It is possibly one of my favorite first sentences of all time, from one of my favorite novels. Mrs. Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself. It is like waking up on a beautiful morning and throwing the windows wide open onto a glorious view. What a lark! What a plunge! And you are thrown into a single day of the life of Clarissa Dalloway, from the opening moments when Clarissa walks out to buy the flowers for her party and thinks back to the mornings of her girlhood at home and to the friends of her youth, to the end of her evening party and the meeting of old friends. All throughout the day she returns again and again, in her mind, to those long-ago days, to those past memories.
From the beginning lines you are drawn into the landscape of Mrs. Dalloway's London on this June day, this midsummer morning that brought back other, previous midsummer days with Peter Walsh, who loved her, and Sally, her dear friend. I see her in my mind, walking along Piccadilly, through the park, up Bond street, past shops and memories that lurk in every corner, images made bright with fire by Woolf's words, words that slip past and touch me, bring up the feeling of that moment when you fling open the doors and the morning air rushes against your skin, call forth the scents of earth and garden in a flower shop.
As Mrs. Dalloway wanders through the streets of London and memory, her story intersects with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran haunted by his past. His tragedy is the counterpoint to Clarissa's comfortable serenity, the balance, the weight; without him the story would be insubstantial, insignificant. What does Mrs. Dalloway's party matter? All through this day Mrs. Dalloway is preoccupied with her flowers and her party and her memories of youth, completely oblivious to the demons that Septimus wrestles with as their paths cross. What was that line from The Hours, where someone says that someone has to die in the novel, so that others might live? In order for Clarissa to live, to understand life, to appreciate her days ahead and past, Septimus has to live in horror of his own immediate past, and then, die.
If the opening line is one of my favorite lines of all time, then the closing sentences are my favorite ending of all time, the moment where Sally, now Lady Rosseter, gets up from her seat besides Peter Walsh, where they have been reminiscing about their youth. What does the brain matter, compared with the heart?, she says. And as Peter continues to sit for a moment, he thinks to himself, What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?
It is Clarissa.
For there she was.