Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review - Classics - Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

These nine words open one of the most extraordinary, and extraordinarily perfect, novels ever written in the English language. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, with its pinpoint focus, crystal clarity, and vividness of characterization, chronicles one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway on a sunny day in June 1923, a day on which she is giving a party.

Giving a party is nothing out of the ordinary for Clarissa Dalloway; giving parties is the thing she does best and perhaps, loves most.

Mrs. Dalloway is a Modernist novel, and like most Modernist novels, its plot is a simple, almost skeletal, one. Written without chapter breaks, in Woolf’s pure stream-of-consciousness style, we learn, not only Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts about herself, but also how the other characters, e.g., her ex-lover Peter Walsh, her daughter, Elizabeth, her long time friend, Sally Seton, and her husband, Richard, perceive her. Clarissa Dalloway, Westminster resident, member of Britain’s upper crust, wife of an MP, is vain, shallow, superficial, and self-centered, though, surprisingly, not wholly unlikable.

Not in the least introspective, Clarissa Dalloway lives in and for “the moment,” something Woolf lets us know on the very first page:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

Clarissa Dalloway has a need to plunge into life, head first, despite the consequences to herself or to those around her.

Rich in both symbolic and thematic content, Mrs. Dalloway is, above all else, a study of life in Britain after the Great War, and the book shows us that even though the war has ended, those who lived through it cannot shake its effects. For the war had necessitated “living in the moment,” and some people, Clarissa Dalloway being one, still can’t seem to see anything beyond the present.

The theme of the inexorable passage of time, as well as the theme of timelessness, is woven through the tapestry of this incomparable novel like threads of shimmering silver woven through gold. Woolf’s incandescent prose constantly blurs past and present, fantasy and reality, memories and hopes, as it transports the reader into the world of 1923 London.

In this uncertain time of fragile peace, hope for the future is difficult to find. It is especially difficult for Clarissa Dalloway’s former lover, Peter Walsh, newly arrived in London from India on the day of Clarissa’s party. Upon seeing Clarissa, Peter thinks how she’s grown older, and at one point in the narrative, Peter reflects on Clarissa’s recent health problems as he dozes on a park bench. He even imagines that she’s died, a brilliant use of foreshadowing of a death still to come.

Peter has returned to London to arrange the divorce of his lover, Daisy, who has remained in India with her husband. However, rather than look forward to his future with Daisy, Peter chooses, instead, to dwell on his past with Clarissa. And because of his lingering bitterness over the fact that she chose Richard Dalloway rather than him, he can’t help but criticize her:

She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she doesn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her determination.

Richard Dalloway, when seen through the eyes of Peter Walsh, appears to be every bit as shallow and superficial as is his wife. However, after a luncheon, during which Richard feels jealous of Peter’s long-ago romance with Clarissa, he rushes out to buy flowers, red and white roses, intending to present them to Clarissa with words he hasn’t uttered in years: “I love you.” Things, however, don’t go exactly as planned.

One person who doesn’t have to try to “blunt the edge of his mind,” at least as far as the present is concerned, is a young war veteran named Septimus Warren Smith. Just as Clarissa must live in the moment, the fragile and damaged Septimus is trapped in the past. Although Septimus and Clarissa never meet, their lives become forever entwined, emphasizing once again Woolf’s juxtaposition of timelessness against the passing of time.

Many critics and Woolf scholars have described Septimus as Clarissa Dalloway’s doppelganger. I agree, but only in part. When Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway, she was happy about her return to London from the English countryside (which she despised), and she was enjoying a period of relative health and emotional stability. Although Septimus (and his doctors, who function in the novel as harbingers of death) was certainly created from the memories of Woolf’s despair, as well as from her own battle with mental and emotional illness, to simply cast Septimus in the role of Clarissa Dalloway’s double would be selling Septimus, Clarissa, and Woolf, herself, short. Septimus has his own part to play in Mrs. Dalloway, his own way of showcasing both time and timelessness and the ravages of war.

