1.15.2010

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

(NOTE: There is really only one 'spoiler' I imagine in Mrs Dalloway, but really, the spoilers in my opinion aren't the point. Said spoiler will be referred to throughout this review)
(NOTE 2: I'm not an expert on Virginia Woolf, so I quite possibly have no idea what I'm talking about.)
(NOTE 3: I use the word God in this review as a genderless word, neither male nor female)

A woman wakes up and prepares for a party. A man meets with his old friends. A former soldier struggles with (what we would now call, I imagine) PTSD. Much walking about the streets of London ensues. The woman's party goes off well. The man learns, more or less, absolutely nothing despite having the opportunity to do so. The soldier kills himself.

That's about it, that's the lump sum plot of Mrs Dalloway (OK, there's a few other small plots as well). The narrative voice maintains the same quiet distance from each of these threads of narrative, calmly switching between flowers and suicidal thoughts, between old memories and morning traffic.

If this sounds boring, or trite, please try the book anyway. If, like me, you don't 'get it' the first time you read it, try it again. If you persist in not understanding or missing the point, wait a few years, read lots of other books, and try it again. Reading Mrs Dalloway and having it 'click' for you is a transcendant, holy literary experience.


Septimus half rose from his chair... and with legions of men prostrate behind him he, the giant mourner, receives for one moment on his face the whole... The millions lamented; for ages they had sorrowed. HE would turn round, he would tell them in a few moments, only a few moments more, of this relief, of this joy, of this astonishing revelation--

With most authors who write deeply, humanly charactered books, one senses the author hiding just behind at least one of the many masks scattered across the pages. In Hemingway, you feel him just behind the lead male, in pretty much every book. James Joyce is autobiographical to a fault. Dickens lies in the voice of his narrator - no matter who said narrator might be (even in Great Expectations where Pip really doesn't seem much like Charles Dickens, you still feel Charles inside Pip's first person narration).

In fact, Joyce is a particularly powerful comparison, because this is the powerful myopia of his work, for me - I wrote about this, in fact, a little bit in my review of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man last year, how one is so intimately engaged inside the narrator's skin that one feels in it the contours of one's own skin, one sees clearly things about themselves, without the protective displacement that fiction usually gives. Virginia Woolf, in a sense, is just the opposite: In a Virginia Woolf novel, one feels the author dissolve from the book, and the world - as small and 'petty' as that world might be - blooms into an existence with no lifelines, no points of reference, no escape into the author's life. Virginia Woolf does not write her soul into her characters because, with the true godlike power of the creator, she creates souls, free and independent of her own, then lets them into a world to live (and die) in.


Elizabeth rather wondered whether Miss Kilman could be hungry. IT was her way of eating, eating with intensity, then looking, again and again, at a plate of sugared cakes on the table next theml then, when a lady and a child sat down and the child took the cake, could Miss Kilman really mind it? Yes... She had wanted that cake -- the pink one. The pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her, and then to be baffled even in that!

This was disorienting the first time I read the book, this dizzying feeling of continuously moving from one soul to another, from one internal world to another. You feel a sort of motion sickness, like you want to find that 'one character', the soul that is the voice of the book. Only there isn't one. Like life itself, the book exists without a central thread. It's messy, powerfully messy, and unresolvable. This is not an immediately gratifying experience - for me, it was easy to feel a certain... coldness I guess, the first time I read a Woolf novel, a certain sense that there is a God here, but the God simply does not care a straw what happens to her children.

I began to unravel this when I first read Eliot's 'Middlemarch', which Woolf famously described as the first book ever written for grownup people. At first blush I simply took this as a bit of snobbery (honestly, I imagine there IS a BIT of snobbery to the comment. Virginia was never a PERFECT person). But there is a certain truth behind the snobbery, because Eliot, in some ways, does this same thing - she creates a world, and populates with souls, whole, free souls, and then draws them out through simple mundanities to an inconclusive point of finishing.

And that's it to me. Reading, say, Wives and Daughters - a beautiful novel mind you, and I'm not saying this is a bad thing - one feels as if Mrs Gaskell is trying to teach us and help us, to guide us to her truth. Like a mother. Like we are her children, and she is teaching us. Dickens is this to the Nth degree - I love the guy, but he's a wee bit paternal...

Woolf is not. Woolf speaks to us as an equal. I think this is why I found her so intimidating, because she refuses to speak down to me, even though I'm not at her level. She simply tells the truth, the messy, nonsensical, irritating truth. Then, she steps back, and lets me build my own faiths inside of her truth. More than any other I've read, and in spite of the fact that I don't deserve it, I feel that Ms Woolf trusts me with her book. She allows me to make it what I will, not what she will.


