Currently Reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)


What can I possibly add to the wealth of literature surrounding this book?  I read Mrs. Dalloway primarily because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it yet.

I’ll say this: I am currently reading Ulysses (1922) with a small book group of friends from the MFA.  Thus far, I share Woolf’s eloquent reaction: “[Reading Proust,] The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished– My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.” (More here.)  My difficulty with Ulysses thus far owes to the representation of women as breasts and bodies.  I read literature to identify with or learn about some element of the human condition; too often in Ulysses, I am pushed away at the moment of identification by the coarse representation of the body I possess.  But I digress.

Some have read Mrs. Dalloway as Woolf’s response to Ulysses.  (One example here.)  I certainly view Mrs. Dalloway as a more economical, more gender-equitable version of the same impulse that motivated Joyce: to capture the banal, existential, lyrical, beautiful, sad, joyous, manic, strange, explicable and inexplicable thoughts and emotions of the everyday.

I found the book most successful when dealing directly with Peter and Clarissa; the forays into Septimus and his mental illness did not feel, to me, wholly part of the same book.  Or, more accurately: to square Clarissa and Septimus, I felt I had to shift modes from lay reader to English major.  Then I could think about mental versus physical illness, the two ways illnesses can go (recovery, or…out the window), death in one part of London and parties in another, the biographical Woolf as both Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus.

A master class in:

Precisely tracked psychological realism.  True narrative omniscience.  That amazing thing fiction can do, taking us into the inner lives of every person on the street and proving that everyone has a story–and that everyone’s story and experiences are worthy of attention.  For that reason, I think there’s something immensely humane in Woolf’s project here.

Favorite lines:

“Then, just as it happens on a terrace in the moonlight, when one person begins to feel ashamed that he is already bored, and yet as the other sits silent, very quiet, sadly looking at the moon, does not like to speak, moves his foot, clears his throat, notices some iron scroll on a table leg, stirs a leaf, but says nothing–so Peter Walsh did now.”

“And this has been going on all the time! he thought; week after week; Clarissa’s life; while I–he thought; and at once everything seemed to radiate from him; journeys; rides; quarrels; adventures; bridge parties; love affairs; work; work, work!…”

“Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums.  And it was smashed to atoms–his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought–making oneself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more.  But odd it was, and quite true; all this one could never share–it smashed to atoms.”

On “Looking back over that long friendship of almost thirty years”: “Brief, broken, often painful as their actual meetings had been what with his absences and interruptions…the effect of them on his life was immeasurable.  There was a mystery about it.  You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain–the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding, after years of lying lost.  Thus she had come to him; on board ship; in the Himalayas; suggested by the oddest things…She had influenced him more than any person he had ever known.”

“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.”

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