was wise to guide us with a little practice in how to imagine it. Just that fact, however, raises questions about the stakes of the novel. Unlike Zunshine's appeal to vertical nested intentionality, horizontal mental linkage is not a feature of ordinary social existence, so its mastery will not build up our socially useful "Machiavellian intelligence" (as evolutionary psychologists sometimes dub the capacity Zunshine highlights).18 What, then, is the point of practicing it?

Despite its unfamiliarity, or even implausibility, as a feature of ordinary psychology or sociality, it is fairly clear, once we pause to consider, what [End Page 240] our fictional interest is in playing along with Woolf's explorations of the "horizontal" flow that could extend one consciousness out into others. For Clarissa Dalloway not only has a theory about this phenomenon but also seems to have the power to experience the world this way, and that is central to Woolf's interest in her. Understanding this way of being is part and parcel of understanding Clarissa.

Clarissa's power is most apparent in her relationship with Peter Walsh, because of how they experience extended consciousness with mutuality. When Peter arrives from India, he comes in on Clarissa mending her dress for the party, and they fall almost immediately into their pattern from more than thirty years before. After some opening pleasantries, Peter notes the party preparations:

"And what's all this?" he said, tilting his penknife toward her green dress.

He's very well dressed, thought Clarissa; yet he always criticizes me.

Here she is mending her dress; mending her dress as usual, he thought; here she's been all the time I've been in India; mending her dress; playing about; going to parties; running to the House and back and all that, he thought, growing more and more irritated.

(p. 41)

Strictly speaking, this could represent simply the easy understanding of long acquaintance: Peter asks about the preparations, but she knows him well enough to suspect he'll find them trivial, and so knows to be defensive; and in the next paragraph, we find from his thoughts that she's right. Perhaps his tone of voice was a tell. But it's also just possible that something more is happening—that there was no tell in his voice, but she knew what he was going to think because she was thinking it with him already.

That apparently far-fetched possibility gains greater credibility from Woolf's depiction of their fuller return to the past:

"I often wish I'd got on better with your father," he said.

"But he never liked anyone who—our friends," said Clarissa, and could have bitten her tongue for thus reminding Peter that he had wanted to marry her.

Of course I did, thought Peter; it almost broke my heart too, he thought; and was overcome with his own grief, which rose like a moon looked at from a terrace, ghostly beautiful with the light from the sunken day. . . . And as if in truth he were sitting there on the terrace he edged a little toward Clarissa; put his hand out; raised it; let it fall. There above them it hung, that moon. She too seemed to be sitting with him on the terrace, in the moonlight.

"Herbert has it now," she said. "I never go there now," she said.

(p. 42) [End Page 241]

Woolf's prose creates a landscape of hypersubtle psychological perception. Clarissa does stop herself from making any explicit reference to her father's distaste for her suitors (that's the notion that stopped her), but she knows that Peter will sense what she was thinking—as he does. Meanwhile, Woolf represents their thoughts as if they can use them for direct conversation: Clarissa internally chides herself for reminding Peter of his intentions, and his first thought is then framed as a direct response to her (unspoken) reminder—its missing completion taken from her thought ("Of course I did [want to marry you]"). More remarkably, the governing imaginative metaphor of his thoughts about his old grief—the moon rising above a terrace—seems to become their common device for thinking about it (even though Peter never mentions it, but just shifts his weight as if they were sitting on a terrace). Clarissa doesn't ever (quite) say anything about the moon, but she smoothly enters into Peter's emotion ("She too seemed to be sitting with him on the terrace, in the moonlight"), and indeed, she is still deeply moved—and, we imagine, still mentally on the terrace—even after he "begins to feel ashamed that he is already bored, and yet as the other sits silent, very quiet, sadly looking at the moon, does not like to speak, moves his foot" (p. 42). Her remark that "Herbert has it now" only makes sense if she is aware that Peter is thinking of Bourton, over whose terrace the moon of his grief has risen.19

The phenomenon of shared thought and imaginative association becomes even more pronounced as the conversation continues, and Clarissa and Peter marshal their resources to show that they have done well with the lives they have spent apart—each of them imagining that internal, unvoiced, emotional, and cognitive work under the same governing metaphor of a cavalry battle about to begin:

"Well, and what's happened to you?" she said. So before a battle begins, the horses paw the ground; toss their heads; the light shines on their flanks; their necks curve. So Peter Walsh and Clarissa, sitting side by side on the blue sofa, challenged each other. His powers chafed and tossed within him. He assembled from different quarters all sorts of things; praise; his career at Oxford; . . . [etc.].

"Millions of things!" he exclaimed, and, urged by the assembly of powers which were charging now this way and that . . . , he raised his hands to his forehead.

Clarissa sat very upright; drew in her breath.

(p. 44) [End Page 242]

This image of the cavalry battle must be, I submit, their common image, not one's alone, nor the narrator's exclusively. Woolf's initial description gives the pawing, tossing horses to both of them: "So Peter Walsh and Clarissa, sitting side by side on the blue sofa, challenged each other." The ensuing text depicts Peter understanding himself through the image: his "powers chafed and tossed in him"; he has "the feeling . . . of being rushed through the air on the shoulders of people he could no longer see" (p. 44). And to seal the mutuality, as we move toward the climax of the scene, Woolf shows Clarissa, too, thinking all along under the same aegis:

But the indomitable egoism which forever rides down the hosts opposed to it, the river which says on, on, on; . . . this indomitable egoism charged her cheeks with color; made her look very young; very pink; very bright-eyed as she sat with her dress upon her knee, and her needle held to the end of the green silk, trembling a little. He was in love! Not with her. With some younger woman, of course.

"And who is she?" she asked.

p. 45; (emphasis added)

And then a page later, the climax—

I know what I'm up against, he thought . . . ; but I'll show Clarissa—and then to his utter surprise, suddenly thrown by those uncontrollable forces through the air, he burst into tears; wept; wept without the least shame, sitting on the sofa, the tears running down his cheeks.

And Clarissa had leant forward, taken his hand, drawn him to her, kissed him,—actually had felt his face on hers before she could down the brandishing of silver flashingplumes like pampas grass in a tropic gale in her breast, which, subsiding, left her holding his hand, patting his knee, and feeling as she sat back extraordinarily at her ease with him and lighthearted, all in a clap it came over her, If I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day!

pp. 46–47; (emphasis added)

The gaiety on which Clarissa here thinks with satisfaction (tinged though it be with regret) arises not just from the powerful course of emotions evoked in their half-hour's conversation but from its underlying cause—the deep psychic connection they share as their thoughts converge. Not only can each pick up any hint and follow its consequences but more, they also imagine together, following a common train of associations without the governing image ever needing to have been spoken between them. In general, imaginative association of this sort [End Page 243] operates on (more or less) consciously apprehended starting points but then carries on spontaneously, without deliberate regulation. In just that respect, Clarissa's connection with Peter is too spontaneous and natural to be accounted for via inferences about what the other must be thinking;20 it has to be their actually experiencing each other's thoughts—directly, immediately, perceptibly—so that each one's thoughts are available to the other as inputs for their remarkably attuned associative explorations. They must be connected mind to mind. That is a striking power, as Peter well understands: "And it was awfully strange, he thought, how she still had the power, as she came tinkling, rustling, still had the power as she came across the room, to make the moon, which he detested, rise at Bourton over the terrace in the summer sky" (p. 47). As we have now seen, Woolf has a suggestion to make about the source of this power: it is the power of the extended consciousness in action.


Allow me a short digression about superpower fictions. Suppose the capacity in question were not limited to the relationship between Clarissa and Peter but operated as a more general faculty of Clarissa's mind. In that case, there might be something rather special about Clarissa Dalloway. And in fact, the ability to know people immediately, perceptually, is central to Woolf's portrait of Clarissa as an especially successful hostess, capable of bringing people together, sensing who needs whom and how they might be induced to open up to one another. Moreover, Clarissa knows it (or anyway, believes it) about herself that she has this unusual ability: "Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with someone, up went her back, like a cat's; or she purred" (p. 9). It is in these terms that Clarissa defends her parties as "offerings to life" (p. 121):

But to go deeper . . . what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; someone up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering: to combine, to create; but to whom?

An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance.

(p. 122) [End Page 244]

But then again, throwing good parties is nothing all that extraordinary. Clarissa's sensitivity will count as special in the sense of my title question only if we take her (more or less) literally when she thinks of herself as feeling "quite continuously a sense of their existence"—or at least, if it is to be metaphorical, if we think that her metaphor is striving to capture a degree of sensitivity to the psychological lives and social possibilities of others that goes well beyond the ordinary round. In that case, Mrs. Dalloway suddenly takes on a surprising generic affinity—it reads like a superpower fiction.

