Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf: on madness, regrets, and the elusive quality of time

There are several forces at work in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, forces opposing one another or complementing each other, which makes of Virginia Woolf’s most popular novel a shining object of endless fascination, throwing its multiple and multicoloured sparkles in all directions, so that it is impossible to fully grasp the extent of Mrs Dalloway‘s depth with just one read. I must confess that, not being a specialist of Modernism, I was at once seduced and baffled by the novel, and I’ve had to read some reviews, the better to process my thoughts.

Mrs Dalloway is radically modern in several aspects, one of them being that the whole novel tells the story of just one day, a beautiful and hot day of June 1923, during which Mrs Dalloway is preparing a party and Septimus Warren Smith, a shell shocked young veteran, lurks in the city, on the verge of madness. When you start the novel with these pieces of information, you know that the plot is not going to be the major focus of the novel and indeed, Woolf quickly enthralls you by placing you, immediately, in the centre of consciousness of Clarissa Dalloway. If you didn’t know what stream-of-consciousness was, you only need one page to understand its beauty and be captivated by its mesmerizing effect. Mrs Dalloway is about 200 pages long, without any chapter break, but Virginia Woolf manages transitions in the smoothest way. If the structure of her later novel, The Waves, clearly imitates the rhythm and sound of waves crushing on the shore, Mrs Dalloway‘s structure is that of an endless, smooth, curving flow that gently embraces every turn of the landscape. The narrative voice catches a sound, a vision, an idea and with it, transitions into another centre of consciousness, displaces itself without making waves, effortlessly rocking the reader from one character’s mind to another. Woolf’s writing is about itself: you cannot help but observe and enjoy its precision, its lyricism, its poetry, its realism. What happens outside the consciousness the narrative voice inhabits is either told between brackets (acts and facts are not the centre of the novel) or through the eyes, feelings and impressions of the characters. Contrary to The Waves, in which I personally found difficult to understand the references to external reality, so personal were its renderings, Mrs Dalloway doesn’t unsettle the reader in the same way. The writing points to itself, sure enough, but we can still understand without a doubt what is going on outside and recognize characters when they are seen by one another.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.‘ Such is the famous opening line of the novel. The flowers and the decision to go out to buy them are an expression of life. A joyful, colourful, vibrant, frivolous life, such as Clarissa Dalloway herself. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Septimus Warren Smith, who hears voices, who hasn’t recovered from the loss of his good friend Evans whom he saw dying during the War, who loses sight of reality and finds it harder and harder to bear the weigh of life after having been surrounded by death. Light on one side, darkness on the other. Joy for Clarissa, despair for Septimus. Popularity around the middle-aged lady, utter loneliness for the young man… These contrasts establish the two characters as stark oppositions yet for both of them, Big Ben strikes the hours. It recalls Clarissa that time is passing, that death approaches. It reminds Septimus that life goes on, even if Evans is not here anymore. And indeed, if we watch closely, Clarissa and Septimus have more in common than it first seems. Both seem to have felt homosexual love, which they have had to repress because of social conventions. Both  suffer from depression and harbor doubts, each in their own way, on the meaning of their lives. They know the same psychiatrist and share the same feeling of uneasiness, as if something was not exactly right with him.

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Wool, Penguin Books

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Wool, Penguin Books

The mental illness that they struggle with leads them to superimpose the past on the present and the narration flows from memories to present occupations, blurring the sense of time even though the clock strikes regularly, bringing everyone, reader included, back to that hot day, in London, during which there are preparatives to be done, flowers to be bought, and medical care to be sought. The unexpected visit of Peter Walsh, who was once in love with Clarissa, brings back memories of their youth and the fifty-two year old Mrs Dalloway, who seems so sure of herself, who’s at the centre of a group of important people in the British upper-class, finds herself doubting, even slightly regretting her conventional choice of marrying a member of Parliament. Not far away from her, Septimus, ‘who can’t feel’ anymore, is losing all his attachments to his life. The efforts of his young, pretty and desperate wife to make him stay in the present, look at real things, are to no avail. Septimus slowly derives and enters a world inhabited by ghosts, shadows, voices, fear and despair, in which no one understands him. Here again, the modernism of Virginia Woolf is remarkable. She depicts the effects of shell shock and of what we call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with a painful accuracy. Septimus’ despair becomes our own, because we are immersed in his consciousness, imprisoned with him, within him.

But all this happens on a very hot day and this heat wave is here symbolic of the force of life that prevails. Incidentally, the description of the sunset offers some of the most beautiful lines of the novel: ‘One might fancy that day, the London day, was just beginning. Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress sand white apron to array herself in blue and pearls, the day changed, put off stuff, took gauze, changed evening, and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes, tumbling petticoats on the floor, it too shed dust, heat, colour; the traffic thinned; motor cars, tinkling, darting, succeeded the lumber of vans; and here and there among the thick foliage of the squares an intense light hung. I resign, the evening seemed to say, as it paled and faded above the battlements and prominences, moulded, pointed, of hotel, flat, and block of shops, I fade, she was beginning, I disappear, but London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinioned her, constrained her to partnership in her revelry.’ That heat is clearly opposed to the coldness of death, and in this passage, when limits are unclear, when day isn’t day and seems to be dawn though really it is sunset, when the day puts on her evening dress, probably at the same moment as Clarissa Dalloway is getting dressed for her party, we can see how life and death are mixed up, one bringing the other: the day wants to disappear but ‘London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinned her‘. The bayonets clearly recall the War and allude to Septimus, while the feminization of the day evokes Clarissa herself. The bayonets pin ‘her’ to the ground, but not to kill her, only to further engage in ‘revelry’: thus the threat of death actually becomes favorable auspices of life. Just as time has no reality in the novel, other than the bells of Big Ben, life and death who at first seem irrevocably opposed, eventually evolve together: the party is about to begin, death doesn’t stop life, life doesn’t stop death, and in Mrs Dalloway’s reception room, multiple flowers are displayed, that remind us the ever-changing and ephemeral quality of Life.

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Wool, Penguin Books

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Wool, Penguin Books

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