The clock was striking -- one, two, three: how sensible the sound was; compared with all this thumping and whispering; like Septimus himself. She was falling asleep. But the lock went on striking, four, five, six and Mrs Filmer waving her apron... seemed part of that garden; or a flag. She had once seen a flag slowly rippling out from a mast... Men killed in battle were thus saluted, and Septimus had been through the War. Of her memories, most were happy. She put on her hat, and ran through cornfields -- where could it have been? -- on to some hill, somewhere near the sea...

And so, I am not obliged to love or unlove, to hope or despair. I am simply given souls, and left withe only one instruction: to decide what I think of them. This is powerful for me in a very simple way - that because the author does not exist in the story, she does not obscure it. Dalloway is almost like journalism, only more perfect. It is like being able to, for a short time, see much more clearly than I am normally capable of. So, the characters shine with a vividity and clarity that few authors ever approach. The quote about Miss Kilman above typifies this for me, for example.

On the other hand, for me (and this, I suppose, may be my attempts to build a faith inside of the truth), because I am not told to be any certain soul as I read, but instead must be each soul, in turn, I feel, in a very sacred way, a soul not of any certain soul, but of a community. Where reading Joyce is a walk as deep into one's self as one can go, reading Woolf is a walk as far out of one's self as one can go, until you enter a sort of Nirvana, where you can, for just tiny glimpses of moments, feel what it is to be a world of souls. And, for me, it is there that I finally DO meet Virginia Woolf, the great creator, who stands above her creations with the cold, loving heart of a god.

18 comments:

Amanda said...

Having read this twice, once in 2001 and then a second time in 2007, I think the main difference in how much I absorbed the second time in comparison to the first was due to how many times I've seen the movie The Hours. Having said that, I loved the book both times, I just found it easier to read the second.

Lu @ Regular Rumination said...

As usual, wonderful job and I agree with you wholeheartedly. This is such a well-written post!

Frances said...

Beautifully written. And I feel like I have read a kindred spirit because I too could not get Joyce off the brain in thinking about Woolf. Think it may have been because of re-visiting the diaries while re-reading Mrs. Dalloway, and sensing Woolf's view of Joyce as a bit of a self-consumed show-off. Or that I read both authors for the first time in one month of undergrad life. But whatever the case, I agree with your thoughts here. Her disappearance into the work is genius slight of hand.

Emily said...

Jason, this is really beautiful, and interesting to me because it makes me understand better what was challenging for you about Mrs. Dalloway the first time through. Needless to say, this:

"Reading Mrs Dalloway and having it 'click' for you is a transcendant, holy literary experience."

expresses my feelings exactly! I'll be interested in your impressions of To the Lighthouse, which incorporates actual situations from Woolf's own life - in a way I feel like she still does "disappear" from the text, but in a way she's very present. Which I suppose I feel is true of Mrs. Dalloway too, although I also agree with what you're saying here.

Caniad said...

I think I loved and hated this book at the same time. But it definitely made an impression and left me with a high opinion of Woolf as a writer. (In fact, I went right out and picked up To the Lighthouse, which is equally mystifying but still impressive.)

Sandra said...

Lovely post. I learned something by reading it. Woolf does tell the truth certainly. I must reread it, this was my first time and I had no other information to go on but the text-mine is an older edition-no extras in it like there would be now. I would really like to experience "a transcendant, holy literary experience" when reading Woolf's fiction. I adore her non fiction. I am glad I joined the reading. Thanks for your enlightening thoughts, I look forward to the next book.

Ceri said...

This was a great review, Jasom. I struggled with Woolf when I first came across her in uni. Nothing seemed to stick in my mind and I couldn't concentrate properly. I gave up and didn't think I'd ever want to try again. I waited a few yeas and picked up Mrs Dalloway again. This time I read it and it took on a whole other meaning. Then I saw The Hours and fell in love with the book all over again.

I recently tried to read 'To The Lighthouse' but struggled with that too. This time, though, I'm going to do what I did last time (and what you actually suggested too) which is take a few years out, read lots in between, and come back to it.

Maybe Woolf's like that.

tuulenhaiven said...

What an amazing thought - Woolf speaks to us as an equal. There definitely is a disappearance of the author into the work, an an offering of souls for you to do what you will with. That is unique.

Eva said...

I clicked with Woolf from the first page of hers I've read, and I agree it's just a wonderful experience. :) I loved your comparison of Mrs. Dalloway and Middlemarch, although it's making me want to reread the latter now! hehe

(BTW, St. Teresa came home w/ me from the library! So we can start our read-a-long whenever you'd like.)

Lindsey Sparks said...

I agree with Eva on your post making me want to reread Middlemarch now! I also kept thinking about Joyce as I started reading, and he actually made me relunctant to give Woolf a go, but I'm so glad I did! You're right - she does treat you more like an equal. I felt like Joyce was very condescending.

claire said...

Wow, this is all so very interesting. I can't explain how much insight I've garnered just from reading everyone's posts. I, too, came into this disoriented. Loved the language, confused with all the rest. I heard the 'click' but so softly that I need to do this again soon to get more out of it.