Fictions about what it would be like to have some extraordinary power or faculty—superpower fictions—are sometimes relegated to childhood fantasy and its louder, more expensive current-day manifestation, Hollywood superhero movies. The association makes some (limited) sense. If we focus exclusively on the basic feature of disguise and dual identity that is central to many superhero fictions, then the fantasy they involve can seem particularly apt for an audience still on the way toward maturity. For them, after all, it is right to think of actual life as existing entirely in the shade cast by the brilliant light of potential, which renders especially compelling this fantasy of possessing extraordinary but secret inner capabilities that radically separate the real self from the ordinary persona seen by the world.

But this dynamic captures only one side of the genre, which has other and (philosophically) greater possibilities than fancy action sequences and the fantasy of being more, deep down, than the world thinks of me.21 Going all the way back to Plato's treatment of the Ring of Gyges in Republic, philosophers' interest in these imaginary flights has circled not around fantasies of power but around concerns about our limits. The ring's invisibility power matters not as a device for imaginatively indulging wishes for what we might get by its means but instead as a source of lessons about our true good—and about our real weaknesses—that comes from imagining ourselves free of the usual external brakes on temptation. The imagined special power that promises to lift our restrictions can be, in the main, a device for limning our finite condition and the fragility of our virtue.

Virginia Woolf is playing in this older, more philosophical game. Clarissa is not special in that her Westminster hostess persona covers over a secret life of extraordinary exploits. On the contrary, the mystery (the one Peter Walsh finds so perplexing) is that the Westminster hostess life itself seems somehow special in ways he (and we) can never quite explain, but only behold ("For there she was," [p. 194; see also p. 76]). [End Page 245] And we should sympathize with Peter Walsh's befuddlement. After all, it is just the life of a hostess. And what is so special about that?


The question is a sharp one, and Woolf means us to feel its bite. To put the point rudely, even if Clarissa Dalloway were the greatest hostess in the great city at the center of the greatest empire the world had yet known, what of it? She's still just a hostess, standing there, greeting her guests, feeling, even in her own mind, like "a stake driven in the top of her stairs" (p. 170). It is precisely when he is convinced of her specialness that Peter feels he must somehow rescue her—"carry off Clarissa, to save her from the Hughs and the Dalloways and all the other 'perfect gentlemen' who would 'stifle her soul' . . . , make a mere hostess of her" (p. 75). In such passages, we are induced into feeling some contempt for Clarissa's worldliness (p. 76), for her snobbish investment in the Lady Bexboroughs of the world (pp. 10, 121, 190), and so made sympathetic with Peter's thirty-years'-ago use of the epithet "the perfect hostess" (p. 62) as an insult.

But even all this is not yet the harshest criticism Woolf has up her sleeve. Suppose Clarissa did have a gift—a real gift—for sensing and meeting people's needs. Then the real indictment is that she is spending it on "So-and-so in South Kensington; someone up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair," as if that were a matter of importance. What makes this criticism cut more deeply is that the greater her gift actually is, the worse it seems to spend it so.

Both Peter Walsh and Richard Dalloway serve as models for readers disposed to look askance at Clarissa's parties. For Peter, the parties are a waste of Clarissa's brilliance—so much triviality frittered away on the rich and useless:

She made her drawing-room a sort of meeting-place; she had a genius for it. Over and over again he had seen her. . . . And behind it all was that network of visiting, leaving cards, being kind to people; running about with bunches of flowers, little presents; So-and-so was going to France—must have an air-cushion; a real drain on her strength; all that interminable traffic that women of her sort keep up; but she did it genuinely, from a natural instinct.

(p. 77)

Or again, "She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result [End Page 246] that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant little parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn't mean, losing her discrimination" (p. 78).

Richard's dismissal seems more sympathetic, rooted in concern for Clarissa's peace of mind: "It was a very odd thing how much Clarissa minded about her parties, he thought. . . . If she worried about these parties he would not let her give them" (p. 119). But (as Clarissa detects) there is a more critical assessment underneath: Richard disagrees with Clarissa about what her parties should be for. Recall the context: Clarissa is reluctant to invite her (boring? dowdy? anyway, poor) cousin Ellie Henderson, which Mrs. Marsham is pressuring her to do. Inviting her would obviously be the kind thing.22 To Clarissa's mind, however, kindness is not to the point: "But why should she invite all the dull women in London to her parties? And why should Mrs. Marsham interfere?" (p. 117). The fact that Richard finds in its kindness sufficient grounds for issuing the invitation ("'Poor Ellie Henderson,' said Richard" [p. 119]) and fails to see any countervailing reason ("But Richard had no notion of the look of a room") stands as an implicit rebuke—one with which we who are less socially adept might sympathize—to both the importance of and the guiding norms for the sort of society party Clarissa aims to give.

Woolf does not leave Clarissa defenseless against these criticisms. But the very thought processes of her self-defense betray the novel's real and deeper suspicion against Clarissa and her parties. After Richard and Clarissa's midafternoon tête-à-tête—in the course of which he signally fails in his resolution to tell her "in so many words" (pp. 115, 116, 118–19) that he loves her23—he sends her off to rest, which gives her time to sort through her feelings: "But Richard was already at the House . . . , having settled all her difficulties. But no; alas that was not true. He did not see the reasons against asking Ellie Henderson. She would do it, of course, as he wished it" (p. 120).24 And then, after an ellipsis, "But—but—why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy?" Clarissa considers one reason after another (including the matter of Ellie Henderson, which she manages to rate at its proper—low—importance), until at length she hits on it: "Her parties! That was it! Her parties! Both of them criticised her very unfairly, laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties. That was it! That was it!" (p. 121). Then, her desperate unhappiness entirely removed by the discovery of its source, she contentedly sets about composing her apology. [End Page 247]

That apology carries some real heft, perhaps surprisingly so for those inclined to dismiss Clarissa. For it is here that she articulates the ideas mentioned in section 3, which are linked to what is potentially special about her—namely, that the parties are "an offering" (p. 121), that they serve "life" (p. 122) by bringing together people who can be connected only by someone of Clarissa's acute psychological and social sensitivity. Again,

she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering: to combine, to create; but to whom?

An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense; and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know.

(p. 122)

The friend of Clarissa has much to work with here. If she is no intellectual, if she doesn't follow politics and cannot play the piano, so what? She has a power much more extraordinary: to feel the existence of other people, to see their most important social needs and deftly intervene to satisfy them. Her parties are not trivial, as Peter Walsh thinks, but the very stuff of life! They are not mere opportunities for small and insignificant kindnesses, as Richard thinks, but delicate social organisms with an immensely complex internal chemistry that could be thrown off-kilter by the presence of dead weight like Ellie Henderson; they are ambitious enterprises for the meeting of obscurely felt human needs that can be kept on track only by someone with the refined, hypersensitive psychological attunement of a Clarissa Dalloway!

And the Armenians? They are inserted by Woolf, to remind us of the recent scene where Clarissa shooed Richard out before he could commit the inconsequence of telling her in so many words that he loved her (for he had already brought the roses):

But Richard had no notion of the look of a room. However—what was he going to say?

If she worried about these parties he would not let her give them. Did she wish she had married Peter? But he must go.

He must be off, he said, getting up. But he stood for a moment as if he were about to say something; and she wondered what? Why? There were the roses. [End Page 248]

"Some Committee?" she asked, as he opened the door.

"Armenians," he said; or perhaps it was "Albanians."

(p. 119)

Within so short a compass, Clarissa detects that Richard wants to say something ("However—what was he going to say?"), and then, within a beat (between a first question mark and the second), she susses out what it must be ("and she wondered what? Why? There were the roses"). Just as quickly, nay, simultaneously, she senses that an explicit declaration would be not merely unnecessary (she has long since gotten the tip) but even intrusive to a creature of her delicate sensitivity.25 To cut off such clumsiness, Clarissa asks where Richard is heading. And then we get a piece of quoted direct speech that, remarkably, functions instead as free indirect discourse: "'Armenians,' he said; or perhaps it was 'Albanians.'" In the world of the novel, of course (we readers know), Richard said "Armenians." Only Clarissa is confused. So the sentence with the two quotations cannot be the omnisciently narrated report of Richard's speech; instead, the whole thing must be free indirect narration of Clarissa's hearing of what he said—a saying that, because Clarissa is paying no attention to the Armenian genocide, she is unable to keep straight.26 On the next page, lest we who lack Clarissa's sensitivity miss the point, Woolf drives the dagger home:

He was already halfway to the House of Commons [Clarissa thinks], to his Armenians, his Albanians, having settled her on the sofa, looking at his roses. And people would say, "Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt." She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again)—no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn't that help the Armenians?).

