Mrs Dalloway

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Themes and Colors
Privacy, Loneliness, and Communication Theme Icon
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Psychology and Perception Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mrs Dalloway, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Death Theme Icon

Though much of the novel’s action consists of preparations for a seemingly frivolous party, death is a constant undercurrent to the characters’ thoughts and actions. The obvious example of this is Septimus, who suffers from mental illness and ends up killing himself. In his inner dialogue Septimus sees himself as a godlike figure who has gone from “life to death,” and his situation as a former soldier shows how the death and violence of World War I have corrupted his mind. Peter Walsh fears growing old and dying, and so tries to pretend he is young and invincible by living in fantasies and pursuing younger women. Clarissa is also preoccupied with death even as she goes about the business of enjoying life, making small talk, and throwing parties. From the start she feels the danger of living even one day, and repeatedly quotes from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline, a passage about the comfort of death: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.” In the parallel characters of Septimus and Clarissa, Woolf shows two ways of dealing with the terror of living one day – Clarissa affirms life by throwing a party, while Septimus offers his suicide as an act of defiance and communication. These two characters never meet, but when Clarissa hears about Septimus’s suicide she feels that she understands him.

Death ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Death appears in each section of Mrs Dalloway. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
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Death Quotes in Mrs Dalloway

Below you will find the important quotes in Mrs Dalloway related to the theme of Death.
Section 1 Quotes

She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout Mrs. Dalloway, the humdrum errands and daily realities of London life, taxi cabs and all, will contrast but also coexist with deep metaphysical questions, as well as the constant, looming reality of death. The danger of living "even one day" serves to justify the span of the novel - just one day - as containing within it themes both great and small. Within all the minutia of daily existence, the novel suggests, death is never far off - which can make daily life momentous even while suggesting that death is part of the fabric of insignificant daily realities. 

At the same time, there is a suggestion that Clarissa's own deep thoughts do not necessarily stem from her extraordinary mind or profound ideas. These lines imply that thoughts of life as dangerous or death as ever-present are the proper terrain of a scholar or philosopher - but here, Clarissa's own preoccupation with these questions suggests once again that they can be and are part of ordinary life. It is the disconnect between the wide range of her thoughts and their seeming distance from what she says and how she acts that contributes to her sense of being alone and "out to sea": she treasures this privacy, but it can easily turn towards loneliness as well.


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But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards 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?

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

As Clarissa moves throughout London's streets, she pays close attention to the sights and sounds around her. In many ways, Clarissa seems to treasure these details and treasure the life that she sees pulsing within them. Life, for her, is precious even or especially when it includes "the fat lady in the cab," and everything else around her. Death, then, is to be feared because it means the end of this possibility of close, acute perception - as well as the fact that everything will continue without her there to perceive it.

At the same time, however, Clarissa seems to acknowledge that there is often just as much pain as joy in the act of intense psychological perception. In this sense, death would be a relief, a refuge from the inevitable, exhausting need to observe and perceive everything around her. These two views are not reconciled: instead, they both coexist, or rather Clarissa moves from one to another and back again as thoughts of death continue to occupy her.

Section 3 Quotes

But she could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy… and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall “if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy.” That was the feeling – Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton!

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Sally Seton
Page Number: 34-35
Explanation and Analysis:

Clarissa is remembering the summer she spent at Bourton when she was younger, and when she was passionately in love with Sally Seton - a feeling that is quite different from her relationship to her husband, Richard. Here she recalls descending the stairs in a white dress to meet Sally. Like elsewhere, Clarissa draws on her knowledge of Shakespeare in assigning meaning to the events of her life and to her memories. The citation from Othello underlines just how vividly Clarissa perceived everything around her that summer - a time during which she felt a kind of communion that she's struggled to find since then. In addition, the citation reflects how closely joy and death are connected, for her, in that death seems to lie on just the other side of acute joy.

Section 7 Quotes

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was! – that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all…

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Peter Walsh
Related Symbols: Flowers
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In her head, Clarissa runs over all the sensations and small happenings of the day thus far. She simultaneously marvels at the rich particularities of daily life and wonders at how easily they are all cut off. Here, we see a major difference between Clarissa and Septimus: although they are both preoccupied with death, Clarissa takes much greater joy in the small daily realities of her life. The events she mentioned are not important objectively - indeed, they're perhaps not important to anyone other than herself, as she acknowledges when she realizes that no one will be able, after her death, to witness and report how much she loved this life. But Clarissa is able to treasure them regardless.

Clarissa's thoughts here also linger on the strange nature of the passing of time. Indeed, one of the reasons she feels that her love of life will remain unremarked-upon is that she cannot manage to assign meaning to or profoundly conceptualize the way she experiences time as cut through with daily events. Clarissa usually is able to remark upon the daily happenings of her life without having to fit them into some greater meaning, but here she does think about this lack - although only in the vague sense of calling it strange and unbelievable.

But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings – what did they want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.

Related Characters: Septimus Warren Smith (speaker), Dr. Holmes, Mrs. Filmer
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Septimus has been told he must be sent away and institutionalized because he has threatened suicide. Here, he has decided to end his life on his own terms - even though he does not want to die. This expression seems to conflict with how Septimus has felt earlier, and yet can be understood in light of the immediately preceding moments of true, powerful reception and communication with his wife. (Whether those moments could have lasted is a question the book raises, but does not answer.)

