Katherine Hilbery of Woolf's Night and Day is introduced to the reader as a covert rebel against convention, preferring mathematics to hostessing, and dreading marriage as incompatible with her desire to think independently. Yet by the end of the novel, she has come to find marriage and independence to be quite compatible when love, not attention to social position, is at the root of the relationship. Lily Briscoe of To the Lighthouse similarly moves from frustration with those who have succumbed to the expectations of society, to accept Mrs. Ramsay's legacy: like Mrs. Ramsay, she eventually learns to give Mr. Ramsay, overbearing and unsympathetic as he is, the compassion he needs, enabling him to make the oft-deferred journey to the lighthouse. It may hardly surprise an attentive reader, then, to realize that the eponymous heroine of Mrs. Dalloway also comes to synthesize an independent, even idiosyncratic, interior life with the role society expects her to play. Clarissa Dalloway is a woman who can question her long-standing decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh. But she can as easily consider her conventional role as an integral part of her identity: her “passion for gloves,” for instance, she justifies by remembering old Uncle William's saying that “a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves” (172). She allows socially incorrect questions about death, loss of religion, and her past love for Sally Seton to mix in equal measure in her mind with her plans for a meticulously respectable evening party.
Given these divergent characteristics, Clarissa Dalloway, critics have a fiendishly difficult time explaining her apparent inconsistencies. Seeing Woolf solely in the role of the political deviant pushing a subversive feminism on her readers, most critics categorize her characters either as feminist “failures” or subversively successful in one way or another. Is her skepticism about such traditional standbys as religion or the intrinsic superiority of her class a sign of a liberated mind, or has she betrayed her individuality by accepting certain aspects of her upper-middle class existence as normal? In fact, I would argue that both these alternatives are senselessly reductive. In the final analysis, Clarissa Dalloway seems to be most simply put a lover of life: “what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab;. . .the ebb and flow” of London streets (170). Ethical implications arise from her various reactions to her social position, and I can hardly argue with these critics that an important tension exists between liberation and compromise. Yet for Woolf's characters, this tension is itself the solution to the problem of a reductive existence: her independent social workers and unthinking aristocrats come off as equally one-dimensional, and this hardly makes them attractive as characters. Her most compelling characters, rather, are those who are capable of balancing the social and independent, carried on in a series of moments that build upon one another but never define the person.