(p. 120)

"Didn't that help the Armenians?" (emphasis added). With defenders like these among her own thoughts, Clarissa hardly needs enemies in the form of those paltry criticisms from Peter and Richard. This side of Clarissa is appalling, and we are meant to feel it; she knows full well what is happening to the Armenians, but she closes herself off from it, cultivating insensitivity. For our purposes, the note of skepticism about Clarissa that Woolf introduces here is not merely a moral doubt about her character (though it is that, too). It also bleeds back corrosively on our thinking about my title question. Can Clarissa really have a special psychological sensitivity if she finds it so easy to shut out the Armenians [End Page 249] (and, for that matter, Ellie Henderson)? Perhaps her would-be ability to "feel quite continuously a sense of their existence" is not to be taken in any strong sense after all. Maybe it is not even real, but the imaginary product of her self-justifying confabulations in defense of a shallow life of socializing. And maybe we have been taken in by those rationalizations because we identified with her too closely.27

Woolf is careful not to spoil the effect of this reveal by having a heavy-handed narrator step in with self-satisfied moralizing. She just lets Clarissa betray herself. Free indirect style of the sort on display here always carries a moment of irony, for it achieves the psychological intimacy I emphasized earlier precisely by pulling us into the necessarily limited standpoint of a character, from which the implied narrator or author stands back, and which she (and we) thereby smoothly transcend. In many cases, including those highlighted in section 2, the irony can be (or seem) benevolent enough—the character's perspective is limited, sure, but just in the (understandable) way any finite creature's must be. Here, though, we meet something darker. It is what my friend Blakey Vermeule likes to call the use of free indirect style to "slice off the head of the character."28

Because readers of Mrs. Dalloway spend so much time in the company of Clarissa's thoughts—and because we have to spend so much effort to track them—we are bound to be tempted by a deep sympathy that induces us to feel her concerns to be serious and her point of view on the world justified. That sympathy works to promote a positive answer to my title question. It tempts us to take seriously Clarissa's implausible panpsychist, extended-mind hypothesis, and then to accept at face value the novel's suggestions that she is capable of extraordinary socio-psychological connections to other people (and so must have come to this theory through her own experience). She therefore seems special.

Woolf now intervenes to undercut any smooth transition from our sympathetic engagement to a considered judgment; she opens up the possibility that what we have been reading is merely the record of Clarissa's self-glorifying imaginings about what her experience is like. By doing so, Woolf means to make the title question harder, raising the doubt that perhaps Clarissa is just a "spoilt" and coddled Westminster hostess, whose apparent profundities are so much shallowness, and whose attractiveness in our eyes only exposes us as equally shallow, class-bedazzled fools. So now we can return to the question in earnest: is Clarissa Dalloway special, or not? [End Page 250]


So far, I have offered some textual interpretations and a philosophical context for understanding one strand of Woolf's agenda in Mrs. Dalloway. On the title question itself, however, I have been circumspect, regularly taking recourse to the subjunctive mood (and similar dodges) when speaking of Clarissa's would-be specialness. It is now time to lay some cards on the table and to explain my previous circumspection.

Explanations first. As I have been emphasizing, free indirect style serves as Woolf's primary narrative mode in Mrs. Dalloway, and the intimacy we thereby gain with the minds of her characters carries along a crucial ironic effect as a by-product. Since the narration immerses us in the character's own, possibly self-serving, thoughts and feelings, when it comes to a judgment about one of those characters—like the issue of Clarissa's specialness—the ultimate stance of the novel itself remains withdrawn into the background, something that must be carefully worked out.29 (In this respect at least, Woolf's deployment of the free indirect style stands very much in line with its longer tradition in the novel going back to Austen, Flaubert, and their followers.) What is more, the interpretations offered in sections 2 and 4 identify prima facie support for each of two diametrically opposed judgments: on the one hand, Clarissa does seem to have a special sensitivity to Peter Walsh and even to some others—to Richard, to Miss Kilman (pp. 125–27), Sir William Bradshaw (pp. 182–83, 184–85), perhaps Elizabeth (pp. 134–35, 137–38)—but on the other, she seems stunningly insensitive to the plight of the Armenians ("no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians") in ways that call into question whether her apparent sensitivity to the psychologies of Londoners is real or imaginary.

In my view, such conflicting evidence is no accident, but a deliberate authorial strategy of reinforcing the ironic stance that goes along with the free indirect style (and here we push deeper into the particular uses of that device specific to Woolf's agenda in Mrs. Dalloway).30 The text is carefully constructed to resist our efforts to form any clearly supported judgment about Clarissa. And yet, the novel is equally insistent in demanding some judgment from us. The doubts it raises about Clarissa are given a moral weight that is hard to ignore, and at the same time, the determination with which Woolf explores Clarissa's odd panpsychist, extended-mind theory, together with the demands that exploration places on the reader, create the unmistakable impression that remaining [End Page 251] indifferent to whether or not Clarissa really can experience herself within the mental lives of others is a way of refusing the challenge of the work altogether.

Thus, Woolf forcefully poses a question about Clarissa's special value (and implicitly rebukes any suspension of judgment about it), but then refuses to provide decisive evidence that would settle the matter. What could be her point? Is Mrs. Dalloway unfair to the reader? No; Woolf is simply reinforcing a basic demand of all irony, which always marshals its effects of inexplicitness and indirection to shift an interpretive burden onto the reader, and thereby to elicit some real commitment from her. In this case, the pressure has a clear point: Woolf wants her readers to feel perplexity over Clarissa, much as Peter Walsh, or Sally Seton, or Lady Bruton do, and to contribute something from their own perspectives or personalities to the resolution of that perplexity. The text does not decide the question of Clarissa's specialness but calls on us to do so. How we feel about Clarissa is thereby meant to reveal, or even expose, something about us.


It follows that the time has arrived for confession. And so, I confess: over the years I have spent with this work, Clarissa has steadily grown on me, and I have come to find her remarkable, special. What is more, courting apparent contradiction with what I was just arguing, I believe that my judgment has been justifiably induced by the work—that despite the irony emphasized in section 5, Woolf's prose itself can lead to this conclusion. How?

Recall the basic operations of free indirect style: its words belong to the narrator, as revealed by pronouns, tenses, and indexicals31 that speak of the characters and their world from the narrator's distant stance as observer, not their own participant stance; and yet, by means of implicit contextual effects, the reader immediately grasps that what is narrated is the character's thought as she, not the narrator, would experience it, judge it, value it. For example, during Clarissa's walk to the florist's we read, "She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But everyone remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then . . . that she must inevitably cease completely . . . ?" (p. 9). Naturally, Clarissa would not think of herself as "she"—to herself, she is "I" (her thought must have been: "I remember throwing a shilling into the Serpentine"; "Everyone [End Page 252] remembers; what I love is this, here, now").32 So the voice we hear is the narrator's. But equally clearly, these are Clarissa's thoughts as she would put them; the indexicals "this, here, now" refer to her location; it is Clarissa who thinks "But" to mark a contrast that expresses her discontent with mere memory in favor of "this, here, now," and who then follows the thread toward the ideas about death and extended consciousness from which I began in section 1. The narration's implicit confinement within Clarissa's perspective inflects even the first sentence about the shilling. What matters there is not the objective fact that Clarissa remembers the throw, but that she is now musing on remembering, feeling the memory's strange emotional resonance, and considering how she nevertheless prefers the here and now since the life contained in the present must have been the original source of that vital resonance.

It is the course of Clarissa's thinking, then, that carries us along, right through her theory of extended consciousness and the quotation of Shakespeare (seen in Hatchards' shop window), to this: "This late age of the world's experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears" (p. 9). Along with the distal standpoint of third person and past tense, Woolf's narrator here contributes something more, but now something that gets imported into Clarissa's mind when we make the contextual transference—an inimitable style: "This late age of the world's experience had bred in them all . . . a well of tears." "A well of tears"; "Fear no more the heat of the sun"; "She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine"; and a thousand more—these phrases stick in the mind and pull on the heart. Thoughts so formed have the power to move us. Through the magic of the free indirect style, the full power of the verbal artistry of Virginia Woolf comes to shape the pattern and the style of Clarissa's thoughts, and it makes them seem perceptive, psychologically astute, unique—in a word, special.

