It seems oddly fitting in some ways that in these confusing times we are all living in I would pick up Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, a work that confused and still continues to confuse readers and critics alike, even today in the 21st century. Despite defying categorization, Woolf definitely has her admirers, and her experimental style continues to garner praise for its unconventionality. But of course there are also detractors. Woolf is an author that is sometimes not always to everyone’s taste. A lot of people might even now deride some of the very things that once made her work so revolutionary, and instead of applauding it for its clever critique of social mores and values and it’s sympathetic treatment of female characters, no doubt influenced by Woolf’s modern sensibilities, many are quick to throw up their hands in exasperation at what they see as Woolf’s meandering prose, and what many today would view as a markedly lack of emphasis on class issues. They may not see the point of a book where the whole story rests on the premise of a wealthy woman going out shopping to buy some flowers for an elegant dinner party. A lot of people might level the same charge of “classicism” at Woolf as an author that they do at her principle character. For someone who wishes to be dismissive it is all too easy to deem the book merely frivolous, and that only someone as “privileged” as Woolf, a well-educated woman with “too much time on her hands,” would be capable of basing a novel on such a small matter. How, these readers ask, could a novel about such trivial concerns be of any monumental importance? But these people are both missing the point and failing to understand it. The point of Mrs. Dalloway is not Mrs. Dalloway’s life or her daily concerns or whether she buys the flowers herself or whether she loves or does not love Peter. The point is that even though these things don’t matter to many people, including those in Mrs. Dalloway’s own life, they matter to her. Mrs. Dalloway celebrates the inner life of the individual by showing that things that may seem trivial can feel as if they are of vast importance.
Mrs. Dalloway as a novel delights in indecision, and Woolf likewise refuses to commit. She dips in and out of each of the characters’ heads swiftly, like a bucket scooping from a smoothly running river, interlocking and interweaving the rivulet strands that, on first observation, may bear little relation to each other. While tapping into the consciousness of multiple characters she is able to achieve some really wonderful character work, especially excellent considering the limited page count of the novel which runs less than 300 pages. There are some aspects of the novel as well that feel somewhat autobiographical. The relationship insinuated at between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton resembles the relationship that Woolf experienced with her close friend and long time lover, Vita Sackville-West, who she also memorialized in her novel Orlando. Descriptions of Sally seem to hold traces of Vita in them; her carefree and luminous spirit, the one that so captured Virginia’s heart, clearly echos here. She also seems to use Sally as a means of exploring perhaps her own complicated view of marriage and family life, and how it often could negatively impact and limit women, since Sally transforms from being a carefree, spirited young girl, to a rather conventional, married mother of five. Perhaps she is also as much a stand-in for Clarissa’s lost youth and dreams, ones she leaves behind when she decides not to marry Peter and marries the sensible and pragmatic Richard instead.
Peter and Clarissa also act as mirrors of each other, defined by their different choices. Whereas Clarissa decided to “grow up” and marry Richard, Peter in many ways seems to be clinging desperately to his youth with his whirlwind romances that appear and evaporate just as quickly. Both in their own ways have sought to keep at bay the memory of the other, one by marrying, the other by refusing to. Here though,Woolf once again subverts our expectations. We never see any resolution of Peter and Clarissa’s relationship. It is left as unresolved as when the narrative begins. It as if they exist in a state of perpetual paralysis, unable to take action. Perhaps, Woolf seems to subtly insinuate, they are more in love with the idea of each other than the reality. Both are too comfortable in their static states of being to upset the delicate balance of their lives. They are handicapped by their own inaction more than any exerted on them by external forces. Theirs then is a tragic romance, and one, it is implied, that is all the more so because they are responsible for orchestrating it.
Mrs. Dalloway then is at its heart an intimate story. It’s concerned with the small but impactful things. It is easy to forget that all of the story’s events take place within the confines of a single day because the scope feels so large, and it is easy to forget the main climax of the story is a party when Woolf manages to make the stakes feel so convincingly high. In the not so distant past and even today, “great books” were and are too often defined as such by the amount of adventure and excitement that they contain, ignoring and forgetting in the process that many of these so-called exciting stories are following a formula that historically has been male dominated. This in turn has influenced the public collective consciousness of what makes a “sweeping” or “important story.” This is also why domestic stories and books written by female authors are dismissed as “chick lit,” even ones of cultural and literary importance such as Jane Austen and J. K. Rowling. But there is as much beauty in the events of a simple life as there is in a massive, dramatic, epic. Many of us, nay most of us, I would venture, don’t lead particularly exciting lives to the outside world. But are our struggles, hopes, fears, and desires less valid? I don’t believe they are, and Virginia Woolf didn’t either. Mrs. Dalloway is a reminder that simply to live life is an art. Which in the coming days ahead, I think is a hopeful reminder.