(Note: originally read book in 2011)
To enjoy Virginia Woolf is to have the heart of a sadomasochist. You don’t readVirginia Woolf, you survive the experience. To say this was a difficult book is an understatement. I must like pain because I did enjoy it in the end, although it was a fight to finish it. Problematically, this is the sort of book that would benefit from re-reading two or three times, but also the type of novel I wouldn’t want to re-read again for a long, long time.
Woolf invents a stream-of-conscious style that jumps abruptly from character to character. As the introduction of my edition states:
“In Mrs Dalloway Woolf discards realistic presentation of objective reality and concentrates on individual consciousness. She incessantly shifts focus from the mind of one character to another, enabling her reader to receive ‘a myriad impressions’ from a variety of different angles.”
All of this makes Woolf extremely original and extremely difficult to follow, with jarring transitions from one characters’ thoughts to another. The stream-of-consciousness is not the only barrier the reader must face either; perhaps even more jarring is her copious use of eccentric metaphors and similes.
The novel focuses on Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of MP Richard Dalloway, preparing for a big party during a single day in post-war England. Running parallel is the story of Septimus Smith, a veteran of the world war, who is slowly losing his sanity and whose wife is worried that he might commit suicide. We follow the two characters through a day in their lives as they cross each other’s paths. The events of the day causes Clarissa to think about her past where she had a marriage proposal from Peter Walsh that she turned down in order to marry Richard. Peter Walsh has returned to London from his post in India, meets up with Clarissa, only to spend the day observing the changes in London since he was last home and trying to convince himself that he no longer loves Clarissa. All of these characters and events culminate at the party.
As you can probably tell by my description this is not a plot heavy story. Most of the narrative is filled with stream-of-conscious introspection of the characters considering the current state of their lives and old feelings from the past that their observations spawn. We often see the same event in the present from different characters perceptions (such as when a mysterious car backfires and comes driving down the street that Clarissa and others interpret as belonging to the prime minister or one of the royal family members and sends warm feelings of patriotism through them, while the mentally disturbed Septimus interprets the car noise more ominously, symbolizing his loss of faith in the British Empire he fought for in the war).
The themes of the story stem naturally from the stream-of-conscious style. Objective reality is the product of multiple subjectivities and people don’t always view the same events exactly the same. Even characters view each other differently. For example, almost every character remarks how Peter Walsh hasn’t changed at all from the boy they knew, but then at the very end of the novel a character named Sally Seton thinks that he has changed a lot. This brings to our attention the diversity of our perceptions of the same events, as well as the isolation inherent in the human condition. If we each view reality slightly differently from one another, sometimes even viewing the same event in polar opposite ways, then how can we possibly communicate our thoughts and share authentic experiences? Woolf isn’t content to explore the problems of communication between people, but also raises the question of whether we can even trust ourselves. Characters delude themselves about their true feelings throughout the novel, such as Peter Walsh who refuses to believe he still loves Clarissa, despite constantly obsessing over her. Clarissa spends much time wishing she had a more exciting life, while then rationalizing to herself that her life is full of meaning and importance. These are characters full of contradictions, not unified consciousness. You can’t communicate what you want from others when you don’t know what you want yourself.
One of the problems of the novel is the difficulty in developing authentic relationships, while maintaining individuality and autonomy. Characters constantly dwell on the past. The past plays a major part in how the characters proceed in the future. They constantly reconsider their lives and what they could’ve been had they made different choices in the past. This is especially true of Clarissa who believes her life would’ve been more exciting had she married Peter Walsh or engaged in a lesbian relationship with Sally Seton. This constant bringing up the past suggests many of the characters aren’t happy with their present, although they delude themselves into believing they are content.
These themes have a gender dimension. As Susan M. Squier notes in her essay “Carnival and Funeral”, “Clarissa’s odd sensation of invisibility . . . is, of course, an accurate rendition of patriarchal society’s view of women: unless they are performing their ‘proper’ physical functions of copulation or procreation, they are invisible in that society which grants women no public role.” While the novel itself provides subtle feminist critiques of society, by showing women suffering existential angst over the meaningless of their lives (as depicted through the character of Mrs Dalloway) and inability to perform simple tasks because of a lack of education (in the scene where Lady Bruton requires Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread to help her write a letter), it would be an error to call the characters themselves feminists. At best the characters have vague feminist inklings, as when Mrs Dalloway considers the dullness of her own upper-class life and how her life might’ve been more exciting had she chosen to marry Peter Wash or engaged in a lesbian romance with Sally Seton (although it isn’t clear if Sally returns those feelings). She realizes something is wrong with her life, but she isn’t sure what exactly. Sally Seton herself who is presented as a potential feminist character, rebelling against traditional masculine authority, running about naked through the hallway one time without a care whether the men see her, outspoken in her youth, and sparking Clarissa’s own educational yearnings by encouraging her to read Shakespeare and philosophy, ends up marrying some mill worker with lots of money and proudly announces to anyone who will listen that her her pride and joy in life is that she produced five children. This matriarchal bliss and reminiscing of the past replaces Sally’s potential feminist rebellion. There are no true feminists in the novel, only failed ones.
Still, a careful reader will also realize this is not just a story about women. Plenty of men engage in their own self-reflection about the failures in their lives. Mrs Dalloway’s own self-reflection, contradictions, existential crises is paralleled by Peter Walsh’s self-rationalizations that he doesn’t love Clarissa anymore (he only obsesses about her and many of his actions, such as his desire to marry another woman in India, is a reaction to that rejection in the past). He believes his own failures are not really his fault. These are characters looking for a meaning in their life, so dominated by their pasts. In contrast to all of this we have Septimus Smith who outright rejects life, warped by his experiences in the war.
Class is always at issue in the novel. Doris Kilman, the teacher of Classira’s daughter, Elizabeth, hates being a servant to the upper-class and especially hates Mrs Dolloway who has no accomplishments in her own right, but owes all her fortunes to marrying a man. This dislike for each other is further exacerbated by Clarissa’s false belief that Elizabeth and Doris Kilman may have the lesbian relationship that Clarissa always secretly desired to have with Sally Seton. Mrs Dalloway herself wonders at the vapidity of her own life; we are led to believe she chose to marry Richard Dalloway because he had money and it was a move to maintain station rather than one of love.
Once we reach the party at the end, Clarissa even questions the purpose of the party itself, realizing its pointlessness, but then immediately rationalizes that she is giving a good party and that it does matter in the great scheme of things.
The novel is an endless series of rationalizations. It’s about characters like Peter Walsh, Clarissa Dollaway, and others trying to find happiness in a post-war world where the world is in flux and meaning from tradition is becoming harder to reconcile in such a world. Clarissa challenges and rethinks her life, considers other possibilities for her life, while finally finding some contentment in the fact that she is alive and must die eventually (and that seems to be enough).