It matters to my thesis of Clarissa's specialness that this sort of purchase on the stylistic power of Woolf's prose is largely distinctive of Clarissa among the characters in the novel. Woolf's portrayal of other mental lives—even at key moments of emotional intensity—evinces a more pedestrian quality that sets the lyrical diction of Clarissa's mentation into relief. Space precludes any complete argument for this claim, but a quick comparison with some free indirect discourse focalized on Richard suggests the difference of register. Consider Richard's course of thought as he marches across town in the grip of high emotion after his lunchtime revelation about all that Clarissa has meant for his life: [End Page 253]

For he would say it in so many words, when he came into the room. Because it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels, he thought, crossing the Green Park and observing with pleasure how in the shade of the trees whole families, poor families, were sprawling; . . . paper bags thrown about, which could easily be picked up (if people objected) by one of those fat gentlemen in livery; for he was of the opinion . . . [etc.]. But what could be done for female vagrants . . . he did not know. . . . But he would tell Clarissa that he loved her, in so many words. He had, once upon a time, been jealous of Peter Walsh. . . . But she had often said to him that she had been right not to marry Peter Walsh; which, knowing Clarissa, was obviously true; she wanted support. Not that she was weak; but she wanted support.

As for Buckingham Palace . . . you can't deny it a certain dignity, he considered, nor despise what does, after all, stand to millions . . . for a symbol, absurd though it is; a child with a box of bricks could have done better, he thought; looking at the memorial to Queen Victoria (whom he could remember in her horn spectacles driving through Kensington), its white mound, its billowing motherliness; but he liked being ruled by the descendant of Horsa; he liked continuity; . . . It was a great age in which to have lived. Indeed, his own life was a miracle; let him make no mistake about it; here he was, in the prime of life, walking to his house in Westminster to tell Clarissa that he loved her. Happiness is this, he thought.

(pp. 116–17)

Richard's own feeling to the contrary notwithstanding, it is hard to receive much sense of the miraculous from these thoughts.33 The technique of following the stream of consciousness here just tracks the pedestrian associations of a thoroughly quotidian awareness at work: it's a pity not to say what one feels; look at those families; and we could get someone to pick up the trash. Richard finds it hard to remain on task ("But what could be done for female vagrants"), and even when he manages it, his emotion finds no very lyrical expression—just "he loved her"; "she wanted support"—despite his own conviction that he is on the way "to celebrate what was, reckoning things as you will, an event; this feeling about her when they spoke of Peter Walsh at luncheon" (p. 115). By the time we arrive at the end, past the entirely conventional thoughts about the value of continuity and its symbols (to the mind of a highly privileged and conventional man), even the one real stab at rhetorical diction Woolf affords him—the anastrophe "Happiness is this"—plays as bathetic, prefiguring Richard's forthcoming failure to follow through on the intention to say "I love you" out loud (to his wife!). Woolf hammers the point home by giving the narrator a beautifully formed line [End Page 254] immediately following—and then demonstrating Richard's own insensitivity to anything of the kind: "Big Ben was beginning to strike, first the warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. Lunch parties waste the entire afternoon, he thought, approaching his door" (p. 117).34

By contrast, the idiom of Woolf's depiction of Clarissa is elevated—so exalted, in fact, that it can occasionally seem unwarranted by the underlying thoughts over which its words are poured. Consider again a sentence like "This late age of the world's experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears." It is prepared by a lyrical setup ("What image of white dawn in the country, as she read," and then the quotation from Shakespeare). But then, after carrying us to this height, Woolf exposes Clarissa by charting a somewhat dubious path of association: "Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright bearing. Think, for example, of the woman she admired most, Lady Bexborough, opening the bazaar" (pp. 9–10). The reader of Mrs. Dalloway learns next to nothing of Lady Bexborough beyond the "upright bearing" that conveys Clarissa's thought across this transition: she is "dark"; "slow and stately; rather large; interested in politics like a man; with a country house; very dignified" (p. 10); and once she "opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favorite, killed" (p. 5)—that is all. Perhaps in Clarissa's mind she stands for some admirable form of public-spirited, stoical courage. But among what we know, her "perfectly upright bearing" retains a large enough role to prompt the suspicion (echoed by Peter Walsh) that in fact Lady Bexborough has little to recommend her beyond great rank, which has made an easy mark of Clarissa's liability to snobbery:

[Clarissa] was worldly; cared too much for rank and society . . . she had admitted it to him. . . . [So] these great swells, these Duchesses, these hoary old Countesses one met in her drawing-room, unspeakably remote as he [Peter] felt them to be from anything that mattered a straw, stood for something real to her. Lady Bexborough, she said once, held herself upright.

(p. 76)

When we consider that Clarissa was not even present for the remarkable bazaar opening (Lady Bexborough "opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand"; emphasis added), the hypothesis of mere snobbery gains considerable momentum.

Still, an alternative route remains open. We could, of course, take Woolf to be poking fun at Clarissa for spending such high rhetoric on something intrinsically ridiculous. But we could surmise instead that [End Page 255] Woolf wants us to see a person whose imaginative life can ennoble even vanities and snobbery, diverting our focus from the emptiness of her object (the British ruling classes) to the undeniable style with which she admires it. On this latter take, what is remarkable about Clarissa is not her thought's good judgment but its elegance—by contrast (for example) to Richard's flat-footed reflections on the symbolic import of Buckingham Palace, Victoria, horn-rimmed glasses.

The second avenue receives support from an unexpected direction, which provides concrete evidence of deliberate effort by Woolf to enhance the psychological depth of her character by deploying more ambitious diction to depict her thinking. For while the reader of Mrs. Dalloway finds out next to nothing about Lady Bexborough, Woolf's careful readers might recall that the lady (and even the line about the telegram in her hand) made a more sustained appearance in the earlier story "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,"35 where the Bexborough carriage was responsible for blocking up the Bond Street traffic. There, she sits (again very "upright," "raised, regal," "like a Queen at a tournament" ["MDBS," p. 14]) waiting to pass, while Clarissa thinks (with great emotion) "how extraordinarily it tells, breeding [!]." In Woolf's original story, it was very much the snobbish Clarissa on display, and the character was thoroughly ironized—lacking as yet much hint of the depth of thought or fineness of perception that seems to redeem her in the novel, and animated instead by a persistent condescension that obscures her insight into others and prompts unattractive thoughts as she shops for gloves.36 What is telling for our purposes, however, is the way her thoughts on the way over to Bond Street are repurposed for the novel. Here is Clarissa in "Bond Street":

She had passed through the Admiralty Arch and saw . . . Victoria's white mound, Victoria's billowing motherliness, amplitude and homeliness, always ridiculous, yet how sublime, thought Mrs. Dalloway, remembering Kensington Gardens and the old lady in horn spectacles. . . . The flag flew above the Palace. . . . It matters so much to the poor, thought Clarissa, and to the soldiers. . . . It matters, thought Mrs. Dalloway, walking toward Buckingham Palace. There it stood four-square, in the broad sunshine, uncompromising, plain. But it was character, she thought; something inborn in the race; what Indians respected.

("MDBS," p. 8)

These very thoughts (the symbolic power of the palace; its ideological role in the empire; its alleged importance for the masses), the [End Page 256] perceptions (Victoria's white mound), the images (her "billowing motherliness"), indeed, these very memories (of the old queen at Kensington with her horn-rimmed glasses), recur in the novel three years later, but tellingly, they are now reassigned to Richard in the passage we were just considering, as he makes the reverse walk back toward home. The motive for the change, I submit, is that these thoughts, so suitable for introducing the Clarissa of "Bond Street" as a relatively uncomplicated object of irony, are no longer apt for the deeper, more refined mode of experiencing the world called for by the Clarissa of Mrs. Dalloway. But they will do just fine for Richard, who steps up to stand duty representing what is utterly conventional, complete with all the dubious assumptions of his class.

We know from the diaries that Woolf almost gave up on Clarissa because she was too "tinselly" on her first appearance, and that she stuck with the project only after finding ways to make her less so.37 But the difficulty of Woolf's task was that Clarissa's new depth had to remain an entirely internal affair—an elusive quality of her consciousness. She gains no new accomplishments, nor serious experiences; she is still just as snobbish; she remains "a mere hostess." But now, in the novel, she thinks (and remembers) otherwise, in a different style. So it was through the more elevated mode of expression deployed in the depiction of Clarissa's consciousness that Woolf effected the change that marks Clarissa off as special, separating her from Richard and the others in the world of Mrs. Dalloway.

