A recent article in The New Yorker points out that people are reaching for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to read during the pandemic. Mrs. Dalloway, the titular character of the book is preparing for a party she is hosting in the evening and goes about her day running errands around London. According to Evan Kindley, the writer of the piece, “At a time when our most ordinary acts—shopping, taking a walk—have come to seem momentous, a matter of life or death, Clarissa’s vision of everyday shopping as a high-stakes adventure resonates in a peculiar way…”and she adds, “We are all Mrs. Dalloway now…”. Clarissa Dalloway’s mundane activities laced with a feeling of impending doom strike a chord with the readers as “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” The fact that Clarissa Dalloway is possibly a survivor of the global influenza pandemic of 1918 adds to the book’s current relevance.
I read this book for the first time coincidentally during the pandemic and not because of it and I was awed by its structural virtuosity. Like Joyce’s Ulysses which could have served as its inspiration, it is set in the course of a single day. The book is essentially plotless and it seems like there is not a lot going on but there is a lot going on as during the course of that day when Clarissa is planning her party and thinking about buying flowers, she reminisces about her childhood, her youth, her loves, her life and the choices she has made.There are moments of epiphany within the mundane moments.
Clarissa is not just Mrs. Dalloway, the lonely wife of a prominent MP in the conservative government but an intriguing woman with a past. An old flame Peter Walsh who has just returned from India drops by on the afternoon of the party. Peter was madly in love with her but she chose to marry Richard Dalloway, the safe option who could provide her with a stable life. She may have been in love with Sally too, a wild girl from her youth who also ends up making an appearance at the party.
Parallel to Clarissa’s story is the story of the young veteran, Septimus Smith who suffers from what was known then as shell shock and is now referred to as PTSD. As he retreats more and more from reality and loses his ability to feel, his wife and caretaker Rezia desperately yearns for babies and holds on to her impossible dreams.
In this modernist novel, the whole narrative flows in a stream of consciousness style from one person to the other, from one flashback to the other. This technique allows us to enter the minds of the characters- we know what they think and not just what they say or do. There are no chapters. Woolf subverts the traditional linear writing styles of literature and creates a new literary aesthetic. The narrative is disjointed and it is up to the readers to piece all the disparate strands together. The act of reading might seem like a tedious task and disorienting at first but ultimately becomes a transcendent experience.
Woolf employs a combination of free direct and indirect discourse, evident from the opening lines of the book itself:
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge!”
The use of indirect discourse is a technique that enables her to effortlessly meander in and out of her characters’ minds and capture their private thoughts. Along with the characters’ sensory experience of the world outside, there is an unceasing and undulating flow of interior action. Isn’t this exactly how our minds work, wandering from thought to thought and hurtling through time and space? She jumps to a new character without warning and yet the rambling style flows seamlessly and has a cadence to it. While reading, I marveled at Woolf’s ingenious use of free indirect speech. It’s sheer genius.
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote that “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners”. She uses the metaphor in this novel to connect events and characters in an expanding web like structure with Mrs. Dalloway at the center and the other characters attached to her by threads around her however tenuous they might be.
“And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin
thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if one’s friends were attached to one’s body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider’s thread is blotted with rain –drops, and, burdened, sags down. So she slept.
And Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whithbread hesitated at the corner of Conduit Street at the very moment that Millicent Bruton, lying on the sofa, let the thread snap; snored.”
The characters move back and forth in time. In a novel that is not in chronological order -where the past is constantly interspersed with the present, the bells of Big Ben are a constant reminder of the linear and inexorable passage of time. Big Ben’s regular tolling is also a reminder that time and tide wait for no one. Death is the only concrete and inevitable reality.
Death is a constant and menacing presence lurking around. Through the description of Septimus’ PTSD, we have a penetrating insight into mental illness and how shoddily it was treated at the time. Clarissa loves life and escapes her sorrows by throwing parties (although tempted at times by death she doesn’t act on that impulse) whereas Septimus is in utter despair. It is then surprising to consider that Woolf intended Septimus to be Clarissa’s double. Her life affirming presence is a contrast to Septimus’ depressing state of mind; he is removed from the world while she throws herself heartily into it.
Although they seem to be polar opposites, the discerning reader can sense that they are two sides of the same coin. Apart from sharing the physical trait of a beak nose, they read or think of the same lines from Shakespeare: “Fear no more the heat ’o the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.” The lines are from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline and imply that death is not to be feared but celebrated. The two never meet but observe the same external events like the passing of a motor car and a skywriting plane. They may seem to be in different mental states but the line between sanity and insanity is a thin one and their two stories intersect with a forceful climax at the end.
Woolf suffered from bipolar disease and attempted suicide a few times before her final ‘successful’ attempt. I got goosebumps reading about death and suicide in the novel knowing that it eventually became her own story. I was struck by the recurring theme of waves and the sea for Woolf died by drowning and both Septimus and Clarissa identify with images of water. Even the writing style mimics the motion of water. The sentences and paragraphs with the ebb and flow of memories and thoughts are uncontrolled like the movement of water.
To go with the imagery of water, the novel addresses the concept of sexual fluidity. Septimus has sexual feelings for his commanding officer Evans and Clarissa reflecting on her youth thinks that the moment Sally Seton kissed her was the most exquisite moment of her life. She is definitely attracted to her and to Peter too. She could have had bisexual tendencies. She also wonders about the nature of her daughter’s relationship with her history teacher. Woolf was bold and ahead of her time in her exploration of repressed sexual desires given that Mrs. Dalloway was written during a period when homosexuality was considered an outrage.
The novel offers a glimpse into post war British society with its class structures, the falling Empire, increased industrialization and the devastation brought on by World War 1. It is also a window into human nature touching upon love and marriage, unfulfilled wishes, sexuality, mental illness, feminism, mortality, death and suicide. To me one of the most poignant moments of the story is when Richard buys a bouquet of roses for Clarissa with the intention of telling her he loves her but can’t bring himself to say the words but yet “she understood without his speaking.”The conflict between solitariness and connection is pronounced in an increasingly alienating world no matter how many glittering parties you host.
In the current time of social distancing, we don’t have the luxury of hosting parties like Clarissa but the novel resonates as just getting through the day by completing daily chores requires endurance under these grim circumstances. And we have the same existential thoughts like the characters …..What is life and how do we live and find meaning in it when it goes by in the blink of an eye? Along with physical confinement, there is that crushing feeling of loneliness and much like Clarissa who feels the need to socialize recognizing all the same that it is a superficial way of connecting, we turn to our phones- to social media and to zoom calls in a desperate attempt to reach out however shallow the connections might be.
Mrs. Dalloway is a challenging read as the narrative continuously shifts perspectives and leaps across time and space but I think that creates a powerful psychological effect and an almost real and palpable sense of the way the minds of the characters shift from one thought to the other. I think this is one of the most stylistically beautiful and brilliant books of the English language I have ever read. And during the pandemic it was one of the books that helped me get through my own day and routine just like Mrs. Dalloway’s daily activities provided some structure in a chaotic, uncertain world.