Mrs. Dalloway’s Party

by Donna Wynbrandt

I went to Mrs. Dalloway’s party. Mrs. Dalloway and I are similar in that we both want to have lives of beauty and order.

Mrs. Dalloway decided on a beautiful setting for her party.

The lighting was done with ordinary light bulbs of different placements and intensities. Yet for all its common appearance and everyday familiarity, the effect was to present an interior landscape of serenity and peace. The atmosphere, like eternal art works, could hold a gaze.

The war had ended a few years earlier. The soldiers living on beyond their deceased comrades had come home and Mrs. Dalloway had banished the war from her domain.

But not everyone had been able to do the same.

One returned soldier in particular had been destroyed the day of Mrs. Dalloway’s party and the doctor who had attended the death also was attending Mrs. Dalloway’s party. He was an invitee. There, at Mrs. Dalloway’s party, he met another party goer, a government ministry official and the good doctor felt the need to discuss the situation, all too frequently observed, with the government representative.

Young, young men who had gone to the war even younger than when they returned, had taken all the natural attributes of young people with themselves. Especially had they taken their high ideals, sure nose for hypocrisy and injustice, and boundless hope. Their spirit, their minds, their bodies, their talents and poetry had gone to war.

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party


All they had brought back were the splintered, broken pitchers of life that had been theirs, their ever-full youth.

They had lost their normal human development. Maturity and experience, not of natural and unforced progression augmenting their years, was theirs.

Horrors that ended their hope, idealism, sense of fair play without a replacement were the legacy, result and effect of their military service, do what it did for others.

The war unhinged their screws, fittings, moorings to life and the doctor heard about it from the families, saw the evidence in the vacant-eyed young men.

He felt the hopelessness of these youth as if their vanished hopes were blood pooling in a communal wound basin with the doctor himself as the repository, the urn, the pooling-place of hopelessness.

This particular young man had leapt from a window to escape any further sufferings and indignities of this life, only to be impaled on the spear tips of the iron railing surrounding his last interior breathing space.

Mrs. Dalloway heard this report given in the adjoining hallway. It frightened her to be changed from a reveler to a mourner. She was upset. She angered. She placed blame on the men who had brought other people’s lives and deaths to her party. Uninvited death, uninvited mourners, uninvited war. And she lashed out in hostility saying to another who wanted beauty and order in her life, “How do they dare to bring death to my party?”

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party


This other, to whom Mrs. Dalloway turned, had not been disturbed by the sudden reversal in the room’s atmosphere nor in Mrs. Dalloway’s demeanor.

This other exhibited the inner strength of even the most ordinary of people by her wise words to her hostess and relative.

“You truly fear the hardships of change and impermanence. If you could but see an opportunity for yourself to allay some of this grief and consternation, you would be awakening your own happiness.”

She took Mrs. Dalloway’s hand, carefully kissed its fragrantly-creamed back and gave a gentle smile.


I was overcome by this rapid progression of events bombarding my sensibilities and bowed myself out of the room, retiring to a mint-green striped, rolled-back couch in a nearby alcove.

Two men came in. They spoke in grave, soft voices, sorrowing over the deaths of firefighters in the forests of southern California.

I was Mrs. Dalloway all over again. I had been trying to retrieve a party mood to myself. I had been preparing myself to find a room of a light hearted gathering without reminders of war, gruesome deaths, hardships, responsibilities.

But here was more uninvited death at a party. A party with flowers in vases, a summer party, a party in a land of eternally tranquil light.

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party


And here were two people, solemn, mourning over those who had died trying to save homes, forests, wild creatures, human beings from a natural disaster, fire.

Somehow I was able to refrain from speaking when those flickers of righteous indignation began to burn me up.

I wanted to loudly blame the authorities who had sent the firefighters in, too close to the fire.

But it was death. It was an unforeseen accident. The firefighters were heroes. I was remembering the remarks of Mrs. Dalloway’s relative.

I felt so bad that these beautifully rich and cultured voices, so solemn and grave and sad were solemn and sad and grave. I was so angry that they weren’t light-hearted and laughing.

I so longed to hear those refined articulating throats speak in my presence forever but I could not bear to hear any more about death.

I was too overcome with both grief and sorrowing at the reports and joy at the ears of mine encountering these gorgeously spoken syllables.

I had to run away. It was all too much for me. Too rich for my blood. I was too inexperienced, too immature.

But I waited, silent, until I could do or say something of value. I would consider Mrs. Dalloway’s loss of equanimity and her relative’s words to her as a lesson to me.

“The firefighters can do nothing more for themselves. What I can do for them, I will do. I’ll pray that their spirit of service, no matter what the consequences, remains with me.

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party


“Without their bodies, their eyes, their voices, we’ll be lonely. We’re especially sorry that they’re not among their loved ones.

“Maybe, somehow, they’ll absorb our good will for them.”