I close with a last example of how impressive this style of Clarissa's thinking can become at its maximum. Its power is nowhere more manifest than in the climax of one of Woolf's most distinctive structural devices for the novel: the system of parallels between Clarissa and the shell-shock victim, Septimus Smith. In the diary, Woolf noted her idea that Clarissa and Septimus should be something like duals—they never meet but share a deep affinity, which Woolf saw, early on, as a matter of their capturing the world as seen by the sane and by the insane, the "sane truth" and the "insane truth."38

But something more powerful came into being as Woolf worked to realize her early vision. Clarissa learns of Septimus when Lady Bradshaw reports his early-evening suicide as the reason for their lateness to the party: "Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here's death" (p. 183). And then she retreats into the small room recently vacated by Lady Bruton and the prime minister, where she pursues an extraordinary train of thought: [End Page 257]

He had killed himself—but how? Always her body went through it first. . . . He had thrown himself through a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. . . . So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!

She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living. . . . They . . . would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

But this young man who had killed himself—had he plunged holding his treasure? "If it were now to die, 'twere now to be most happy," she had said to herself once, coming down in white.

(p. 184)

And then, after thinking through the personality she has detected in Septimus's doctor, Sir William Bradshaw—how he is capable of "obscure evil," of "forcing the soul" (p. 184)—she walks over to the window and figures it all out:

It held, foolish as the idea was, something of her own in it, this country sky, this sky above Westminster. . . .39 The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. . . . And the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

(p. 186)

It is a compelling, albeit confusing stretch, and not everyone will feel about it as I do.40 But here is my take, in three points. First, in these reflections Clarissa clearly exhibits the kind of psychological sensitivity that has been my main focus, and at a remarkably high level. We cannot know how much Lady Bradshaw said: all the narrator officially reports is the news that a young man killed himself, that Sir Bradshaw had to take the call, that the man had served in the war, no more. So Clarissa may have had to deploy her powers of extended consciousness even to conclude that he threw himself out a window and impaled himself on Mrs. Filmer's area railings (p. 149). More skeptical readers may deny [End Page 258] such extravagances in favor of the supposition that Lady Bradshaw provided a bit more information. Perhaps. But Lady Bradshaw surely did not say anything like "Death was an attempt to communicate," that it involves an "embrace," that Septimus managed to hold on to "his treasure" through a defiant escape from the efforts of Drs. Holmes and Bradshaw to "force his soul" to their will. Clarissa senses these things, and we readers, who were there at the scene some forty pages earlier, must own that in the main she is correct. Septimus was in fact motivated not by unhappiness with life ("He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot" [p. 149]), but by the drive to preserve his psychological independence ("only human beings—what did they want? . . . Holmes was at the door. 'I'll give it to you!' he cried, and flung himself" [p. 149]). Even though she never knew him, Clarissa feels her way to an accurate sense of Septimus's desire and how thoroughly it would have been compromised under the treatment of Sir William Bradshaw: "A thing there was that mattered. . . . This he had preserved." What is more, we know that Septimus was trying to communicate—indeed, that for him, "communication is happiness" (p. 93). Thus, however distantly and indirectly, Clarissa's responsiveness has redemptive import; for she grasps that "Death was an attempt to communicate," and her hearing the call closes the link, completes the attempt, and thereby renders Septimus's life a bit less bleak and futile. She does, after all, have a somewhat mysterious, "mystical" ability to feel herself in the consciousness of others, even "people she had never met."41

A second side of the Septimus/Clarissa parallel is that Septimus shares something of Clarissa's acute psychological sensitivity, and even her intimations of panpsychist, extended consciousness. If she "feels quite continuously a sense of [the] existence" of acquaintances in South Kensington and Mayfair, he is equally, and painfully, aware of the mind of his friend Evans, slain in the war, who speaks to him as if present with messages from the dead (pp. 25, 70, 93, 147–48).42 If Clarissa has an "odd affinity" (p. 153) for trees and stands in awe of their lifting the mist that forms the net of consciousness (p. 9), then Septimus feels that his voice can "quicken trees into life!" (p. 22)—by which he must mean into consciousness, for it's no source of amazement that they're alive—and he hears the dead speak from rhododendrons (p. 147) and the trees and birds singing and speaking mysteries in Greek (pp. 24, 69). Like Clarissa, Septimus has a hypersensitive brain; that is why he must "interpret . . . to mankind" (p. 68) the mysterious secrets of the world (and, of course, notify the prime minister; see pp. 67, 148). [End Page 259]

The fact that his sensitivity, so evocative of Clarissa's, has turned so painfully pathological carries clear cautionary import. It shows some deep-going wisdom in Clarissa's instinct to impose narrow limits on her proclivity for psychological extension. From this point of view, she was presciently right to marry Richard rather than Peter, for Richard is too stolidly dense to feel her mind as she feels his, and so does not impose such intense emotional pressure. Recall her thoughts just after her deft move to avert Richard's plan to tell her his love "in so many words":

And there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife, a gulf; and that one must respect, thought Clarissa, watching him open the door; for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one's husband, without losing one's independence, one's self-respect—something, after all, priceless.

(p. 120)

In fact, if anything can be said in Clarissa's defense over the Armenians, it is this. For a creature of her delicate hypersensitivity, opening oneself up carries real risk—one that must be carefully managed "even between husband and wife." If Clarissa allowed herself to experience the plight of the Armenians in the "continuous" way she feels the consciousness of her acquaintances, the pressure would likely be unbearable. The cautionary example of Septimus highlights for the attentive reader the cost to sanity of over extending one's consciousness for a person capable of feeling the sufferings and joys of the world as her own.

Finally, my third point returns to the sheer verbal power of Woolf's descriptions of Clarissa's mind. If we are ever meant to feel genuine beauty in the style exhibited by Clarissa's stream of consciousness, it is surely here, as she gropes toward an understanding of Septimus. Woolf saves up some striking diction for this scene, and then uses it to pile beauty upon beauty as the sentences unfold: "A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved." The sound alone enters ("A thing there was that mattered . . . wreathed about with chatter. . . . This he had preserved"43), but Woolf does not rest there. Deftly and precisely, Clarissa captures what is most poignant and beautiful in the shape of Septimus's life: he preserved his independence ("something, after all, priceless"); he held his treasure ("If it were now to die, 'twere now to be most happy"); contra Holmes, he manifested courage ("Fear no more"); and his act had resonance ("The leaden circles dissolved in the air"). [End Page 260]

As the parenthetical quotations indicate, Woolf here reactivates the most powerful images her verbal art has managed to craft, and she uses them to forge the intimate psychic connection supporting Clarissa's understanding of Septimus—a connection Clarissa feels with closure only once she finds its verbal formula: "and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun." Then the leaden circles can dissolve, as Septimus's message is received. As his last hour begins, Septimus, lying on the sofa in his sitting room, thinks, "Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more. He was not afraid" (p. 139)—and later, Clarissa hears him ("with all this going on, she repeated, and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun"). Septimus held his treasure, and Clarissa clasps it to her own heart with the same Shakespearean formula she used so long ago to seal away her youth and love for Sally ("'If it were now to die, 'twere now to be most happy,' she had said to herself once, coming down in white"; compare pp. 34–35). In the end, even that strangely resonant shilling thrown in the Serpentine, which in the morning had set Clarissa off down the path toward thoughts of extended consciousness, now reaches out again to comprehend the consciousness of Septimus ("She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away"). Clarissa is struggling to catch it. Insofar as we are convinced she does, it is because Woolf gives her thoughts a style and a resonance that solders together the emotional pieces of the novel, encapsulating them in a beautiful, convincing form. Clarissa feels special because she thinks in a special way, with a power for putting things rightly that few have ever matched.


Here is one last thought. It is no accident that Virginia Woolf was interested in exploring this particular special mental capacity of Clarissa Dalloway—the ability to feel one's way accurately, sympathetically, and with genuine power of perception and expression into the mind of another personality. Perhaps the closest thing to it in this real world we live in is the power of the writer to think her way into the mind of a character and capture what she finds. It is by that power that Woolf has induced in us, as readers, something of Clarissa's own love of tiny, significant details—and of her beliefs that such details are significant, that consciousness can be shared, and that to do so counts as an adventure. In order to read the novel, we have had to engage in the Clarissa-like activity of keeping track of the intersecting minds and characters that [End Page 261] make up the net of consciousness around her, and in her project of putting together the characters who need each other—perhaps also, as we read, in her narrowing of focus to this small world, "that territory of theirs, that little bit of carpet, Mayfair" (p. 112). As my colleague Joshua Landy pointed out to me, by the success of the novel's fictional and stylistic enterprise Woolf has provoked us to feel something of what it would be like to be Clarissa Dalloway.44 Insofar as we have, we have also managed to extend our own consciousness in a strongly metaphorical, albeit not literal way. By effecting this extension of consciousness into the mind of Clarissa, Woolf shows that it can be done, at least in that sense. And if there is anything special about the texture and feel—about the style—of the experience of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf will likewise have established that there is something special about extending one's mind in this way—and thus, something special about Clarissa: "For there she was."