If Clarissa Dalloway is wrapped so blissfully and needfully in the moment, it is the moment that Septimus Warren Smith has so irretrievably lost. If Clarissa has lost the ability to empathize with others and feel their pain, if she externalizes everything, young Septimus has empathized too much, internalized too much. The ravages of war, and most especially, the death of his close friend and comrade, Evans, a death Septimus witnessed, have caused Septimus’ emotional life to shut down. He’s felt such a surfeit of pain that he can feel no more. Septimus enlisted in the army to protect his countrymen, his way of life, even his excessive love for the work of William Shakespeare. He enlisted because of his connections with others, but sadly, the war killed those cherished connections just as surely as it killed Evans. But it isn’t only pain that Septimus has lost the ability to feel; he can no longer feel love for his young, caring wife, Rezia, or even the simple joy one feels at the dawn of a new day. Ironically, it’s life that’s killed Septimus’ ability to live.

Although it may be gradual, the astute reader of Mrs. Dalloway eventually comes to realize that Septimus and Clarissa, though seemingly polar opposites, at least at first glance, are really quite similar in their approach to life. Through her parties, shallow though they may be, Clarissa Dalloway gives of herself to the world and partakes of life. Septimus, though he longs to, cannot share in the lives of others nor can he give of himself, for he has nothing left to give. For me, one of the strongest images in the book is Septimus, sitting in the open window, pausing to enjoy the sunshine.

Woolf’s extremely sophisticated prose is pure stream-of-consciousness, purposely lacking transitions from the thoughts of one character to the next, something many readers may find difficult or off-putting, while others, though not finding it difficult, may find it not to their taste. There are no chapter breaks and memories of the past suffuse and overlap the tragedy and exuberance of the present. I love this style of writing; for me, it glitters like the diamond of Clarissa Dalloway’s polished and perfect life. I loved this book. I think it is, by far, the best book about life in post-war Britain ever written.

This is a book that’s filled with many unforgettable images: images of anger, of pain, of beauty and humanity so heartbreakingly realized they bring tears to the eyes. And of course, the above mentioned image of Septimus sitting in the sunshine. Mrs. Dalloway is a structurally perfect book and quite formal in its symmetry. Its recurring themes of life and death, old and new, time and timelessness; its symbols of bells, clocks chiming, and flowers, and perhaps, most of all, the sea, are perfectly developed. It’s a sad, tragic book, yet ironically, in Woolf’s entire oeuvre, Mrs. Dalloway is the book offering the most hope.

Clarissa Dalloway’s party is this novel’s concluding set piece, and once again, Woolf touches on the intertwining themes of time and timelessness. Clarissa and Richard’s daughter, Elizabeth, makes her appearance at the party and Richard, though not even recognizing her at first, comes to the realization that she is not only grown, but that she is grown genuinely lovely as well:

For her father had been looking at her, as he stood talking to the Bradshaws, and he had thought to himself, Who is that lovely girl? And suddenly he realised that it was his Elizabeth, and he had not recognised her, she looked so lovely in her pink frock! Elizabeth had felt him looking at her as she talked to Willie Titcomb. So she went to him and they stood together, now that the party was almost over, looking at the people going, and the rooms getting emptier and emptier, with things scattered on the floor. Even Ellie Henderson was going, nearly last of all, though no one had spoken to her, but she had wanted to see everything, to tell Edith. And Richard and Elizabeth were rather glad it was over, but Richard was proud of his daughter. And he had not meant to tell her, but he could not help telling her. He had looked at her, he said, and he had wondered, Who is that lovely girl? And it was his daughter! That did make her happy.

So many are gone; the war has seen to that, while others, like Peter, Sally, Richard, and Clarissa are past full bloom. But Elizabeth is just beginning to blossom. The “old customs” are passing away, but in the lovely character of Elizabeth Dalloway one can at least glean a bit of hope.


Recommended: This is a perfect, beautiful novel, one of the most structurally perfect in the English language. It’s a beautifully detailed, vividly painted portrait of life in Britain after the Great War. Its pure stream-of-consciousness prose is gorgeous but may be difficult for some readers to follow, while other readers might simply dislike it.

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