I just got back last Wednesday from a two week trip to England and Paris to visit friends and family. While walking through the streets of London, through Trafalgar Sqaure and down Tottenham Court Road (how grandiose and epic and historical those names sound!), I loved reciting fragments from Mrs. Dalloway to myself, muttering these precious sounding phrases under my breath: what she loved, life, London, this moment in June. What a lark! What a plunge! Feeling as she did, that something awful was about to happen. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so. (3-4) I felt secretive and powerful, walking around and muttering these phrases absentmindedly to myself, as though I was one of those ancient pagan female magicians mentioned in the footnotes of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, casting a spell of protection, or maybe just chanting a mantra.
She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (8)
This is such a beautifully written book that no matter how many times I reread it, it never fails to shock me that Virginia Woolf killed herself. This is the number one book that I think of when I think of joyful writing, of writing that hums and writhes and wriggles in ecstasy from sheer joy and lust for life. It seems so puzzling that someone who could have written this also simultaneously decided that life, this life, was not worth living.
This book reminds me of something Tori Amos said about her most recent album: she said that she wanted it to be like a snapshot of time of what it was like to be a woman in this day and age. In Amos’ case, she’s chronicling the economic recession; in Woolf’s case, her focus is on Victorian society of post World War I. I’ll never really “know” what it was like to be a woman in that time and age (let’s stay away from the giant can of metaphysical worms). But Mrs. Dalloway is as engaging of a snapshot of a very specific historical period as they come. There’s tons of stuff to unpack here about post World War I society trauma and repression–you can easily make a parallel to the Iraq War, too (that’s another thing about this book that really got me: how easily you can apply it to life today, how contemporary it feels). “It was over; thank Heaven–over,” (5) Mrs. Dalloway thinks of the War, but of course it’s not (it never is), not for anybody.
No character better embodies the sense of the war not being over than the interestingly named Septimus Smith (his name is reminiscent of numbers, which feels important in a novel where the passage of time, the constant ebb and flow of “the hour, irrevocable” (117) and the ringing of the clocks is constantly emphasized). Septimus seems to suffer from such an excess of feeling that at times it sounds like an extremely bad acid trip: leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body; … the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds. This problem of “over-feeling” seems to emerge as a reaction to his initial condition following the death of his friend Evans in the war, in which he “could not feel.” And then, with such hyper awareness and overdose of sensory input, it’s little wonder that Septimus found it difficult to get through the day.
Septimus’ plight made me think of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception,: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” That seems to be Septimus’ problem; the infinity and deeper meaning of everything appears as too glaringly apparent to him, to the point where he can’t condense his experiences or make any sense of them anymore and they just become overwhelming. Upon viewing a motor car that contains someone in the Royal Family (perhaps the Queen? It’s never made clear), for Septimus it appears to him as “this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had almost come to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought.” (15) He almost sees the centre, but not quite. At the moment when Septimus throws himself off the balcony, he cries out “I’ll give it to you!” (149) Is he referring to this ungraspable center, always out of his reach?
In the end, death seems to be the only way of bringing it all together, as Peter Walsh muses while the ambulance carrying Septimus’ dead body whirs by: “a moment in which things came together; this ambulance; and life and death.” (152) Mrs. Dalloway discovers this for herself as well, upon hearing of Septimus’ death of her party: “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” (184) In the end, Mrs. Dalloway “felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away… He made her feel the beauty, made her feel the fun.”(186) With this sentence, I feel like Woolf herself is saying that she’s glad that it is Smith who is doomed, the artist, madman and poet, as opposed to Mrs. Dalloway, the socialite everywoman, the woman of the earth. In Mrs. Dalloway, death emerges as a moment with a potential for understanding and knowledge, however brief. As Muriel Spark wrote, “Remember you must die,” and as Ali Smith writes (in her Mrs. Dalloway rewrite of sorts Hotel World, a highly recommended book), “Remember you must live, remember you most leave, remainder you mist leaf.”
This is a good book to read every other year or so, especially around the time when you grow a year older. (I just celebrated my birthday a few days ago.) There’s a lot of juicy “what-have-you-done-with-your-life? times-a-passin’!” passages. “How remorseless life is! A little job at Court!” (74) Remorseless indeed. It’s scary, overcoming so-called banality. I think that’s Woolf’s main point by making the titular character someone who could easily be mistaken for someone shallow and lacking depth: a housewife who likes to give parties, “the perfect hostess,” who at the same time is capable of these most incredibly poetic reveries:
“a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew large and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, ‘This is what I have made of it! This!’ And what had she made of it? What, indeed?” (43)
What, indeed. How do you define what makes a meaningful or non-banal life? To whose judgement do you need to subject it to? How do you know that you’re making the right decisions, that you’re taking your life in the direction it needs to go in?
Then (she had felt it only this monring) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. (185)
I dunno. It may sound cliched and silly, but lately I’m really digging the mindset that it is REALLY not about the destination at all, it’s gotta be about the path. It sounds so mundane and banal when you put it like that. What I mean is that we really don’t get anywhere. We’re just on the road. You can get some things, some goals, some destinations you’d like to arrive at in your life–but you will never get it all. There is no idealized plateau where everything is suddenly going to click into place for you, click, and all of a sudden everything makes sense and you wake up every morning feeling content and fufilled and satisfied and you never have to worry about feeling otherwise. I mean, c’mon–that is NEVER going to happen (as this excellent clip discusses). That is as utopian of a vision of humanity as you’re going to get.
But I like what Richard Dalloway thinks about his days as an idealistic youth:
“He had been a Socialist, in some sense a failure–true. Still, the future of civlisation lies, he thought, in the hands of young men like that; of young men such as he was, thirty years ago; with their love of abstract principals; getting books sent out to them all the way from London to a peak in the Himalayas; reading science; reading philosophy. The future lies in the hands of young men like that, he thought.” (50)
I couldn’t agree with him more.
Still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day. (64)
During this particular reread, another theme that stood out for me was the idea of simultaneous connection and isolation between people. I especially like the part where Richard Dalloway visualizes his connection to his wife as a “spider’s thread of attachment.” (115) It feels important when Richard buys Clarissa flowers instead of jewelry for a present and embarks on a grandiose mission, “walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.” (115) Richard confronts the problem of how difficult it is to say exactly what you mean: “The time comes when it can’t be said; one’s too sigh to say it.” He thus comes to embody a very modern problem concerning language, that “it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.” (116) Or more specifically, to be unable as weel ignorant as to how to say what you feel. How do you give words to a feeling like “I love you” in face of a dilemma such as Richard’s: “thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle. Here he walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.” Needless to say, when the moment comes, he fails at his mission. But it feels somewhat redemptive that on the last page, Richard becomes capable of telling his daughter that he is proud of her: “He had not meant to tell her, but he could not help telling her.” (194) So there’s some hope there, at the end, of being capable of speaking, of putting feelings into words.