Mrs. Dalloway is a beautiful novel. Pure and simple: I could leave my thoughts there and be perfectly content with that. (But don’t worry, we all know I won’t!) There is not much of a plot in this short novel, instead it is a collection of musings and events in one day in the life of four people who are vaguely interconnected in post-WWI London. Mrs. Dalloway is throwing a party that evening, and while she is shopping, she thinks about her decision to marry Richard Dalloway instead of Peter Walsh. We then follow Peter Walsh as he walks through London, comparing the city that he remembers of his childhood to this new post-war city. While in the park, he observes a young couple who are Rezia and Septimus. Rezia has been caring for Septimus since he returned from the war, psychologically unstable and depressed. Even though this is really Mrs. Dalloway and Peter’s story, the prose that accompanied Rezia and Septimus’s story was the most beautiful and interesting.
Changing from character to character was like floating on air. That’s the best metaphor that I could come up with and it’s still an imperfect description. We begin with Clarissa musing about the day in June:
…in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved: life; London; this moment of June. (3)
(June had drawn out every leaf on the trees. The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that.) (5)
Can I just say that Woolf uses the semicolon beautifully? Clarissa then begins to reminisce about her old love, Peter:
For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter and his were dry sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say? — some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people… (5)
When all of the action of the story takes place in one day, time becomes very important. The original title of the novel was The Hours, just like the novel that Michael Cunningham wrote based on Mrs. Dalloway. There are constant references to the passage of time, though the actual time of the novel is fluid and nonlinear, with the characters weaving in and out of reflection and action.
She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (6)
She heard the click of the typewriter. It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds on the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only); not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, taking up the pad, must one repay in daily life to servants, yes to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it — of the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling, for Mrs. Walker was Irish and whistled all day long — one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments, she thought…” (21)
Mrs. Dalloway is a very sensory novel, and no character expresses those senses better than Septimus (though Mrs. Dalloway tries):
“…and Septimus heard her say “Kay Arr” close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke. A marvelous discovery indeed — that the human voice in certain atmospheric conditions (for one must be scientific, above all scientific) can quicken trees into life! Happily Rezia put her hand with a tremendous weight on his knee so that he was weighted down, transfixed, or the excitement of the elm tree rising and falling, rising and falling, with all their leaves alight and the color thinning and thickening from blue to the green of a hollow wave, like plumes on horses’ heads, feathers on ladies’, so proudly they rose and fell, so superbly, would have sent him mad. But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.
But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibers with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down…” (16)
I think that might be the most beautiful passage in the whole novel. Ah! It gives me chills. Isn’t it just absolutely wonderful?
…this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing — nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street,this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway. (8)
I really feel as though I could quote from every single page of this book, but I’m going to try very hard to avoid that. There are several important themes or questions that are being asked in Mrs. Dalloway: there is the question of identity or the way we see ourselves and how important that is to the way others see us, time and the importance of the mundane in forming our own definition of ourselves. There is also, of course, the question of love and what love can mean:
But this question of love (she thought, putting her coat away), this falling in love with women. Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love? (23)
This novel is so melancholy, but at the same time very aware of the beauty and simplicity a day can hold in it. Everything in the eyes of these four characters becomes beautiful, even death. We are all only given a short time on earth, so we might as well enjoy it and find that beauty:
The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly. Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself– (50).
Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop on Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information graüs, that it was half-past one. (73)
Mrs. Dalloway is not quite what I was expecting. It was so short and beautiful, and yes it was very stream of conscious, and it definitely helped that I had read and seen The Hours, which is based on Mrs. Dalloway. There are some things that I probably would have missed if I hadn’t had a basic knowledge of the plot, because many things are carefully veiled beneath Woolf’s beautiful language. There were times when I got lost in the prose, but at the very least it was always beautiful to read. She had such a wonderful eye for things and her descriptions are really unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I loved this novel and I’m sure that I will be reading it again one day. I’m so glad that the Woolf in Winter read-along pushed me to read this.
Thank you to all of our hosts, especially Sarah who is hosting the read along today. Other hosts: Frances, Emily & Claire.