The Flame and the Flower

Fresh off her morning shopping jaunt through the streets of London, Clarissa Dalloway returns home to further prepare for her party. She scales the stairs of her home and makes her way up to the room of her own for her afternoon nap. Woolf describes her ascent and consequent restlessness:

“Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she
went upstairs,paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There
was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was
an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room. Women must
put off their rich apparel. At midday they must disrobe…” (31).

Woolf chooses to describe Clarissa as retreating to her attic room as a nun would to her cloister. It seems to be a perfectly appropriate comparison for our rigid and prim heroine as we are able to imagine her reverently roaming the corridors and stairwells of the Dalloway estate. Then, Woolf throws the reader a curve-ball as she goes on to further compare the protagonist to a “child exploring a tower.” This simile seems to be the anti-thesis of the first. The mention of the exploring child evokes a sense of lighthearted deviance and mischief. The child exploring the tower embraces his or her curiosity; he or she indulges the urge to discover something previously unknown. Dissimilar to the child, the image of the withdrawing nun suggests repression of irreverent impulses and obedience to convention. To liken Clarissa to both is to illustrate her central conflict, her struggle with the duality of her personality. The reader gets the sense of her constant struggle to compromise her inner desires with her outward appearance.
While the adventurous child and the quiet nun are wildly different in their behavior, they share the unifying characteristic of intact virtue. Both battling sides of Clarissa are represented as virginal and sexually innocent. Woolf goes on to describe Clarissa’s late morning nap: “So the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading, for she slept badly, she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet” (31). Mrs. Dalloway lays on her “narrow” bed tossing, turning, and ruminating about her sexual dissatisfaction. She struggles to kick off the claustrophobia of the virtue that she believes clung to her long after she left the marriage-bed.
As she has a daughter, Mrs. Dalloway is most certainly not a virgin; however, it is likely that while she physically let go of her virginity, she feels emotionally unfulfilled by her previous sexual experiences with Richard. She goes on to think about her long-ago relationship with the wild and sassy Sally Seton and has a sudden “illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.” Is the enlightened vision of the fiery perennial Clarissa’s way of vividly expressing her lesbianism in terms that she can fully comprehend with regard to herself? Is it a way of articulating her vague yet passionate feelings towards other women? Is Clarissa truly tormented because of her unfulfilled lesbianism, or is she just generally dissatisfied with her life as a married woman? After all, she feels the same excitement after her surprise visit with Peter Walsh in her attic room: “she heard a hand upon the door. She made to hide her dress, like a virgin protecting chastity, respecting privacy” (40). When he leaves her, she thinks that if she had married him, she would have been privy to the “gaiety” (47) she felt during their brief meeting everyday. The wide-eyed child and the hushed nun come together on the field of innocence, yet somehow manage to clash on the front of Clarissa’s mind. She is neither, but she remains both. She desires to explore the tower, but she requires her withdrawal into subdued snobbishness.