“...we were walking along that silent blue street with the scaffolding. I saw all the violence and unreason crossing in the air; ourselves small, a tumult outside, something terrifying: unreason...”
Virginia Woolf’s diaries. London, May 25, 1932.
Septimus Warren Smith kills himself because he cannot cope with what he has seen in the Great War. Shell-shocked, the world doesn't understand him. Having seen industrial society at its most brutal, in the trenches, Septimus is unable to deal with life's banalities and normalities. The bombastic, ineffective Dr. Holmes believes he should simply pull himself together; Sir William Bradshaw, pompous, but a better diagnostician, knows he needs "rest, rest, rest" in a sanatorium away from the pressure of friends and family. There are moments of lucidity, certainly, but his wife Lucrezia knows she is losing Septimus as fast as he is losing himself. As Clarissa Dalloway buys her flowers one Wednesday in June in 1923, Septimus Warren Smith remembers his first love Isabel Pole, recalls and envisions his friend Evans, killed in Italy shortly before the Armistice, realises his own insanity in a final moment of clarity, and then kills himself.
As much as Mrs Dalloway is about the eponymous heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf's novel is about Septimus. And about Septimus's suicide. The Great War has been over for a few years, but its legacy dominates the novel, and that legacy is encapsulated and reflected (one might even say instantiated) in Septimus's madness. Throughout the novel's day, Big Ben chimes. We count down to Clarissa's party, but the great clock tolls ominously for all Woolf's characters. Septimus and Clarissa never meet. Indeed, their only connection, outside of the novel's world which holds them together, is William Bradshaw. Sir William attends the party and comments on a case he is treating. Unbeknownst to him, his case is already closed, his patient has already killed himself. Clarissa hears of the death and is perturbed. Death isn't welcome at the party but, of course, welcome or not, it prevents us everywhere. Septimus's death is, for Clarissa, almost enviable. He has, by killing himself, affirmed something eternal about himself, something Clarissa fears she will never affirm and is constantly in danger of losing: her self; her soul.
Peter Walsh wonders about his plan to marry Daisy, the young wife of an Indian officer who already has two children with the other man. One wonders, as a reader, whether his plan to organise the divorce and take Daisy as his own wife will go ahead. Walsh has never really stopped loving Clarissa who chose not to marry him all those years ago. Clarissa may be the perfect hostess, but she is, she knows, she hopes, more than this. Throughout the day her mood shifts back and forth. She is excited about the party, but sad and regretful over Peter (who visits her briefly in the morning before the party) and over her marriage to the dull, dependable, but undoubtedly decent Richard Dalloway.
Woolf wrote in her diary that she wanted to sketch “the world seen by the sane and the insane.” Clarissa's sanity is society's sanctioned sanity: she is the perfect hostess, who married Richard because she was afraid of her own sensuality. She may have depths (Peter sees them and he still half wants Clarissa because of them, and we are privileged to read them), but Richard doesn't understand them, her daughter Elizabeth doesn't believe them (hence her -- already crumbling -- attraction to the auto-didactic and rather dour spinster Doris Kilman) and the once wild Sally Seton, Clarissa’s old friend (whom Clarissa idolised and, probably, loved), now married to Lord Rosseter, would consider them frivolous.
Clarissa it is, however, who hears about and, quietly, as the party goes on around her, and as she simultaneously frets about whether it will or will not succeed, responds to Septimus's death. She affirms his life in her attraction to his death. He becomes a lodestone for her seriousness; he bequeathes to her -- and to this wonderful novel -- something wholly substantial.