Diving into Mrs. Dalloway

This blog post is the first of which I’ve composed in my father’s office. It’s a pretty dull place where the most frequently uttered words are only ones that an accountant is fluent in. Not a fan. My spring break has been a tedious balance of college-related horrors and idle-distractions like my temporary secretarial position (which I’m slacking on as I write this post. What can I say? I have my priorities in order). After two days, I’m finally beginning to understand all the nuances the position demands–like the subtle difference between the tone of the doorbell and the phone. The dull ebb and flow of printing emails and filing papers, answering the phones and opening the door is getting to me.

My other distraction, a much more enjoyable one, was that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. As with many a book I dive into, as Mrs. Dalloway made her acquaintances I was mildly confused. It took me a few pages to realize that the story is interspersed with flashbacks to Mrs. Dalloway’s youth and despite taking place over the course of one day, the stories told by Woolf span decades. Clarissa Dalloway is a strong woman with her own set of opinions; Clarissa believes that “in marriage a little license, a little independence” is necessary (111). Yet, at the same time, she’s a pretty typical housewife, going out getting flowers, mending her dress, doing all the things necessary for one of her parties.

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An interesting aspect of the book, and what makes Woolf’s novel what it is, is the style of narration. To be entirely honest, I’m not one who pays much mind to shifts in tenses or spends hours determining exactly what point of view that the narrator is speaking from. Whenever some English-teacher-type points it out, I’m pretty amazed; that’s the kind of close reading I strive for but rarely achieve. Woolf’s novel is a strange melange of first person narration and third person narration; at times, the novel is all stream of consciousness then a line like this will be thrown in: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (129). In making Mrs. Dalloway and the narrator essentially one entity, Woolf more completely reveals the nature of Clarissa, giving the reader a fuller view of the main character. Personally, I liked the way this text was written because it allowed me to get into Clarissa’s head, which is really where most of the story takes place.

Clarissa lives in her mind almost to the point of isolation. Her inner thoughts come to an apotheosis when she returns to her room after running around all morning trying to get ready for the impending party, in what seems to me one of the most important scenes in the book. Clarissa is lying on her bed, pondering love, when she says

There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room…The sheets were clean, tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be…the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading, for she slept badly, she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet…She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together. For THAT she could dimly perceive. She resented it…she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. (147)

Clarissa’s relationship with Sally was the high point of her life and now that she sleeps alone in her bed, since recovering from her illness, she feels as if she is still a virgin–either due to the distance or lack of passion she has for her husband. Her husband keeps his distance, and to some degree tries to understand Clarissa. For a book so entrenched with the idea of what it means to be a woman, it’s intriguing that Mrs. Dalloway is contemplating what it means to be a man in this quote. And if it’s an aversion to men that keeps her from truly loving her husband then why does she still seem to love Peter Walsh?

The idea at the heart of the matter is love. Clarissa is wondering why love for a woman was any different than love for a man. The “emptiness” at “the heart of life” is passion, which explains why her bed is so “narrow”.  In her quest for the truth about the nature of love, she questions the validity of her love of Sally, one of her close friends from her youth. Yet, she realizes the power of her love for Sally reminiscing, “‘if it were now to die ’twere now to be most happy.’ That was her feeling — Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it.” (148). Having read Othello earlier this year, and it having planted quite a few questions in my own head about love (most of which I had the pleasure of writing through) I appreciated Woolf’s allusion. In likening herself to Othello, I believe she is expressing some regret in her life choices, especially in the context of love. Othello chooses passion. Clarissa doesn’t. She leaves her passion for Sally and Peter behind, but it seems to haunt her in her thoughts. She marries her husband, Richard, because he provides her with comfort and security; it looks like comfort and security, albeit an easier path, isn’t the most rewarding.

It is in her brief brushes with love where her and Septimus, the book’s other main character, are incredibly similar; both Septimus and Clarissa have intimate relationships with people of the same sex. It was only after reading some criticism that I realized the parallel between Clarissa and Septimus–which sort of reminds me of Hightower and Christmas, in Faulkner’s Light in August, and how they’re two sides of the same coinI’m glad that I took the opportunity to dive into some criticism because, without it, I would’ve missed this connection altogether. I suppose that’s the reason I love literary criticism so much: it acts as an English teacher in the moment you’re without one. Criticism also allows for discussion without any verbal back and forth, which makes it especially valuable to me when I’m reading a book outside of class.

When it comes down to it, I didn’t love Mrs. Dalloway. There were some quotable quotes that were pleasant to read but other than that, the story seemed mildly superficial. I even tried to watch the movie and believe me, it was no better. I think this might be the first book I’ve blogged about that I wouldn’t recommend. Read The Good Soldier instead. It’s twice as profound and half as whiny as Mrs. Dalloway. That’s a book I would read again, this one not so much.

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