That’s what I would say when it was my turn to talk.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, I lost my temper merely because of the strangeness of life, of unforeseen opportunity to listen and learn of fumbled possibilities. I lashed out, as had Mrs. Dalloway, but more brazenly, hotly blaming authority for what I considered unnecessary death.

But what really angered me was that death is necessary and death, necessary death, came to my consciousness when it was least welcome.

Necessary death intruded and I lost my temper and hated the intrusion of death. Hatred is a world of rage and it blinded me to the sensibilities and sensitivities of those civilized ones who weren’t enraged.

They had been sorrowful. I had become sorrowful in sympathy with them. Then I felt unhappy. Sudden sorrow. I lost my temper. Could I not have been compassionate without being sorrowful? Could I not? Sympathy for sorrowing need not, itself, be a sorrow.

“I wandered around and finally found

Somebody who could make me be true

And even be glad just to be sad

Thinking of you….”

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party


Would I not be willing to consider song lyrics as a teacher?

Could we not be happy with our lives? Even “be glad” of our lives while feeling sympathy for the bereaved and feeling for their sorrow? Is that not the nature of compassion? An impetus to try to comfort?

If my life force were stronger, if my life condition were higher, my joy in life would keep me in temper despite all other fleeting emotions, such as sympathy for sorrowing.

All this was before I knew that I could share compassion without sharing grief. That which I’ve learned I need to practice until it becomes a part of me. I’m afraid of grief.

Is it not said, “We become what we fear”?

So what am I saying? Am I saying that fear of inconsolable grief transmuted ordinary or profound sympathy into rage? Must a regrettable loss of temper become so serious in my mind? Am I over analyzing or just trying to get to the very bottom of the incident in order to make genuine my apologies.

Apologies to the gentlemen who bore the brunt of my rage and from whom I withheld the comfort of compassion.

That’s my hope. That civilized, cultured voices and beings will accept my apologies and speak in my presence again.

The non-ordinary folk who had moved me so much, turned my face into a mass of wind, every stirring vibration a rare and rich gift my life had somehow earned.

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party


What was that Bob Dylan song? “Once I held … in the palm of my hand… I didn’t know what I had… I threw it all away..”

For an instant I knew what I had. But before I could register as a good, that which was good, my innate darkness imploded my natural awe and appreciation. I felt that I had to inspire the same sort of awe and appreciation, I despaired of my ability to so do and I tried, anyway, out of anger, without further thought addressed to the problem.

I felt that I had not earned it. I had earned it. That’s why that experience was there. I had somehow deserved it. What goes around, comes around. I hadn’t done enough. I had to do more. I was angry at that insistence. I lost my temper, my nerves, my edge.

My best bet would have been to remain silent. I could have said, “We all have to go sometime.”

And here I am again, making a mockery out of my own regrets. My happy-go-lucky nature is finally reasserting itself and giving me cause to laugh at a ridiculously inept hypothetical solution to an unrepeatable experiment. “We all have to go sometime.” ha ha ha.

Yet this happy-go-lucky attitude is that which I lost in my sympathy, that aborted emotion, for their suffering,

They were mourning, but their voices’ quality was absent of the emotion of suffering, the state of mind of suffering. How did they do that? Their very tones prompted a desire to see into the nature of sorrow and suffering.

I wanted their voices laughing. I didn’t want them sorrowing. I didn’t want them to mourn. To sorrow is to suffer. I felt I had to suffer, too, in order to share their experience at that moment. I

didn’t want to suffer.

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party


What a control-freak I must be. Anytime of stress or strangeness or change and I feel threatened. .

I jumped to the conclusion that they were asking me to suffer and I lost my temper. It was too much to ask. But solemnity is not suffering. Sadness. Is sadness suffering? That I can’t answer with assurance.

I wonder: Must it be that parts of life: regrets, sorrow, loss, grief are, of inevitability sufferings?

We suffer at the same time that we, on a different level, revel in the aliveness of ourselves.

Oh happy-go-lucky attitude, are you reasserting yourself? Has my own discretion tutored me? Has my ignorance of the functioning of compassion been dispelled?

Where is Mrs. Dalloway now? I want to discuss this with her. Death is as necessary as parties. They can’t be kept apart. The world intrudes on our smaller worlds. That’s necessary, too. Compassion without sharing any emotion beyond or besides compassion itself is always good legal tender. I do so want her to know. I didn’t know it at the time. Still, I might not always keep it in mind.

If Mrs. Dalloway and I could talk about it, we would both better learn the lesson. Of this I feel sure. Maybe both Mrs. Dalloway and I are each, ourselves, a form of expiation. So much creativity is expiation.


  1. I greatly liked your Mrs. Dalloway piece. With Virginia Woolf, you have explored territory where only a few would venture–the place where death intrudes on all of us..I think this is a fine piece of writing..Thankyou Donna. Barbara

    • dear barbara, michael cunningham is the author of The Hours, a book inspired by Mrs. Dalloway and which I recently, since writing my Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, read. Please feel free to read my opened letter to him, posted on my blog, and comment, if you’re so inclined. donna

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