This essay contends that Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway explores how a radical novelistic empathy might thaw the frozen paralysis that grips British society. Clarissa Dalloway's empathy is reserved most for the unbalanced, overly emotional character of Septimus Smith, yet less understood is the lifelong nature of her empathy: she is a habitual empathizer and has been her entire adult life. Critical opinion generally considers Clarissa's empathy for Septimus an exceptional moment that she experiences only in isolation. But her social inclination to bring others together makes this empathy possible. By recourse to Lewis Hyde's seminal work on the gift and Elaine Scarry's work on the ethics of perceiving beauty, I argue that, in kissing Clarissa, Sally Seton “transmits” her empathy and love of life to Clarissa, who in turn throughout her life passes it on to others who need help in their suffering, setting up communities of care that are represented by her party. Woolf wants us to attain a critical empathy for the author herself and her characters on the supratextual level yet also judge them according to the two-part process of empathetic reading outlined in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?”

You do not currently have access to this content.