I love your analogy of Woolf being the creator, and completely separate from her characters. Although I did feel differently. I felt her when I was reading; she was a looming presence. I saw her in Clarissa, in Peter, in Septimus, even Ms Kilman. But it must be me taking everything so personally. I understand (read somewhere in someone's post today) that she did write this without drawing from her own self, so your reading must be more attuned to her original intentions. Nevertheless, the more I read everyone's thoughts, the more I am sinking into it, the more it is getting personal. Weird, a little scary, but loving it.

Rebecca Reid said...

I am inclined to say that Woolf is so far "above" me that I didn't feel like an equal reading her book. But it certainly was an interesting experience and I look forward to more.

You say: "reading Woolf is a walk as far out of one's self as one can go, until you enter a sort of Nirvana, where you can, for just tiny glimpses of moments, feel what it is to be a world of souls." I love the idea of a world of souls. I didn't quite get the book on this first read, but I see what you're saying here. On to more!!

E. L. Fay said...

I LOVE your blog design!

This is a beautiful essay you've written. I totally agree: Woolf shows, but she never preaches or tries to bend her stories to offer some moral or Great Truth. That's what I was getting at too: she portrays life as it is, not as it should be. Am I making any sense? I think you said it much better than I did.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - yes, the hours is helpful - although it's also confusing, because several of the names carry across to people who are not the right character - Richard is an example.

Ms Lu - Thank you :)

Ms Frances - I'm glad I'm not the only one! It certainly doesn't surprise me that Ms Woolf wouldn't think much of Mr Joyce's writing, but I think they ironically complement each other very well.

Ms Emily - I know some of the sketchy details of Ms Woolf's life, but have never read a biography (though I'm always up for suggestions, I know Ms Eva read one). I actually just finished To The Lighthouse, today, and am already stewing it over in my brain :). Thank you also for the compliment, and I'm glad you could understand a little why Woolf was hard for me before - I know she's one of your very favorites, and I can only respect your ability to just 'get it' the first time you read it :D.

Ms Caniad - That is sort of how I felt the first time I read it - I can sympathize with the feeling of 'I'm not sure I had fun, but she's a genius!' :D

Ms Sandra - Honestly I didn't have any annotations, etc, either. I imagine that would be a very different experience. Her language flows along in such long rises and falls, it would be strange to interrupt it by looking down to a footnote, you know?

Ms Ceri - Somewhat similarly to why Ms Reid said in her review, the other thing about Ms Woolf to me is that she is beautifully lyrical, so you sounds very wonderful out loud. You might check your library for an audio version?

Ms tuulenhaiven - Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the review :)

Ms Eva - I can't imagine wanting to reread Middlemarch being a bad thing! :D

Ms Sparks - I didn't feel like Joyce was condescending at all (in fact, in some of his later works, I could have USED a little condescension, if that meant he talked down to the level my brain is at!). To me it was more like, Joyce didn't talk to you at all. Joyce talks to himself, and just does is beautifully and honestly enough that you can be Joyce while he talks to himself :D. Not sure that sentence made sense...

Ms Claire - It's interesting, because in most books with an ensemble cast, there is SOMEONE who I feel like is 'me.' In Mrs Dalloway, I feel like there are bits of me in everyone - it is book that teaches empathy, I think, in that, at least for me, I learned the humanity of many people that normally we just think of as types - the religious, bitter woman, the lady who gives stuffy parties, the suicidal artist, the pretty young foreigner. For me, I feel strongly enough with each of these people that I kind of feel dirty even naming the 'types' they ought to fit, like describing your friend as a type.

Ms Reid - If it's any comfort, for me, the first time round Mrs Dalloway went over my head, and To The Lighthouse made perfect sense to me, and is the first place I felt the idea of a 'world of souls' as it were. Of course, Amanda loved Mrs Dalloway the first time, and says she didn't really get TTL at all, so YMMV.

Ms Fay - Yes! I agree, I think that Ms Woolf is extremely honest about extremely serious questions - the meaning of life not the least among them. And thank you, I'm glad you like the design :). I hjust changed it recently, and have put up a number of posts saying what the different pictures signify, etc, though I'm not through all of them, just yet.

Care said...

This is a fabulous post! "Woolf trusts her readers" - yes, I can see that. "world of souls" - beautiful.

Amy said...

Exactly.

Richard said...

Although "transcendent" and "holy" would be a little too strong for my own reactions to reading Mrs. Dalloway, Jason, I enjoyed the book greatly and can see why others might feel even more strongly about it. By the way, I really like your line about Woolf's creation of free and independent souls: both the way she tells this story and the way the characters seem to act with such independence from (apparent) authorial intent does make them seem like souls, doesn't it? In any event, thanks for an interesting post!

Chris said...

I can't wait to read this!! I just ordered this because of this wonderful review :) I'm not very good with classics, but this book really does sound so amazing. Ms. Woolf sounds so amazing. I need to at least try.