Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
This book is a good dive into modernist lit; like Joyce & Proust, it is a ‘day in the life of’ for essentially 3 main characters. It unfolds with one continuous train of thought which jumps from person to person. And Woolf uses stream of consciousness technique for all of her characters as well, with plenty of light/dark, life/death symbolism thrown in.
The book follows the preparations of Clarissa Dalloway planning an evening party for the upper echelon of London society. Varying thoughts and actions take place throughout; what people think, and of whom, but then there is the stray ribbon of Septimus, a WWI veteran not in Clarissa’s circle, suffering from post traumatic stress:
‘He would argue with her about killing themselves; and explain how wicked people were; how he could see them making up lies as they passed in the street. He knew all their thoughts, he said; he knew everything. He knew the meaning of the world, he said. Then when they got back he could hardly walk, He lay on the sofa and made her hold his hand to prevent him from falling down, down, he cried, into the flames! and saw faces laughing at him, calling him horrible disgusting names, from the walls, and hands pointing round the screen. Yet they were quite alone.’
Clarissa Dalloway is in the upper stratum of English society, which means rich, vain, bored, empty moments are meaningful only because they are what constitute the rich, vain, and bored person’s thoughts. But there is more to Clarissa than her fluff of party planning. She is recently recovered from serious illness which triggers a looking back on her life and the people she knew. Juxtaposed with this is Septimus (unknown to Clarissa) and his doctors who offer a one-fit cure-all for his post traumatic stress. A change of scenery is all he needs. How can he weather it?
‘Scientifically speaking, the flesh was melted off the world. His body was macerated until only the nerve fibres were left. It was spread like a veil upon the rock.’
And in the end, what can be weathered? And what is important? A man suffering? ‘…It must be the fault of the world then — that he could not feel.’ Or a woman planning a party? Woolf saw the importance in even the doldrum daily life of a bored, rich woman. And deftly, Woolf ties the ribbon of the shell-shocked soldier with the hostess.
There is a lyric quality to this book. One almost needs to read it aloud to absorb the full weight of words:
‘Quite descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to it s gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all.’