Remember the Spencer Tracy / Katherine Hepburn movie where she goes for a job interview and he, skeptical about working women , is all, "OK. So. When you meet a person what's the first thing you notice?" And she snaps back: "Whether that person is a man or a woman."
Mrs. Dalloway is a handsome, intelligent, recently divorced woman midway through what has been an excellent life who wakes up one day alone now in the big house with a tennis court in Short Hills, NJ feeling something's not all right with anything, feeling in need of a new outlook: less wrapped up in herself! More people oriented! Feeling, a little strangely, that someone else may have been living her life for her. And so dumps her therapist, has her hair cut, and sets off in First Class for a trek up the Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan to the foot of K2.
We humans may be social animals but we respond differently when considering a stranger. In politics we're often "He-ain't-heavy-he's-my-brother" on the left; and on the right we tend to be "I-am-not-my-brother's-keeper".
Or look at what religious people get from their faith: for some it means "Love your neighbor as yourself"; for others it means "Jesus loves ME this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
Not much fellow-feeling in (actually quite nice) Mrs. D. No rush, when first considering a stranger, of: "Here is a human being, just like I'm a human being." No noticeable smile at Lily Tomlin's dark rasp to a new audience: "OK, we're all in this together....And none of us is getting out alive." But with an ironic smile she would quite agree that "We all may have been born equal, but we certainly spend the rest of our lives trying to be as unequal as possible."
When she was little Mrs. D was badly burned in a fire that killed her father. (She discussed it for years with the therapist she dumped before her story starts, so you, the reader, are spared these clinical analytics.) She had been the center of the universe but that world collapsed. At first stunned by her loss, the sensitive child, in the hospital for a year with skin grafts, began to wonder whether there mightn't have been something self-absorbed, almost invasive, in so much love and attention from mom and dad. Was she supposed to have been just an empty vessel to be filled up as a home for a new-built extension of someone else's self?
Still, it had felt good to be the center of the universe. Could you kill two birds maybe: keep yourself intact to yourself inside and outside become someone excellently special, a star personality; and let that "self" handle people, make them applaud it, let them envy that "you"?
So, intuitively and gradually she took charge of herself and grew up and became Mrs. D, and, without being aware of it, is addicted to what she thought others thought, or should think, of "her". But now something's not quite right about anything. So off she goes to Pakistan.
Rather shallow people, her fellow trekkers, she sniffs not altogether unkindly, but the hardship and danger and altitude wear on her even more than the people do, though she does warm to a seriously rich and rather un-Japanese Japanese couple. The wife dies in their tent on the glacier in the arms of the attending trek doctor and Mrs. D makes it in a snowstorm to the grieving husband, alone now in that tent, to express her sympathy and say goodbye before the Pakistani army helicopter arrives for him to accompany his wife's body. The man listens blankly, reaches, asks in tears if he might put his head on her warm breasts to imagine it was he, not the doctor, who had been holding his wife, listening at her warm softness, hearing her leave. Mrs. D recoils, tells him to get ahold of himself, and retreats out into the snow.
Later at the airport, watching a solitary stranger dealing with the surrounding people, Mrs. D recognizes her own cocoon of specialness. So feels "the terror of discovering a life unlived". And sobs as a concerned stewardess leads her to her seat in First C