Mrs. Dalloway and The Hour of the Star: Summary and Analysis
Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, written in 1925, is set in 1920’s London, England, just after the First World War,. This novel depicts a day in the life of high-class socialite Clarissa Dalloway, who is planning to have a party, and ends with the giving of said party. From a constantly shifting, third-person perspective, we learn more about Clarissa, her old friends Peter and Sally, her husband Richard, and Septimus Warren Smith, a mentally ill World War I veteran and his wife Lucrezia. Many of them spend a great deal of time reflecting on their pasts and the choices they made that have led up to what their lives are like in the present. At the party, news of Septimus’s death is spread. He had chosen suicide over going to a place in the country for bed rest. Clarissa retreats to an empty room to think over what Septimus has done, and she envies that he could escape society’s molds while she has to continue her strive to live up to everybody else’s expectations. She then returns to the party, bringing the novel to an end.
In Clarice Lispector’s novel, The Hour of the Star, written in 1977, Lispector tells the story of a neglected, impoverished young girl named Macabea, who lives in a red-light district of Brazil, blissfully unaware about life and even her own existence. However, instead of telling it from her own perspective, Lispector creates a narrator named Rodrigo S.M. who sees Macabea on the street and proceeds to write what he believes is her life story. Macabea loses her family at
a young age and ends up in the city as a young woman, going about living in a mundane routine, oblivious to life’s nuances and the fact that she exists at all. At the advice of her coworker Gloria, Macabea travels to Olaria to meet a fortune teller, Madame Carlota, to see if her life can get any better. Upon meeting Macabea, Madame Carlota promises Macabea will have a completely changed life. Overwhelmed by a newfound hope of what is to come, Macabea leaves the fortune teller in a daze. She is so caught up in her thoughts that she does not see a yellow Mercedes coming down the road, which knocks her down to her death and concludes the story.
Although set in different places and written fifty years apart, both texts use complex characters and intricate plots to describe a theme of being misunderstood in the eyes of others, and the results of whether one decides to conform or stay true to self regardless of the perception of others. I believe they used the characters Clarissa and Macabea respectively to demonstrate this idea. Clarissa did everything right by the social norms of her time and was still not happy. Macabea, on an opposite end of the spectrum, did nothing right according to society and thought she was happy.
As a teenager, Clarissa spends her time with Sally and Peter, two friends whom around she feels she can be her true self. She and Sally share a passion for independence, thinking they will both take over the world, and she and Peter fall in love. Then Richard Dalloway makes an appearance. Peter, being of a lower social class, knows he has lost Clarissa’s attention and that she will marry Richard (Woolf 61). To spite her for her sudden shift in interest, Peter says she will become “the perfect hostess” (62). Clarissa is hurt by this comment but does go on to do just that. As an adult, she lives in a comfortable home where she is safe from overstepping any lines
in society, is married to Richard, and is most well known for her giving of lavish parties. Throughout the novel, as she comes across the people in her life from past and present, what she says and thinks often contradicts how she really feels. At the party for instance, she greets all of her guests by saying, “How delightful to see you!” […] She was at her worst—effusive, insincere” (167). She believes her party is going to be a failure and is pained at the sight of her unpopular cousin Ellie Henderson. But for the sake of keeping up appearances she does not reveal her true feelings for others, living out Peter’s prediction of acting perfect towards others. Upon hearing the news of Septimus’s death, she feels a mixture of admiration and guilt; guilt that he killed himself because of the pressure that the rules of society tried to make him vanish while she was “forced to stand here in her evening dress” in an attempt to please that same society (185). She also praises him for his decision in committing suicide, glad that he had “thrown it away” (186). Unlike him, she would have to go on in life posing as Mrs. Dalloway, “not even Clarissa anymore” (11).
As previously stated, Macabea could not be further away from Clarissa on the social ladder. She is living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, an area which Rodrigo describes as depraved and to be avoided (Lispector 30). Her job as a typist gives her enough money to live in a tenement, eat meagerly, and afford occasional pleasures like the cinema but not much else. Rodrigo notes that life is meant to light up when you press a certain button, but Macabea did not know which button to press, and that “she wasn’t even aware that she lived in a technological society where she was a mere cog in the machine” (29). Nobody pays attention to Macabea on the streets and she never seeks it out. She is unaware of the expectation of fitting into society and does not try to achieve it. To her, a passive life is satisfactory enough. Her ignorance of the world and how to improve
her life is seen as a nuisance to her temporary boyfriend Olimpico, who tells her that her many questions get on his nerves and that she should be worried about how her future turns out. Her response is that she does not have to worry because she is not interested in becoming a successful person (48-49). Gloria also has concern for Macabea’s well-being and once asks if she has given any thought to her future. Macabea never answers (65). It is not until Madame Carlota reveals her knowledge of Macabea’s poor upbringing that Macabea realizes how terrible her life is and that she can do something about it. However, this revelation is cut all too short by her death after being struck by the Mercedes. From a distance, Rodrigo, much like Clarissa for Septimus, is glad that she has died. He takes no pity for her but instead remarks that Macabea “was finally free of herself” and of the world that both judged and ignored her for being an outcast (76).
Mrs. Dalloway and The Hour of the Star tell of two very different people in opposite positions of life. Yet the same idea applies: Whether you opt to give yourself away for a nod of approval from your peers or go through life without concern for what others think, it does affect how you view yourself in the long term. Woolf used Clarissa to show that being at the top can actually be the loneliest place. Lispector used Macabea to show that, while being at the bottom is not always much better, there is a freedom to not conforming. Either way, both authors successfully allow a glimpse into the results of both choices, leaving the readers to decide which way is the more preferable route.