Book in Review: ‘Mrs Dalloway’- Virginia Woolf
Like all bibliophiles, I love that profoundly rich and warm moment when you close a wonderful book you’ve been reading for hours, and sometimes days. That hushed moment of awe inspired reverie, dazed and astounded by the profoundness of the book- and feel its impact resonate through you, marking you, each impression like dozens of golden, weathered leaves blowing across the as yet empty rooms (for there are still so many, many wonderful books to read) palace of your mind. This is one such book! For this is what books do; or rather, what good books do. They forever alter the terrain of your mind, become a part of your story, attaching themselves permanently to your character, shadowing you across every book you ever pick up thereafter. Sometimes these good books alter you gently and graciously, and sometimes dramatically and forcefully, as I was by Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. This was not a gentle book, though gracious and lavish in its influence.
The novel follows Clarrisa Dalloway across the hours of her day as she prepares for a party that evening. The famous first lines of the book starts with Clarissa deciding to go and buy the flowers herself. The story involves Septimus Smith, supposed to be Clarrisa’s alter ego, who is suffering from severe PTSD following his return from the war and who has never met Clarissa but whose story is so intimately intertwined with her. The plot also involves Peter Walsh’s return to London after 30 years of being away in the continent. Peter had been Clarissa’s rejected suitor who had been refused in favor of the less dashing and interesting, but safe and wealthy Richard Dalloway. Peter’s dramatic return, an aging Clarrisa’s reflection of her life choices and regrets, Septimus’ losing battle with his trauma and impeding madness set the tone for the novel in an otherwise beautiful, sunny June day in London in 1923. The story alternates between the consciousness and inner dialogues of the characters of the book, jumping suddenly from one character to another, and back again.
Woolf famously stated that books are like flowers or fruit hanging off a tree, here and there, to color our earliest memories which have impacted us. Good books add to your internal library contributing depth, color, flavor, taste, and sight to who we are and our essence as human beings. Reading Mrs. Dalloway, like most profound books, leads you on an internal journey, a voyage to the inner recesses of your mind, challenging your creativity, reforming your understanding of the world, confidently disrupting the catalogue of all the books, characters, ideas, theories and themes you’ve ever read before. This is what good books do.
Like most good books Mrs. Dalloway is a difficult book to get into, or rather to fall into. The best books are those that, in my opinion at least, you fall into immediately, seduced and consumed right away by the story, the narrative, the characters. I did not find this to be true with Mrs. Dalloway; and indeed, almost a third of the way I threw the book across the room in frustration, decrying why this book is considered as Woolf’s finest work which established her as, without a doubt, a profound writer and literary talent! Woolf’s employment of the stream of consciousness narrative, which she adopts from James Joyce’s Ulysses initially appeared grating and annoying, overpowering you, misdirecting your singular, rational attempt to follow the story. I had never read anything like it before, or worse, this was eerily similar to Woolf’s other work To The Lighthouse, which sat unfinished and discarded on my bookshelf (I am planning to revisit this book soon after Mrs. Dalloway). Woolf’s adoption of the stream of consciousness, however, teaches you to read differently, challenging you to be more present and to develop a more intimate, mindful relationship with the novel. You are not allowed to simply skim and speed read through this book. You must take your time, cherishing the lyrical prose and poetry of Woolf’s singular and unique literary genius and paying homage to Mrs. Dalloway.
At the same time, the genius of Mrs. Dalloway is its seeming fidelity to capturing a snapshot of the mundane and the everydayness of life. Yet, so much occurs, as even, nothing is actually happening. In like manner, the climax of Septimus Smith’s tragic ending is over powered with the streams of consciousness of others; of Rezia, Septimus’ wife and Dr. Holmes and even Septimus’ madness itself. Most of the characters, from Septimus to Clarissa to Peter and others are consumed with reflecting, remembering and living in their inner world as they go about their day, going to lunch, meeting friends, preparing to have dinner or going to Clarrisa’s party. The distinction and juxtaposing of sanity with insanity, class differences (between the lower class and the Dalloway’s and their acquaintances privileged world), empire and its decline, and of course that of life and death helps to carve a brilliant, effortlessly layered, in-depth analysis and critique of life, aging, war, mental illness, choices, family, marriage, sex, class and gender. What is astonishing is all the socio-political, economic and gendered criticisms that Woolf presents in Mrs Dalloway, weaved masterfully and so magnificently across the tapestry of her lyrical prose and poetic descriptions of life, madness, aging and more.
The only criticism that I can offer at the alter of Woolfe’s undeniable brilliance is that- having also read the introduction by Merry Pawlowski that Woolf debated whether to call the book The Hours or Mrs Dalloway; eventually settling on the latter- it should have been called The Hours. The hours passing across the novel are noted so remarkably and memorably. The hours and life of the characters ticks by, measured by the presence of Big Ben, who bangs and clanks away across the novel, propelling the characters to the eventual multilayered complexity of the book’s ending. At 3 am, with Big Ben’s bell striking three times, and the old lady’s lights turned off across the street, the story and Clarissa’s party draws to an end; and despite the discomfort of the heavy themes of the book- of insanity and madness, of life and death- there is a note of comfort in the finality knowing that the clock will continue to strike and mark the hours – watching over the inhabitants of London as they struggle with loss, illness, regret, rejection, and loneliness – even if some of the characters are changed, or come to accept the limitations of their life or even lose their lives.
When I initially started reading Mrs. Dalloway I was under the mistaken notion that the novel was about Clarissa Dalloway and the many hours of her day as she prepares for her party that evening. Clearly, I was very much mistaken in my initial assumptions- and what a pleasant surprise it has been. In Mrs. Dalloway, I found a profoundly moving, emotional, social critique and literary masterpiece that deserves every bit the praise it has received over the decades since its first publication. One you read this book you also will fall in love with Mrs Dalloway, and she will undoubtedly become one of those old friends you will revisit again and again.
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