Classics Review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven — over. It was June.” – Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
I chose to feature the passage above because I happen to be writing this review in June and I love when it happens that what I am reading corresponds to the moment am living. By the time we get to this passage about it being June we already know what kind of person Clarissa Dalloway is. We know she is an upper class lady planning a party for that evening, is walking through her Westminster neighborhood to buy flowers, is thoughtful enough to consider the workload of her maids, loves the hubbub of life in London, has friends who are suffering due to losses of the late war, and constantly thinks of Peter Walsh, an old flame who she has not seen in 30 years. We also know she is over 50 and has had a bout with influenza that might have affected her heart and the narrative has already flitted briefly from her consciousness to that of her next-door neighbor Stoke Purvis, who she is not even aware is watching her. And we are only on page 2! If it is true that one of the pleasures of fiction is that you get to get inside other peoples’ heads, then Mrs. Dalloway is one big lavish pleasure.
I tried reading Mrs. Dalloway about a year ago and just couldn’t get into it. This time I loved it. I caught the wave immediately and was swept into the beautiful river of words so quickly and effortlessly that it is hard to believe I could ever have put the book down. As I walked about my daily life, I began feeling like a character in a Virginia Woolf novel, aware of my own internal dialogue in a new way. What amazes me most is how the story seamlessly flits from the consciousness of one character to another and yet you never have any trouble figuring out who is thinking. You know what is happening in the present and you know when the character is thinking “off topic” — remembering the past and fantasizing aobut what might have been, engaging in a mental argument with herself or someone else, justifying his actions or criticizing his own behavior, or some other thing entirely. Clarissa Dalloway is pf course the central character but we soon leave her consciousness and pass through the minds of a great number of characters: Peter Walsh (who is usually thinking about Clarissa), her husband Richard, their daughter Elizabeth, a shell-shocked war veteran named Septimus Warren Smith, Septimus’ Italian wife Lucrezia, Elizabeth’s poor dowdy friend Miss Kilman, the arrogant psychologist Sir William Bradshaw, and various servants, neighbors, merchants, and friends, some just for a line or two.
The day progresses from Clarissa’s morning walk to Peter Walsh’s surprise visit, to the difficult situation of Septimus and Lucrezia Smith. If you are going to pick one day to portray in the life of your characters, it’s good to choose one in which you are giving a party that will gather most of the characters into one room at the end of novel, a long lost love appears in the flesh, and one of your characters makes a deadly decision.The only connections between Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith are that they are geographically close in to each other in London and that Septimus’ doctor William Bradshaw and his wife are to be guests at the party. Septimus’ presence in the story is the physical embodiment of the an awareness of the war that hovers in the London air. Clarissa’s thoughts about the war are somewhat abstract and in the background while Septimus makes brings its lingering horror into solid relief.
Writing a stream of consciousness novel is not just a matter of recording thoughts randomly. The novel comes complete with a villain in the form of mean old Dr. Bradshaw, and a climax, having to do with the parallel story of Septimus Smith. The genius of Mrs. Dalloway is that it succeeds in telling a specific story with a beginning, a middle, and end. Woolf gives the illusion of letting the characters’ internal dialogue flow naturally, flitting from subject to subject at the speed of thought, while arousing the reader’s curiosity. You really want to know what comes next. How will the party go? Will Peter and Clarissa resolve the the loose ends of their 30-year old argument and abrupt separation? Will the novel resolve in equilibrium or indecision?
I especially liked getting to see the same scenes and and themes through the prism of multiple points of view. This is also a novel of many themes but for me the prominent theme was that the value of life itself is very much in question in the wake of the devastating war. Mrs. Dalloway seems to have found her footing on the solid ground of traditional society but even she questions whether that tradition is anything more than an illusion. Giving parties is her way reassuring herself and others that our lives exist as solid reality:
“But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgments, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quiet continuously a sense of their existence and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it.”
You could take any passage from the book and analyze the heck out of it. I love how Woolf gives the reader the illusion that the character is thinking several thinking at once, as we all do. In the passage that follows Clarissa thinks one thing and then is annoyed with herself for the way she thinks, compares herself to other people such as her husband, and we never forget that she is walking on a London street. See how the policeman and the pavement are gracefully worked into the text.
“How much she wanted it — that people should look pleased as she came in, Clarissa thought and turned and walked back towards Bond Street, annoyed, because it was silly to have other reasons for doing things. Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. Oh if she could have had her life over again! she thought, stepping on to the pavement, could have looked even differently!”
I just want to share hundreds of passages from the book just to appreciate the beauty of the language; but I will choose just one more:
“She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. 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. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fräulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.”
I love passage this because for the first half I felt like it could have been me speaking. I have just recently had a new epiphany about not judging and just accepting what is. Of course, I’ve had that same epiphany before but sometimes these epiphanies have to happen multiple times on increasingly intense levels to get the concept through your head and make it part of your character. Around the time Clarissa gets to Fräulein Daniels we part company. I do read a lot of books of all kinds. And yet, like Clarissa, I still feel like I know nothing.
Because Mrs. Dalloway considered a high point of modernist literature, there are reams of commentary written about it, so if you are interested in further analysis and background you will have no trouble finding it. Schmoop has an excellent if slightly snarky study guide. I listened to an audio version narrated with beautiful intelligence by Juliet Stevenson and also read a free e-book version which you can find here. I confess that until now I have sort of avoided Virginia Woolf, thinking I did not have the patience for the stream consciousness style. But I am now a newly converted fan and can’t wait to read To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. I have to say that Woolf’s 1941 suicide does cast a shadow on her brilliant writing: Clarissa’s primary love, she tells us, is life.