R. Lanier Anderson
Stanford University

My first debt is to Joshua Landy, whose patient pressure and encouragement helped me develop this interpretation over years coteaching Mrs. Dalloway; he also taught me what I know about the free indirect style, though he is innocent of my errors about it. Blakey Vermeule was a source of stimulating conversation, fruitful ideas, and inspiration on these topics, and Lucy Alford provided invaluable research assistance and penetrating comments. In addition to Landy and Alford, Beverley Bie Brahic, Rachel Cristy, Louis Menand, Katherine Preston, Gabriella Safran, Alice Stavely, and Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé gave valuable feedback on earlier drafts, and I benefited from helpful audience feedback at the 2015 conference "Frontiers in the Philosophy of Literature," in Odense, Denmark, and at the humanities forum at Texas Tech University. Finally, many generations of students in my Philosophy and Literature course with Landy helped me hone my reading through creative and insightful questions and objections.


1. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt, 1925); see, for example, pp. 48–50, 58–64, 75–78, 152–53, 155, 186–94. Citations to page numbers are given parenthetically in the text.

2. This interest in the novel has been widely noted in the secondary literature. The relevant studies are too numerous to mention, but it is worth consulting Lorraine Sim, Virginia Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience (Burlington and Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), and I have particularly benefitted from papers by Molly Hite, "Tonal Cues and Uncertain Values: Affect and Ethics in Mrs. Dalloway," Narrative 18 (2010): 249–75; and James Harker, "Misperceiving Virginia Woolf," Journal of Modern Literature 34 (2011): 1–21. Readers can find a variety of other approaches to the topic in James Naremore, "A World without a Self: The Novels of Virginia Woolf," NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 5 (1972): 122–34; Allen [End Page 262] McLaurin, "Virginia Woolf and Unanimism," Journal of Modern Literature 9, no. 1 (1981): 115–22; George Johnson, "'The Spirit of the Age': Virginia Woolf's Response to Second Wave Psychology," Twentieth Century Literature 40 (1994): 139–64; Julie Kane, "Varieties of Mystical Experience in the Writings of Virginia Woolf," Twentieth Century Literature 41 (1995): 328–49; Anna Snaith, "Virginia Woolf's Narrative Strategies: Negotiating between Public and Private Voices," Journal of Modern Literature 20 (1996): 133–48; Brian Boyd, "Fiction and Theory of Mind," Philosophy and Literature 30 (2006): 590–600; and Katelynn Carver, "Behind the Cotton Wool: Process Philosophy in the Works of Virginia Woolf," Cult/ure 8, no. 2 (Spring 2013),

3. Andy Clark and David Chalmers, "The Extended Mind," Analysis 58 (1998): 7–19 (12–16). Clark and Chalmers offer an example comparing two characters who desire to visit an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One (Inga) has a standing belief stored in memory that the museum is on Fifty-third Street, and when she forms the desire, she accesses that belief to form and execute a plan to go there. The second (Otto) is an Alzheimer's patient who reliably carries a notebook full of useful information he uses to navigate his world. When he desires to go to the exhibit, he looks up the museum's location in the notebook and then carries out the plan. The suggestion is that Otto's notebook plays the role for him that standing beliefs in memory play for Inga, and so should be counted as part of his mind in a similar way. Clark and Chalmers point out that the institution of language plays a central role in helping us to extend the mind by recruiting artifacts as external aids to cognition (pp. 11–12), and that it could also enable us to rely on social relations for similar purposes (pp. 17–18).

4. One source for such views, of course, was German idealism, which was salient in the Cambridge philosophical scene so important for Bloomsbury. But many other research programs of the period held that all things were conscious or psychological in some respect (e.g., Schopenhauer's conception of the inner nature of the world as will, or Fechner's idea of the "daylight view" of things, which interprets the universe in panpsychist terms). In a similar vein, McLaurin, "Virginia Woolf and Unanimism," emphasizes Woolf's interest in French "unanimism" (committed to the possibility of a kind of "group mind" rooted in social "unanimity").

5. Peter Walsh remembers even thirty years later that "Clarissa had a theory in those days" about the extension of consciousness. In his memory, it was motivated by the dissatisfaction they felt about not being known: "But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not 'here, here, here'; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that" (p. 152), so much so that "it ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her skepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death . . . perhaps—perhaps" (p. 153). However hard the view is for Peter to credit, this is clearly the same hunch to which Clarissa still cleaves so many years later.

6. André Viola,"'Buds on the Tree of Life': A Recurrent Mythological Image in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway," Journal of Modern Literature 20 (1996): 239–47, emphasizes the mythological implications of Mrs. Dalloway's ubiquitous tree imagery. But what is more [End Page 263] striking from the present point of view is the poignant connection between this tenor of "consolation taken" pervading the first serious appearance of the tree imagery and the symbolically important fact that Clarissa's sister Sylvia was killed by a falling tree (see Peter's memory of the incident at pp. 77–78). Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé perceptively points out that, according to Peter, it was in the aftermath of this event that Clarissa came round to her panpsychist, extended-mind theory in the first place (personal communication with the author).

7. Molly Hite argues that Woolf systematically mutes, elides, or even undercuts the "tonal cues" by which readers would normally catch the author's underlying attitude toward the characters and situations of the fictional world, and that this is part of an authorial strategy to unsettle our "snap moral judgments" (Hite, "Tonal Cues," p. 249 passim) and thereby provoke more serious ethical reflection. I argue (in sections 5 and 6) that Hite is entirely correct that Woolf's novel is carefully crafted to force the reader to be the one with the ultimate responsibility for such judgments.

8. For philosophers like me, a refresher from Intro Lit is in order. Free indirect style can be understood by contrast to reports of direct and indirect speech. In direct speech, the author reports what the speaker said in her own words, using quotation and normally accompanied by a clause reporting (in the voice of a narrator) that the person said (or thought) it: for example, "'The terrace is so lovely. I will stay here today,' said Clarissa." Because the words are the character's, the personal pronouns, the indexicals, and the verb tenses reflect her own position. In indirect speech, by contrast, the speech or thoughts of a person are reported in the narrator's words (with personal pronouns, verb tenses, and indexicals adjusted to reflect that narrator's stance), and the content is normally reported inside a subordinate "that" clause: for example, "Clarissa thought that the terrace was lovely, so she decided to stay there that day." In free indirect style, the pronoun, tense, and (usually) indexical formulations are those of the narrator (as in indirect speech reports), but the reporting main clause ("Clarissa thought . . .") is dropped, together with the subordinating "that." Implicit contextual cues then induce the reader to attribute the words and thoughts directly to the character, not the narrator—for example, "The terrace was so lovely. She would stay there that day." By this device the author can intimate the point of view of the character (with all her potential limitations), as opposed to the narrator's judgment on the events, and thereby convey a character's thoughts without the cumbersome pretense that they have been deliberately formulated in complete sentences. Take an example from the beginning of Clarissa's walk: "What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air" (p. 3). Here the exclamation points (and the "For," and the seeming) provide our cues that what we are getting is the experience of the fresh morning air from Clarissa's point of view, which is distinctive in taking a morning walk to the florist's to be quite such an adventure.

9. Many scholars have noted the distinctive Woolfian retreat from objective narration into the points of view of multiple characters; its importance, together with the effects of shifting from one subjective point of view to another, were emphasized in the interpretation of Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), pp. 534, 536; see also [End Page 264] pp. 525–53. The set piece itself, which I will go on to analyze, also owes a clear debt to (or perhaps better, engages a friendly competition with) Joyce; see Julia Briggs, Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 133.

10. Harker makes the excellent point that an additional source of difficulty (aside, that is, from the interiority of these consciousnesses) arises from the sheer number of characters, which is too great for us to track readily. He emphasizes Woolf's reliance on this effect in Jacob's Room, but notes that the early parts of Mrs. Dalloway continue with the idea—Maisie Johnson and Mrs. Dempster are clear cases in point ("Misperceiving," pp. 13–15).

