"What does the brain matter," said Lady Rosseter, getting up, "compared with the heart?"
She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on... far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.
Did it matter then... that she must inevitable 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?
Do these people ever have sex?
If you've seen the (otherwise unrelated) classic 1933 film, Dinner at Eight, you've got an idea of the plot. We follow various characters through a single day leading to a party that evening—in the case of this novel, given by Clarissa Dalloway, wife of a British Member of Parliament.
However, plot has very little to do with any Virginia Woolf novel and Mrs Dalloway is far different from any such entertainment as a popular movie. For one thing the narrative takes place entirely in the minds of its characters.
I'm reluctant to refer to this method as stream of consciousness, as it's usually called, because Woolf's characters are all so literate, "thinking" in complete sentences with proper grammar. Even an obviously insane character has well-rounded thoughts. A better term may be "impressionistic", since Woolf gives the impression of what concerns each of these characters, translated into her own manner of speech.
Woolf's genius is her infinite sensitivity to every nuance of her character's experiences and her ability to encapsulate these in concise, everyday language. Quite often while reading Mrs Dalloway, one finds oneself saying, "That's just what it feels like", about some fleeting sensation or thought.
However, one seldom feels her characters are flesh and blood. Much of the novel concerns Mrs Dalloway's long-ago relationship with Peter Walsh, a romance stirred up by his return from India and appearance at her party. Yet one cannot imagine that anything physical or passionate ever existed between them.
Or between any other characters in this drama. Love, fear, jealousy—all the emotions are incorporeal. Intellectualized.
Bluntly, her characters are all such prigs. And, worse, boring.
An exception is Septimus Warren Smith, a traumatized soldier who sees and hears a dead comrade, and Lucrezia, his bewildered but loving wife. These characters have little to do with the intellectual, upper-class folk who populate most of Woolf's world, other than passing them in the street. Yet this tangential subplot provides the liveliest sections of the novel.