The entire book takes place on a single day in 1923 London. Clarissa Dalloway is preparing to host an evening dinner party; and Septimus Warren Smith is contemplating suicide, as he reflects on his experience fighting in World War I and watching his best friend Evans die shortly before the armistice. Septimus's wife Lucrezia wonders why he acts so strangely when the doctor said there is nothing wrong with him.
For every few lines of conversation, we get many paragraphs of inner monologue.
Mostly, the story consists of flashbacks: Septimus recalls his friendship with Evans and Clarissa remembers her old lover Peter (to whom she refused marriage, settling instead on the government bureaucrat Richard Dalloway) and her friend Sally (with whom she once shared a romantic kiss). The day is complicated when Peter shows up after years in India.
Septimus and Clarissa never meet in the novel, but they are tied together by their obsession with their own past and by a long-past relationship with a same-sex friend.
We also get glimpses into the lives and minds of other people - primarily through their connections with Clarissa Dalloway, even though that connection is often quite thin.
Woolf's stream-of-consciousness writing style and the lack of present-day action sometimes makes the book difficult to follow.
We shift from the thoughts of one person to another; and from the present to the past. It's all very confusing. But pay close attention. And we get commentaries on a wide range of topics:
- The role and status of marriage in society: A woman attains higher status by marrying, but she loses much of her identity to her husband
- Society's attitudes toward mental illness, specifically PTSD suffered by veterans
- The effect our past choices and circumstances have on current lives
- The inevitable movement of time and the importance of how we spend it
- The shallow lifestyle embraced by many in high society.
There is much to absorb here. And Ms. Woolf's prose is enjoyable.