Whenever I read Virginia Woolf I realize two things:
- That I’ve yet to become a seasoned critical analyzer of literature
- And that I still have a long way to go till I can truly understand her masterpieces.
I’ll be honest, I love reading books by Woolf. Her essay: A Room of One’s Own has a special place in my mind and heart, and it really captured not only my attention but put into eloquent words my rage and frustrations that I didn’t know to express.
Coming back to Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf uses this literary device called Stream of Consciousness which basically is an uninterrupted thought by the narrator, and often you have to guess where one topic ends and the other begins. I’m not smart enough to read between the lines with the Stream of Consciousness type writing, which is my limitation and end up with a not so amazing reading experience.
This is not a reflection on the story!
Mrs. Dalloway truly seems to take you back in time to a moment in a century that vividly represented and described for us to feel part of it despite being in 2020. What I mean is that in Mrs. Dalloway we’re taken back in time to a particular day in June after World War 1, and while reading you honestly feel, as if you time traveled back there.
However, that is not what this story is entirely about.
“Peter would think her sentimental. So she was. For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying – what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt.”
As you might guess from the title, Mrs. Dalloway is about Clarissa Dalloway – an English Woman who belongs in the Upper Class during the 1920s – and one day in June when she keeps a party. Similarly, this book is also about Septimus Smith – a war veteran who took part in WW1 and is suffering from Shellshock and PTSD. The story mainly takes place in the span of the day, but as time goes on, so does time stand still.
“She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable — this interminable life.”
Time stops when the characters go back to their older memories, and see how they have come to the positions they are in now. Life as they know it has no value for them it seems, and while they have many people who love them like their family and friends, they still can’t seem to help but think they’ve wasted it away.
“But nothing is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?) as the complete indifference of other people.”
While Clarissa is preparing for an evening party at her home, we see how she became Mrs. Dalloway, how she accepted Richard Dalloway to be her husband despite her childhood friend Peter Walsh being in love with a her, she refused him for reasons we soon learn from Peter and his erratic behaviour himself.
Likewise, Septimus wanted to become a poet but eventually got drafted for the war where only he managed to make it back alive among his team. Despite having a wife who is quite devoted him, he often talks about killing himself and sees the dead speak to him, especially the soldiers who died beside him fighting.
“He thought her beautiful, believed her impeccably wise; dreamed of her, wrote poems to her, which, ignoring the subject, she corrected in red ink.”
Mrs. Dalloway can be seen as a dark novel when you see the stark contrast between the despair Septimus and Clarissa feel. While Clarissa assumes her life as Mrs. Dalloway has made her lose her identity and be more “conservative”, Septimus on the other hand can’t seem to part with the comrades he lost and the numbness inside of him.
Eventually an incident happens, that leaves one of the two standing. With a party to go on and guests to receive, we see how the two characters come to “peace” in their own ways.
I won’t deny feeling a special kind of despair while reading about Clarissa.
Her thoughts forebode about a phase in a woman’s life where her first name vanishes into thin air and is left with only the identification and recognition of her last name she wasn’t born with. That is saddening, frustrating, and limiting at the same time, and for a minute you can’t help but wonder “how will I act in such a situation?”
“Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”
Lastly, Septimus’s outcome really makes you think whether the war was worth it or not?
As the story is set after WW1 ended and everyone is trying to go back to normalcy – which is so ironic seeing we’re in a pandemic – but they are still reeling from the aftermath. Septimus and Clarissa don’t know each other but throughout Mrs. Dalloway their paths keep on colliding not directly but through people they know and places they’ve been.
“She had the 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.”
Despite the book being so time driven, with the hour being marked by the Big Ben clock tower, time also stands still in a limbo, and her sentences give way to this timewarp affect that is both phenomenal and confusing. Like I mentioned in the beginning, I’m not good at understanding stream of consciousness literature, and Woolf has used it quite sharply in this one.
It made the reading experience a bit of struggle for me, but then it makes sense as Woolf’s writing isn’t meant to be understood so easily. Mrs. Dalloway is said to be one of her finest works where her craft as a writer is just perfectly honed and shines throughout the story. But for me, it will take another read to be able to fully appreciate it.
This doesn’t mean Mrs. Dalloway is bad, it means I am limited in my understanding, and therefore need to give it another chance. But if you’re not as confident when it comes to reading Classics from a critical point of view, there is much you might miss. But there is much you’ll catch on and glean from her writing.
Onto the basics:
- Rating: 4.0/5.0
- Favourite quote: “Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.”
- Should you read it: If you enjoy books by Virginia Woolf then yes!
- Reader level: Not easy at all. Be ready for a lot of looking up.
- Would I read it again: I will absolutely read it again.
Till next time,