The events of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway take place over single day in London. The characters of the novel move through different areas of the city, and many landmarks and neighborhoods are referenced. The city however, is not a static backdrop; as the characters navigate through the capital, the street names, parks, and buildings anchor the plot and at times take on a greater symbolic meaning. While the characters thoughts may wander thorough thoughts and memories both past and present, with a myriad of emotions and reactions flitting through their minds, the places in London that are mentioned, constantly remind the reader of the novel’s setting, and locate the characters in the physical world. In addition to creating a delicate balance between the physical and interior worlds, an examination of the novel’s setting reveals contrasts between its characters. For example, although the novel’s two main characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, inhabit the same city, the spheres of the city they occupy, along with their experiences, delineate their separate social classes and give the impression that they are a world apart.
Clarissa Dalloway’s route through London:
As Clarissa Dalloway leaves her home in Westminster to buy her flowers and reminisces about her father and life before WWI, she is walking through an area of wealth, power, and deep-rooted tradition. Along Pall Mall there are a number of royally appointed hat makers, shoemakers, and tailors which serve the monarchy. The unmarked Gentleman’s Clubs that line the street are exclusive organizations in which you can only gain membership through birth; no amount of money will allow you to join. In this way, Clarissa’s morning walk to complete the simple task of buying flowers becomes more significant with the detailed description of the route she takes. Through her surroundings, Clarissa is from the beginning located in a specific social class and afforded privilege.
Septimus Warren Smith’s route through London:
Septimus, unlike Clarissa, does not have one linear route through the city. The areas he inhibits are often described by his wife Lucrezia, or at times mentioned in flashbacks of Septimus’s memories. Regent’s Park is one of the first places in London where we see Septimus, along with his Lucrezia. One of the largest parks in London, Regent’s Park is a very public space. By placing Lucrezia and Septimus here among many other people Woolf is able to highlight Septimus’ anxieties about his return to society and Lucrezia’s mixture of concern for her husband and embarrassment. We are also let into the thoughts of people passing by the couple in the park feeling pity for Lucrezia’s situation, and being frightened by Septimus’ strange behavior: a young tourist Maisie Johnson observes, “this young couple on the chairs gave her quite a turn, the young woman seeming foreign, the man looking queer […] he seemed awfully odd” (26). Septimus’ inablility to blend in with the crowds in Regent’s Park highlights the larger issue of his re-assimilation into the post-war society. While Clarissa is deftly navigating her way through the city, running into old friends and chatting with florists, Septimus is also in the public sphere struggling to maintain a façade of normalcy.
Another area of the city which separates him from Clarissa is his place of residence. Tottenham Court Rd. is the area in which Septimus and Lucrezia reside, in “admirable lodgings” (88). However admirable they may be, in comparison to the neighborhood in which Clarissa and Richard live in Westminster, their area is less wealthy and prestigious. Tottenham Court Rd. is a more commercial area, which in the twentieth century had many boardinghouses, and is further removed from the power that is centered in Westminster with the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. In this way Septimus is further removed from influence and control in both his physical proximity from symbols of power, and his mental state, as he loses his grip on sanity.
There are two areas Septimus visits mentioned in the novel that can be associated with Clarissa’s world; however, Septimus’s experiences create a stark contrast to Clarissa’s privileges and social grace. One such area is Embankment, a political area, lined with many government offices. This is an area very close to Clarissa’s home in Westminster, probably the closest to which Septimus ever comes to Clarissa’s home. Septimus’ visit to Embankment appears in the form of a flashback of Lucrezia’s. She recalls being there with him and snatching away a paper that Septimus was absorbed in reading, while trying to laugh off her actions to an old bystander – thinking “But failure one conceals” (16). Lucrezia’s memories of this incident occur while she is panicking that people have just overheard Semptimus’s mutterings that he will kill himself, so while her comment about concealing “failure” connects to her desire to “take him away” from the people they’re surrounded by, it also is possibly in reference to her marriage and the growing rift between her and Septimus.
Another significant area is Harley St., the area where Lucrezia takes Septimus in order to get him medical care. Renowned physicians and psychiatrists are said to have their practices in Harley St., but ultimately in the novel it comes to represent the lack of adequate medical care Septimus receives and the prejudices and shortcomings of the medical profession in understanding the causes of shell shock and providing effective treatment. Dr. Holmes is a member of the Establishment and ultimately fails Septimus, contributing to his decision to commit suicide.
This map shows both Septimus’ and Clarissa’s routes. The places Septimus visits are marked with arrows, and Clarissa’s route is denoted by a red line. The red square marks an insert which is reproduced and enlarged below to show a closer look at Clarissa’s route. The map reveals a visual contrast between the areas Septimus visits and those Clarissa visits. Septimus almost always occupies the outskirts of Clarissa’s sphere.
1. Regent’s Park
2. Harley Street
3. Tottenham Court Road
This is a closer look at Clarissa’s route to buy flowers
This video shows images of the places described during Clarissa’s walk.