‘Mrs Dalloway’ is Woolf’s modernist masterpiece. Sadly, anything I have to say about it, as is so often the case when reviewing classics, is not now going to be original. If you want to know what happens in the novel Wikipedia is a click away, and the novel’s themes, language, characterisation and structures have been analysed to death over the years. Yet the purpose of this blog is not to break new ground in the field of literary analysis, (or even avoid tired clichés such as “break new ground”), but to record my honest impression of the novel, and leave me sufficient reminders that I did actually read it, once a few years have passed.
‘Mrs Dalloway’ follows Clarissa, the eponymous central character in a single summer’s day as she prepares for a party at her house in Westminster. It is set shortly after the end of the First World War, and the echoes of the war in people’s lives reverberate in the same way that Big Ben echoes throughout the course of the day/novel. ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is daring in its form – it draws a portrait rather than tells a story, and takes point of view narration to places it had not gone before. I have avoided using the term “stream of consciousness” thus far, but no further – but in fact that doesn’t tell the whole story, because as well as showing us the thoughts of her characters in a free form manner, the novel swoops freely from one mind to another as characters pass in the street. Woolf also uses another technique to unsettle the reader, leaving the object of sentences to the last possible moment in many of her sentences. This requires the reader to restart many sentences, once they have ascertained who is thinking or speaking.
The novel is daring in other ways. It introduces homosexual relationships in a coded way – but fairly explicitly nonetheless. It is clear that Clarissa had feelings for a female childhood friend, and fears that her daughter has come under the spell of a very serious lesbian acquaintance. Clarissa’s parallel character, Septimus Warren, avoids sex with his wife, which he finds disgusting, and is unable to come to terms with the loss of his close army friend, Evans.
I’ve described ‘Mrs Dalloway’ earlier as a masterpiece, and I wanted to try to illustrate this, not just with a short summary but a closer look at the novel’s opening paragraph. Here it is:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it?
So why is this such exceptional writing? I wanted to pick out a few features. First of all the reader is only given clues as to who the characters are – we can guess that Lucy is a domestic servant – because Mrs Dalloway is doing a chore for her because she is so busy – and that Mr Rumplemayer is a tradesman, because his men are coming to remove the doors from their hinges. But this is very little to go on – and we have no clue (at this point) as to where Boulton is (a childhood country home, we can infer, but not where) or who Peter Walsh is – a family friend or member, past lover. The fact that he is given a full name, unlike Lucy or Mr Rumplemayer, tells us something about his relationship with Clarissa, but so far we know very little about her – she is prosperous enough to own a house where the doors need to be removed to accommodate a party, and has domestic staff, but that is just about it. This is clearly going to be a novel where the reader has to do a lot of work to understand what is going on, who is speaking, what their relationships are to one another, and so on.
This opening paragraph introduces us to Clarissa’s internal monologue, and several of her ways of thinking. This isn’t simply a replay of her thoughts – there is still a narrator here (not the direct reporting of thought as speech, “yes, I said yes, I will yes” but “it had always seemed to her” (rather than “it had always seemed to me”). The narrator is not a translator, simply leaving the reader small clues to follow. Her memories are very visual and sensual – she remembers the squeaking hinges on the French windows – but what starts as a very happy childhood memory – “what a lark, what a plunge” gradually becomes more serious. Look at the adjectives – “fresh” “calm” “stiller”, “chill”, “sharp” and “solemn” – all leading to the feeling “that something awful was about to happen”. She cannot avoid the darkness of her thoughts for long, and even something as pleasant as a summer’s morning leads her inexorably to a darker place. The reader is here introduced to the dark element Clarissa’s character which she will struggle unsuccessfully throughout the novel to escape from.
Clarissa also thinks in metaphor – the morning is fresh “as if issued to children on a beach” and the air is “like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave”. Another theme which is introduced here is the fallibility of memory “Was that it?” is repeated as a refrain.
Just one final thought on sentence structure. Stream of consciousness writing is sometimes thought of as inevitably leading to long cumbersome sentences. You can find these here if you look for them, of course, but there are also incomplete and fractured much shorter sentences – “For Lucy had her work cut out for her” – which accurately reflects the way thoughts will come to us, sometimes in long streams, and at others in short staccato bursts.
I hope I have written enough here to whet your appetite for some Woolf. I know she is not to everyone’s taste – but there are depths here that you could take many readings to explore, extraordinarily thoughtful and sensitive writing that are a pleasure to revisit.