11. The main contrary example is the stretch of text (pp. 16–20) describing the progress of the car across London away from Bond Street and toward Buckingham Palace. Here, the system of sound transitions gives way to another pattern, where the thoughts of the many observers the car passes are described as though they were a kind of fluid wake left by the vehicle, and the transitions from one mind to another are simply too many and too fast for the sound transition system to be effective. The "fluid wake" effect provokes in me the speculation that perhaps Woolf is playing here with the Jamesian metaphor of the "stream" of consciousness.

12. The leaden circles dissolve four times: when Clarissa crosses Victoria Street, showing her mortality a bit, on the way to the florist's (p. 4); when she calls out to Peter to remember the party as he departs from their morning interview (p. 48); when Clarissa lays her mended dress on the bed and at the same moment Septimus and Rezia arrive for their appointment with Sir William Bradshaw (p. 94); and when Clarissa successfully feels her way into the experience of and motivations for Septimus's suicide (p. 186). Of course, there are much more frequent (ubiquitous, even) appearances of Big Ben (and the other clock bells) ringing out the hours of the day. Nathalia Wright, who studies the clocks' compositional implications for the novel in her article "Mrs. Dalloway: A Study in Composition," College English 5 (1944): 351–58, also notices (at p. 355) that there is something of an association between the clocks' ringing and a shift from one consciousness to another.

13. See Joshua Landy, How to Do Things with Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 11–14 passim.

14. Compare Auerbach (Mimesis, pp. 534–46), who emphasizes similar effects in To the Lighthouse, indicating that Mrs. Ramsey shares something of Clarissa's proclivities.

15. See Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006), pp. 3–44; hereafter abbreviated WWR. On the empirical results, Zunshine (at pp. 28–36) emphasizes work along these lines by Robin Dunbar and colleagues, some of which is reported in Peter Kinderman, Robin Dunbar, et al., "Theory of Mind Deficits and Causal Attributions," British Journal of Psychology 89 (1998): 191–204; and in Robin Dunbar, "On the Origin of the Human Mind," in Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language, and Meta-Cognition, ed. Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 238–53. Their studies suggest that people have a difficult time processing texts that involve more than four or five levels of nested intentionality. As Zunshine argues, Woolf frequently presses us to keep track of the fifth level, the sixth, and even more. [End Page 265]

16. As it seems to me, Zunshine counts wrongly here. Her formulation seems to suggest that the respect of the Times editors (1) is embedded within the belief of the pen makers (2), which is taken up as the object of Richard's and Lady Bruton's thought (3), about which Hugh has a desire (4) that Richard is aware of (5), which awareness we are supposed to recognize (6). But that would be incorrect. The belief of the pen makers has nothing to do with the mental states of the Times editors. Nor (to consider another possible reading of Zunshine's intentions) is there anything in the underlying Woolf passage to suggest that even Hugh himself thinks (or wants Richard and Lady Bruton to think) that the Times editors will be taking the pen makers' beliefs into account, as opposed to being (somewhat mysteriously) impressed by the bare fact that the letter has been written with such an awesome pen. Thus, neither attitude is nested within the other, and their relation cannot increase the overall level of the encompassing cognitive feat. If, on the other hand, Zunshine means to suggest that Woolf's intention and our recognition at the outermost layer are actually two separate levels, then she could be right that there are six, with the attitudes of both the pen makers and the editors counting as level 1. As a more general matter, I concur with Boyd, in "Fiction and Theory of Mind," that Zunshine does not always get her readings of Woolf's complex intentional architectures quite right. In a backhanded way, however, the slippages and difficulties in these readings tend toward the confirmation of her larger theoretical point, which is that keeping track of levels of intentionality stacked this deeply is cognitively taxing, and that Woolf means us to feel this challenge.

17. In his work on Henry James, Robert Pippin proposes an alternative way to understand a joint, social consciousness; see Robert Pippin, Henry James and Modern Moral Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). He asserts that James's characters inhabit a Hegelian universe in which consciousness is fundamentally social rather than individual, and that individuals must discover (gradually and through painstaking cognitive effort) their individual beliefs, desires, and other attitudes through their social interactions. (I always think of Pippin's view, metaphorically, and perhaps fancifully, as a matter of the characters' having to "download" their individual attitudes from a preexisting and more fundamental social "cloud storage" system, in which the possible/meaningful/sensible attitudes to have are mutually determined through their relations to one another.) Parallel to my argument about Woolf, Pippin holds that James's careful and faithful representation of this anticommonsensical possibility is partly responsible for the famous challenges of his prose.

18. "Machiavellian intelligence" was used in the title of Richard W. Byrne and Andrew Whiten, eds., Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)—which is cited on this point by Lisa Zunshine, "Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness," Narrative 11 (2003): 270–91. In the years after the Byrne–Whiten collection was published, the phrase became a prominent slogan for the hypothesis/es explored in the volume—namely, that intelligence evolved largely due to advantages it provided in social manipulation. For a compelling exploration of this general idea in the context of cognitivist literary studies, see Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), esp. pp. 30–39 and 81–95. [End Page 266]

19. As final reinforcement for the conclusion that the image is their common property, note that, pages later, at the end of the encounter, Peter (again internally) laments that Clarissa "still had the power . . . to make the moon rise at Bourton on the terrace" (p. 47). But Peter's thoughts earlier (on p. 42) never made explicit mention of Bourton, just "a terrace" (unspecified) over which the moon was rising; all the references to Bourton in that stretch are Clarissa's. Like Clarissa's remark that her brother has the place now, Peter's closing thought reference to Bourton makes consequent sense only because they were all along having the same thoughts and imaginings.

20. By contrast, just such inferences do seem to be the underlying mechanism behind the similarly hypersubtle psychological perceptiveness of some of James's characters—for instance, that of Charlotte and the prince in The Golden Bowl.

21. I do not wish to be understood here as suggesting that the distinction between the deeper and the more obvious uses for superpower fiction must line up neatly with the distinction between highbrow and popular fictions. On the contrary, there is no reason that mass market–oriented speculative or superpower-type fictions cannot also take on ambitious themes in a way that rewards more serious reflection—and that is so even if a lot of explosions are involved, as there are, for example, in the Bourne franchise, which nevertheless opens up philosophically rich issues about personal identity, what it is to take responsibility, etc. Examples could be multiplied. (Thanks to Rachel Cristy for pressure on this point.)

22. This remains true even though in the event (as Clarissa would have predicted) Ellie was supremely stupid, "standing by the curtain all the evening, without speaking" (p. 191)—except, of course, to Richard himself (pp. 169–70). For the most part, Ellie spends the evening dumbly observing the fashions, the decor, the guests, and other details, all to be retailed later to one Edith (p. 169).

23. Clearly, we are meant to find some humor, as well as some pathos (even bathos?) in Richard's inability to go through with telling his wife he loves her, after repeating to himself over and over again as he marches across Westminster with the flowers in his arms that he will do this very thing "in so many words." In fairness to Richard, however, it is quite clear that Clarissa deliberately diverts him from the project. See note 25.

24. This conclusion is an instance of Clarissa's sensitivity to Richard's mental attitudes that is of the same order as her sensitivity to Peter's (explored in section 2). Richard never says he wants Ellie to be invited, or even explicitly recommends considering it. The totality of his communication on the subject is the one remark: "'Poor Ellie Henderson,' said Richard." True, he does go on (right after the ensuing em-dash) to think how odd it is that Clarissa minds about her parties, and we know from Clarissa's ensuing self-defense (to be considered in the text below) that she was perfectly well aware that he was thinking critical thoughts about those parties. But he never says any of that, so Clarissa's awareness of it counts as a further example of her sensitivity.

25. As Richard departs, Clarissa muses, "And there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife, a gulf; and that one must respect, thought Clarissa, watching him open the door; for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one's husband, without losing one's independence, one's self-respect—something, after all, priceless" (p. 120). I will return to the wider significance of this attitude in section 6. [End Page 267]

26. On the role of the Armenian genocide in the novel, see Trudi Tate, "Mrs. Dalloway and the Armenian Question," Textual Practice 8 (1994): 467–86.

27. I am indebted to Katherine Preston for pressure that substantially clarified the argument of this paragraph. On the general point, my interpretation chimes with Harker's reading of To the Lighthouse and other late novels ("Misperceiving," p. 112). Harker highlights ways in which the faith in human interconnectedness manifested by some of Woolf's female characters is represented as a form of misperception. This is one of Harker's central examples of the thematization of misperception in Woolf, which, he intriguingly argues, points toward a middle way between "internal" (interiority focused) and "external" (socially, politically focused) readings of the novels—the basic idea being that the exploration of misperception must involve both, since misperception is a mismatch between the inner and the outer.

