Several years ago, I remember watching and enjoying the movie “The Hours.” I spied “Mrs. Dalloway” as one of the books I could choose as my reward for reading at the library’s adult reading club. Noting that the book had inspired that movie, I took it home.
“Mrs. Dalloway” is by Virginia Woolf. I’ve heard of her, but hadn’t read anything by her.
“Mrs. Dalloway” is a different type of book. It “split the atom,” reads a blurb on the back cover, and if you’re a reader like me, that’s code for “there’s some weird stuff coming.”
The style is very stream-of-consciousness. Like — it’s what’s going through people’s heads, in their minds. Here’s a little stream-of-consciousness that I might experience on a bike ride: “Wow, it’s a little windy. I hope I’m headed into the wind now, because if it’s going to be WORSE when I come back … oh well, thank you, God, for a beautiful day and for the ability to ride. Thank you for those beautiful yellow weeds that look like flowers … wow, those are so pretty. I wonder what kind of weeds they are? I need to look at them carefully and maybe I can figure it out when I get home. I kind of miss daughter #3 taking weeds in 4-H. That was actually really interesting. Oh, here comes somebody else on a bike. Kind of narrow here… not sure we’ll both fit on the path. I could go out on the road, but here comes a car, and … okay, squeezed by. Eek, what was that heading across the sidewalk? Mouse? Too small for a rabbit, too big for a bug … well anyway, God, back to you ..”
You get the idea. It’s just whatever is going through your head at the moment. Here’s an example from this book: “But Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged, in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus (my note — there’s a new word) of London, wherever in short the climate or the devil tempts men to fall from the true belief which is her own — is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance.” As you can see, we’re working with a fairly high-level stream-of-consciousness here!
What makes the book even harder to get into is that Woolf isn’t just inside one person’s head. She jumps from one person’s thoughts to another’s, and often this isn’t explicitly stated. I read in the intro to the book that “Mrs. Dalloway” was part of an early 20th century “modernist” movement in books, and that she was influenced by James Joyce. I attempted to read Joyce’s “Ulysses” a few years ago and stopped fairly early, unable to make any sense of it. This book has similarities, although it’s not nearly as inaccessible as Joyce’s works.
The book begins with Clarissa Dalloway (yes, she’s “Mrs. Dalloway”) going out to buy flowers for a party she’s throwing that night. The entire book happens during that day, and each hour is marked as Big Ben or another clock chimes. I’m sure this has some deep meaning.
Despite the book being hard to follow in places, if you just went with it, it did evoke a definite ambiance, and it had some sections that one could relate to. A few quotes:
- “She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.”
- “But she feared time itself … how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years.”
- “With twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes — one of the tragedies of married life.”
Several main characters in the book were 52 — my age — and they went on and on about the sorrows of being old, which was a bit discomfiting. There was a very elegiac feel to the whole book, which kind of makes sense when you realize it was written and set just after the ending of WWI, when the world (and Europe in particular) had changed in many ways.
I read that Woolf herself committed suicide in her late 50s. Have you read any of her books?