Clarissa's relationship with Sally Seton is one of the most interesting and controversial aspects of the novel, as it depicts a latent homosexual desire for Sally on the part of Clarissa. Clarissa and Sally had kissed at Bourton 34 years previous to that, and still remembers that as the happiest she has ever been - it was the "most exquisite moment of her whole life...Sally stopped; picked a flower, kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The other's disappeared; there she was alone with Sally" (Wolff, 1925).
Clarissa's love for Sally stemmed back to their first meeting at Bourton, where her eyes opened to new possibilities and new interests; "Sally it was who made her feel, for the first time, how sheltered the life at Bourton was. She knew nothing about sex--nothing about social problems" (Wolff, 1925). These times are reminisced upon by Clarissa upon their meeting again; "The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one's feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up" (Wolff, 1925). Sally taught her to read Plato, Morris, Shelley and others, and showing her about flowers and all manner of interests that she was not used to. Sally brought Clarissa out of her shell and taught her to be exuberant and unpredictable - "in those days she was completely reckless; did the most idiotic things out of bravado; bicycled round the parapet on the terrace; smoked cigars. Absurd, she was--very absurd."
Despite these romantic feelings for Sally, Clarissa does not acknowledge them as being indicative of being a bisexual or lesbian; she just feels about women "as men feel" (Wolff, p. 35). Clarissa does not even know exactly how she feels about Sally; "this question of love...this falling with women. Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?" (Wolff, 1925). Clarissa understands that her interest in men is pretty much related to a material sense; by marrying, she could provide for herself financially. However, she does not lack that "something central" when she feels deeply for Sally.
Sally reenters Clarissa's life after a long time apart, which carries a strong significance. For the vast majority of the novel, Sally is not present; she does not appear again until Clarissa's party. While she does appear much older, she is recognized by Clarissa, and looks just like she used to. Sally counts her blessings by naming Clarissa first ahead of her family, which is significant in that Sally still places an importance on Clarissa being in her life. However, there is a big difference between Sally's exuberance at seeing Clarissa again and Clarissa's ambivalence at Sally's return. Clarissa "kindles all over with pleasure at the thought of the past," but that is all that she is concerned with (p. 172). She does not care about the present or the future; she just likes thinking about her past. They both married since then, and Sally's new name is Lady Rosseter, something that Clarissa does not recognize anymore.
Sally plays an important part in Clarissa's life, at least in regards to her past. Sally represents a taboo and a forbidden desire that Clarissa wishes she could take, but cannot in this rigid British society. They instead yield to the desires and expectations of others, moving apart into separate heterosexual marriages. This sexual norm is very powerful in society, powerful enough to keep them apart. Sally and Clarissa alike had settled down and drifted away from each other and her desire. Sally, with her five children and merchant husband, is far from the thrilling bohemian lifestyle that she envisioned living before.
Clarissa, as well, is miserable in her marriage, and looking elsewhere for opportunity. This leads to both of them being miserable at once, perhaps another piece of evidence that they were merely hiding their true feelings from one another and from society (Wu, 2006). Sally's and Clarissa's story is one of fleeting intense love that was shut down by the intense societal forces that pitted them apart. Clarissa's homosexuality is evidenced by her relative lack of interest in men besides their material value, yet still remembering the chance she had at true happiness with Sally.
Disorder and death are a very prevalent feature of Mrs. Dalloway, as the overall atmosphere of the book takes place post-World War I, which saw the end of the British Empire and the beginning of an uncertain future. The time of the book (1923) is fraught with societal change and a move towards disorder, eschewing the traditional values of England in favor of something new. This is exemplified in the book through the downfall of older characters, such as Aunt Helena and Lady Bruton; they are relics of a time when English tradition was everything. Aunt Helena is a particularly powerful example, her glass eye being symbolic of her inability to see the future and the ending of the British Empire. Richard states that he will write about the Brutons, who are a great traditional British military family; he wishes to hold onto the past and its fond memories.
Memories and thoughts of death pervade Clarissa's day in the book. She starts the day by buying flowers for the impending party, reminding her of her youth, which is long gone. Clarissa's utterance of the line from Cymbeline - "Fear no more the heat o' the sun / Nor the furious winter's rages" - is indicative of the comfort that death can bring to someone who has lived a long life, and wishes to live it no more. Clarissa's parents and sister are all dead, having had to experience all of that demise around her. World War I was also a great reminder of death, and she thinks that it is dangerous to even live another day - "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" (Wolff, 1925). Death is perpetually on her mind, as she struggles to determine what it is to her - “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them. There was an embrace in death" (p. 184).
Eventually, Clarissa comes to terms with her mortality through her own examinations of life, the Cymbeline quote, and other stimuli. “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?” (p. 9). When she hears that Septimus has killed himself, she applauds him for taking control of his own quality of life instead of merely moving on through a life of pain - “She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away...[B]ut she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on” (Wolff, p. 186).
Peter Walsh is absolutely panicked at the prospect of death, instead taking odd chances to embrace life, becoming reckless in his pursuit of the unpredictable and visceral. He follows a young girl he does not know throughout London in order to shake off his thoughts of death - they are that pervasive.
Septimus is the character to address death in the most straightforward fashion. A veteran of World War I, his life has been dramatically lessened through the recurring visions and hallucinations that leave him lonely and mildly insane. He is initially fearful of death; he does not want to die. He is not quite sure why he should go on, finding no significance in life ; he asks his doctor, "Why live?" to which his doctor merely replies "life was good" (p. 101). However, given the prospect of living another day as he is, he begins to see it as a viable alternative, and ends his own life.
Septimus' thoughts on death are appropriately emotionless and fraught with emotional distance; he feels, given his lack of empathy, that he does not deserve to live. "So there was no excuse; nothing whatever the matter, except the sin for which human nature had condemned him to death; that he did not feel. He had not cared when Evans was killed; that was the worst; but all the other crimes raised their heads and shook their fingers…The verdict of human nature on such a wreck was death" (Woolf, p. 91).
The concept of death is also explored in the discussion of trees; Clarissa thinks that souls live on in trees after they die. Septimus equates cutting down a tree with murdering someone, placing importance on even the simplest type of life. Waves and water can also symbolize death for many of the characters. As Clarissa is mending her dress for the party, she considers the ebb and flow of the tide, and how it appears to equate to the cycle of life and death.
Between the characters of Clarissa, Septimus and Peter, among others, the true sense of existentialism and disorder that came about as a result of World War I's unseating of Britain from its status as an empire is made clear. Given the order-driven British Empire collapsing, and Clarissa's midlife crisis approaching, many of these characters wax philosophical about the meaning of life, and find it to be somewhat faulty, unless one can find a way to take control of one's life. For Septimus, that means death, something that Clarissa admires.
Woolf, Virginia. (1925). Mrs. Dalloway. ed: Harcourt, Brace And Co. Print.
Wu, Min-Hua. (2002). Power, Madness and Sexuality in Mrs. Dalloway. Foreign Language and Literature 2: 1-102.