28. Personal communication with the author. Prof. Vermeule has some real affinity with Gillian Welch's "girl with a dark turn of mind," so she tends to think this dark use of the free indirect style is normally in play, at least in the background. See, for example, Vermeule, Why Do We Care, pp. 71–81.

29. Working it out is difficult at least. In some cases, there may simply be no ultimate stance occupied by the narrator or "the novel itself." Here I am in entire agreement with Hite ("Tonal Cues"); Briggs also notes a similar effect (Virginia Woolf, p. 134). Tate, in "Armenian Question," emphasizes the ambivalence of the novel's depiction of Clarissa on moral and political questions.

30. I find particularly congenial Hite's emphasis on Woolf's uses of the free indirect style to efface clear authorial cues about how readers should "take" the characters ("Tonal Cues," pp. 250, 252). In apparent (but merely apparent) disagreement with her, I construe this as an ironic effect. Hite presents irony as a source of clear tonal cues (p. 251), focusing on cases where the author ironizes a character as a mode of ridicule, but irony can of course be more complicated than its use in outright satire, and one of the more complicated forms arises when the tonal cues themselves are the target of ironic distancing. For example, rather than inducing us to view the character with the tonal/evaluative valence opposite from that character's own self-conception, or from the one officially (but satirically) presented in the text, the ironist may simply intimate that her own (or the real, the correct) tonal valence is something other than the character's, or other than the conventional or the stated one. These subtler instances are the sort I have in mind in connecting free indirect discourse to a more or less automatic ironic effect: by contextually cueing us to take the words as those of the character and not the narrator, the author disendorses them without necessarily thereby specifying what attitude we are to take, facilitating the sort of refusal or ambiguity of tonal cues that Hite highlights.

31. But see the following note.

32. A parallel point can be made about the tenses: Clarissa would say (directly) that she remembers (present tense) throwing a shilling into the Serpentine, not that she remembered, and so on. Woolf's handling of the indexicals is more complicated than the standard fare, however. She uses them here as if in direct (not indirect) report: Clarissa thinks about the "this, here, now," not the "that, there, then." The effect is twofold. First, [End Page 268] the use of the indexicals in direct mode serves here (as elsewhere in Mrs. Dalloway—see the use of "now" in the third sentence of the third paragraph of the book) to focus the mind on the immediacy of Clarissa's engagement with life; in the present passage in particular, Clarissa is contrasting her strangely resonant memory with the "this, here, now," and to feel the force (or even get the content) of the contrast, we need to be starkly focused on her "this, here, now" as immediately present (to her). Second, this "direct report" usage of the indexicals serves Woolf as a smooth implicit cue inducing us to take the encompassing passage as free indirect discourse rather than omniscient narration.

33. I hasten to concede that I have chosen Richard as a relatively sharp example, precisely so as to capture in short compass the stylistic flatness of a mental life to contrast against Clarissa's. Differences between Clarissa and other characters, like Miss Kilman, Septimus Smith, or Sally Seton, are perhaps less stark, but (I claim) no less real or present. Septimus, of course, often exhibits disjointed thinking, but even aside from descriptions capturing mental disturbance, Woolf's picture of his thought processes is noticeably more random, more matter-of-fact, and less artfully formed than that of Clarissa's. In the main, we find relatively plain reportage, whose poignancy depends more on the content than the style: for example, "As he opened the door of the room where the Italian girls sat making hats, he could see them; could hear them; . . . but something failed him; he could not feel" (p. 87). Only on rare occasions does Woolf give him a truly striking (as opposed to unhinged) image (e.g., of himself as an "outcast . . . who lay, like a drowned sailor, on the shore of the world" [p. 93]) or idea (e.g., misanthropic loathing as "the secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next" in great literature [p. 88]). I concede that Peter Walsh would be harder to distinguish from Clarissa, but about his intermediate case I would argue, first, that Woolf's depiction of him is meant to be more artfully drawn, as the character closest to Clarissa in imaginative power, and second, that a full comparison would nevertheless reveal some real stylistic difference between the two. (Thanks to Howard Curzer for pressure on the last comparison.)

34. The reader is conditioned to hear a powerful resonance in the narrator's line ("first the warning, musical," etc.), since it repeats an earlier occurrence (at p. 4) of (almost) the same words accompanying Big Ben's first appearance in the novel during Clarissa's walk to the florist's. In that case, moreover, the phrase serves to set up the first occasion of the leaden circles dissolving in the air, which magnifies the sharp contrast with Richard's pedestrian thought about the time wasted by lunch parties.

35. I cite Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street" (1922) parenthetically in the text in the pagination of the Feedbooks e-book edition, freely available online; hereafter abbreviated "MDBS."

36. For example, after Clarissa has made her choice of gloves we read, "And the girl crawled like a snail. . . . Thousands of young men had died that things might go on. At last! Half an inch above the elbow; pearl buttons; five and a quarter. My dear slow coach, thought Clarissa, do you think I can sit here the whole morning? Now you'll take twenty-five minutes to bring me my change!" ("MDBS," p. 21).

37. See Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Oliver Bell, 5 vols. (New York: Harcourt, 1977–84); hereafter abbreviated Diary. Citations are to volume and page number. The relevant entry here (Thursday, June 18, 1925) is actually from after publication of Mrs. Dalloway, reporting an exchange with Lytton Strachey (who disliked [End Page 269] exactly the combination of ornament and shallowness in Clarissa); Woolf is thinking back on how she, too, started out thinking Clarissa too empty, but eventually found ways to deepen her: "For I remember the night at Rodmell when I decided to give it up, because I found Clarissa in some way tinselly. Then I invented her memories. But I think some distaste for her persisted. Yet, again, that was true to my feeling for Kitty [Kitty Maxse, a model for Clarissa Dalloway], & one must dislike people in art without its mattering" (Diary 3, p. 32).

38. Woolf raises this idea of a parallel in a diary entry for October 14, 1922 (Diary 2, p. 207), and remarks on it in a manuscript sheet from two days later (Hours MS, p. 412). See the interesting discussion of the evolution of Woolf's ideas for the novel in Christine Froula, "Mrs. Dalloway's Postwar Elegy: Women, War, and the Art of Mourning," Modernism/modernity 9 (2002): 125–63, esp. pp. 129–33.

39. Here we see a last reference to Clarissa's panpsychist, extended-consciousness theory, and to her own self-assessment that it's a bit "foolish."

40. For a notably darker response, see Tate, "Armenian Question," pp. 476–81.

41. I hasten to concede that this is a power—a faculty, not a virtue in the moral sense. It does not keep Clarissa from also feeling some questionable things about what she can understand about Septimus. This fact comes out forcefully in the closing lines ("She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. . . . He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun"), which Hite rightly identifies as a moment where Woolf holds open the possibility of a negative overall judgment of Clarissa ("Tonal Cues," p. 252). That said, even in this line, I find my own reaction to Clarissa softer than Hite's. What sets off the beauty and fun for Clarissa are the intensity and the immediacy of life, which rest, for her, in the intense, immediate connections she feels to other people. She did forge such a connection, however mysteriously mediated, with Septimus. Moreover, that connection is thoroughly infused with Clarissa's admiration for Septimus ("A thing there was that mattered . . . defaced, obscured in her own life. . . . This he had preserved"), and it has some redemptive import for him—recall that, for Septimus, "Communication was health; communication is happiness," and Clarissa supplies the necessary recipient without whom his efforts will not have communicated anything. (Communication is a success verb.) If there is some "truth" of which Clarissa has the sane and Septimus the insane version, that truth is other people. From that point of view, the beauty and fun Septimus brought into Clarissa's life on the day of the party just is the intensity of her admiration for him, and of her communicative connection to him and thence to life. This does not eliminate the questionable flavor of her taking the intensity of connection that he has paid for with his life as "fun," but it does diminish it—at least compared to the alternative "take" where Clarissa's feeling has a force something like, "Wow, I can really tell how fun my party is now that I see it side by side with Septimus's suicide!"

42. There is evidence that Septimus's sense of the minds of others is not restricted to Evans but extends to others as well: from a description of his disturbances focalized within Rezia's point of view, we get "He knew all their thoughts, he said" (p. 66).

43. It is worth pausing to note how highly crafted this effect is: the stretch of text is bounded by paired anastrophes, each with three stressed beats, and Woolf highlights the internal rhyme (mattered, chatter) by locating "chatter" at the end of a similar, [End Page 270] three-beat phrase. The rhyme then links the focal "thing that mattered" to its opposing force, the encircling chatter that defaces that thing in Clarissa's life.

44. I am indebted to conversations with Landy for the thoughts throughout this stretch of the paragraph. [End Page 271]

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