Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was written in 1925. This is an unconventional book that is filled with nuanced character depictions as well as all sorts of observations about life. The prose is presented in stream of consciousness style. The narrative shifts between the thoughts of many characters. Clarissa Dalloway is the main character, and most of the book is focused upon her. The novel takes place during one day of her life, though much of the story involves flashbacks and reminiscences.
Though written in stream of consciousness style, the sentence structure of this book tends to be conventional. I have read a little commentary on the Internet, and I have found that this book is lauded for its innovative style. Woolf’s mix of the conventional and the unconventional does seem unique. Because of the conventional prose and the absence of a chaotic narrative, I found this novel to be the most understandable and accessible stream of conscious narrative that I have ever read.
Not all that much goes on in this story. Much of the book takes place in the characters’ minds. Thus, this novel is, above all else, a character study.
Clarissa’s mind and past are explored in great detail. This is also true of other characters. Richard Dalloway is Clarissa’s husband. Peter Walsh is an old romantic interest of Clarissa who has just returned from India. Septimus Warren Smith is a World War I veteran suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. We also meet other interesting characters. The peek into the minds of these people is moving and often sublime.
There are certain themes that recur over the course of the book. Aside from that of PTSD, the role of women is explored. This book is often called a feminist novel. Gender is examined in all sorts of ways in this book. These explorations are complex and nuanced and are in no way simplistic. To do them justice would take a separate blog post. The themes of communication, isolation and time are also presented. I could also devote separate blog entries to each of these subjects. Throughout the story, these various issues are bouncing around in all of the characters’ heads.
In addition to the above, many of the characters ponder death and aging, as well as meaning-of-life issues. I want to write a few words about the work’s meditations on what seems to be life’s futility in the face of inevitable death. As multiple characters in this narrative are in their early fifties, they are aware that they are not yet old, but that death is not as far as it once was.
Clarissa is very thoughtful and complex. She contemplates the meaning of life in the context of death at several points in the narrative. Here, Woolf’s writing, characterization and philosophizing are very strong,
“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 quite 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. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense: and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know. All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!— that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all”
There is a lot going on in the above quotation. Clarissa is wondering about the purpose of life. She finds fulfillment in bringing people together through the numerous parties that she throws. Clarissa’s need to bring people together may be a defense against mortality. Finding and creating meaningfulness in life like this reminds me of the themes that existentialist writers, like Albert Camus, explored later in the twentieth century.
I think that it is also significant that Clarissa highlights her own shortcomings. Perhaps that is indicative of a self-esteem issue. Finally, she realizes that it will all end in death and no one will remember the joy and the meaning that she has found. This is typical of a fatalism in the above that pervades the entire book. Unlike more hopeful stories, none of the characters experience epiphanies where they come to terms with mortality or accept death. Instead, the realization that life will eventually come to an end, wiping out much of what there is to life, hangs over the entire work.
I think that the above look into Clarissa’s thoughts encapsulates a certain grand level of thinking that ordinary folks often engage in. I find that Woolf captures this kind of thinking both realistically and in a very aesthetically pleasing way.
I also think that it is striking how much character development, as well as insight into life, is packed into only a couple of sentences. Much of the book is like this.
This is a curious work. It is in many ways a brilliant book. It is a stream of consciousness narrative that is more accessible than most. It is a fascinating and unique character study. It is not for everyone, as it is mostly a look into characters minds and an exploration of various themes. This book is so packed with ideas. For those interested in innovative literary styles or who like to explore what makes people tick, this book is filled with fascinating things to explore.