This powerful passage mixes narrative development with Septimus's scattered but lucid and perceptive mind. On one level, we get his thoughts on the basic human instinct for survival, but mixed with a reference to Clarissa's oft-quoted line from Shakespeare about "fear no more the heat o' the sun." (Here it is "Life was good. The sun hot.") This turns the quote's meaning on its head (the heat of the sun is a positive, simple aspect of living, instead of a negative, simple aspect of living), and its appearance in Septimus's mind also provides an almost metaphysical connection between himself and Clarissa at the moment of his death.

Septimus ends his life with an unanswerable question - what do human beings want? - as well as with an attempt at communication, throwing himself out of a window in a way that suggests a violent desire to transcend the boundaries of one's own confinement. Septimus's death is not just metaphysical, however: it also has social implications, since it is so telling that Septimus considers death better than the institutional confinement that is the only way people at the time can imagine dealing with problems like his PTSD. But the last moments of Septimus's life also pay homage to the power of perception that coexists with the depths of loneliness and fear.

Section 9 Quotes

Lady Bradshaw (poor goose – one didn’t dislike her) murmured how, “just as we were starting, my husband was called up on the telephone, a very sad case. A young man (that is what Sir William is telling Mr. Dalloway) had killed himself. He had been in the army.” Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Lady Bradshaw (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Bradshaw and her husband, Sir William, have just arrived late to the party, and Lady Bradshaw explains to Clarissa why this is the case. We see once more how the narrative strains involving Clarissa and Septimus intersect in brief, glancing ways. Here, however, Clarissa will be more deeply affected than in previous scenes, even if initially she seems to be simply surprised more than moved or distraught. Clarissa is fully in her social-hostess mode, and it takes her a moment to adapt to the news - and yet she is also not entirely surprised, given that death seems to intrude in the way she thinks about daily life every day. That is, once again Clarissa notices and remarks upon the strangeness of trying to live one's everyday life with the looming reality of death, and without an overarching meaning.

The way Lady Bradshaw describes Septimus's death also underlines the British upper-class cluelessness regarding the true state of veterans suffering from PTSD. "He had been in the army" is a straightforward reason that Lady Bradshaw gives for Septimus's suicide, suggesting an awareness that one led to another, and yet this causal connection is neat and pat, allowing other characters to avoid responsibility or full awareness for Septimus's complex mental situation.

She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away… 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.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Septimus Warren Smith
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, at the climax of the novel, Clarissa withdraws from the party and is able to see the connections to her double - the character through whom, though they never met, similar possibilities and limitations of perception and solitude are explored throughout the book. Here Clarissa contrasts her own frivolous, superficial life with the profound and meaningful act of communication that Septimus embraced - even if, paradoxically, this great moment of his life is what ended it. While Clarissa throws things away every day - a shilling into the Serpentine, for instance - she has never thought to fling away her life, even if she does treat it as something unimportant and expendable. 

Clarissa attempts to locate a center of life, of existence, though it is only vague for her - a "thing" that can be "defaced" or "obscured," or in Septimus's case "preserved" - but which ultimately moves away and "evades" all people. And once again, Clarissa considers the paradox of solitude and communication in death. On the one hand, Septimus's death is a kind of communication, but on the other it definitively cuts one off from everyone else. He has perhaps communicated something powerful to the world, but he can now receive no answering communication in return. Still, Clarissa considers even this act of isolation as a potentially powerful one, creating a kind of "closeness" if only because it becomes mutually clear how impossible true communication is.

But that young man had killed himself.
Somehow it was her disaster – her disgrace.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Septimus Warren Smith
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

Clarissa continues to think about Septimus's death in relation to her own life, and here it becomes clear that Clarissa doesn't have any one, all-encompassing theory of life, one that would allow her to interpret Septimus's death in a certain way. While she has just thought about his suicide as an act of powerful communication and defiance, now she sees it as a tragedy - and one that she herself is responsible for.

Clarissa has begun to pick up on a number of potential similarities between herself and Septimus, from their concern with death to their fascination with loneliness and communication. Here, however, their similarities only underline their divergences, for while Septimus has struggled alone and ended his life, Clarissa has become wrapped up in the unimportant superficialities of upper-class life. Even more tragically, Clarissa's realization of the connection between herself and Septimus comes only after she has definitively lost the chance to communicate with him in life.

…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. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Septimus Warren Smith, Peter Walsh, Sally Seton
Related Symbols: Big Ben
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Clarissa repeats again the phrase from Shakespeare's Cymbeline, another common thread between herself and Septimus. After a moment of darkness and despair, she once again is able to conceive of Septimus's suicide as a powerful and even positive act of communication and independence - even if, given Clarissa's shifting and contradictory opinions, we cannot be sure that this will be her final word on the subject. Still, in this scene she does feel a kinship with Septimus, suggesting that he has managed, through his death, to create a kind of communion with another person.

Once again the clock strikes, here reminding Clarissa of her duties at the party, but also serving as a reminder of the inevitable passing of time. Septimus's death has also reminded Clarissa of the "fun" and the "beauty" that she still has the time to experience in her own life. Rather than throwing away the everyday realities that have come to characterize her own existence, then, Clarissa feels once again able to return to what she has just recently labeled superficial and unimportant, feeling a renewed interest in her daily life.