For me, Mrs. Dalloway is such a book, one to which I have mapped the twists and turns of my own autobiography over the years. Each time, I have found shocks of recognition on the page, but they are always new ones, never the ones I was remembering. Instead, some forgotten facet of the story comes to light, and the feeling is always that of having blurred past something that was right in front of me.
This is because “Mrs. Dalloway” is a remarkably expansive and an irreducibly strange book. Nothing you might read in a plot summary prepares you for the multitudes it contains. In fact, on the surface, it sounds suspiciously dull.
There is a poetic feel to the writing, with repetition and references, that continually wash over you as you jump from one character to another. Michael Cunningham describes this moving between different consciousnesses is akin to a passing of a baton.
Along with its most prominent characters, “Mrs. Dalloway” is almost as densely populated as a novel by Charles Dickens. In “Mrs. Dalloway”’s London, consciousness passes from one character to another in more or less the way a baton is passed among members of a relay race. If, for instance, a young Scottish woman, newly arrived in London, wanders lost and disconsolate through Regent’s Park, we briefly enter her mind, feel her unhappiness (“the stone basins, the prim flowers … all seemed, after Edinburgh, so queer. … She had left her people; they had warned her what would happen”) until she is noticed by an older woman, at which moment we switch to the consciousness of the old woman, who, envying the first woman’s youth, mourns the loss of her own (“it’s been a hard life. … What hadn’t she given to it? Roses; figure; her feet too.”) until we are snapped back to Clarissa, as she returns home to learn she has not been invited to an exclusive, politically inspired luncheon.
Megan Garber talks about the way in which the novel engages in free indirect discourse where the reader is always given a limited view.
Dalloway controls readers’ access to its characters, parceling it out, limiting it, processing it through the third person. Free indirect discourse is the technical term for that approach; what it amounts to, over the course of the novel, is a story that doubles as an ongoing act of ambiguity.
While Colin Dickey says that Mrs Dalloway asks questions that can never fully be answered.
One does not read Mrs Dalloway because Clarissa is a likable protagonist. One does not read Woolf’s novel as a guide on how to live. One reads Mrs Dalloway because it asks questions it cannot fully answer, questions that are all the more urgent because they will never have simple or easy answers. That—and also to be reminded that even in the bright and banal surfaces of the world—the bustle of the city, a stand of flowers, a society party—there are clues to the secret pulse of the world, thrumming beneath us and all around us, drawing us ever forward to whatever may come next.
The reality is that there is just so much for the senses to take in that there will always be aspects overlooked. Ironically, this both a book where both not much and too much happen at the same time. Cunningham discusses the different degrees of life, past and present, captured through the book.
The book encompasses, as well, almost infinite shades and degrees of happiness, loss, satisfaction, regret and tragedy. It invokes, over and over, the choices we make, those that are made for us by others, and their sometimes lifelong ramifications, many of which we could not possibly have imagined at the time.
While Elaine Showalter captures the social system of a particular time.
In Mrs Dalloway, her aims were significant and large, well beyond the superficial concerns of the drawing room. She aspired to “give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & show it at work, at its most intense”. She succeeded, creating an influential novel that is a study of aging and change, but also a radiant tribute to survival and joy, to “life; London; this moment of June”.
Interestingly, Cunningham explains that even with this attempt to capture a particular place and time there are aspects of war that she chose to leave out of the novel.
Woolf was too squeamish (or respectful) to include such details, but I’ve always found it illuminating to remember that on the streets on which Clarissa walked, on which she greeted acquaintances and considered gloves in a shop window, there would have been men missing limbs, men with melted faces, making their way among those who’d gone out to shop or to promenade.
If allowed, Mrs Dalloway is a book that once finished seems like only the beginning. It is for this reason that Garber suggests that Mrs Dalloway is a book for now:
The eerie resonances between Dalloway’s moment and our own—war, pandemic, entrenched inequality, betrayals that would lead to Lost Generations—help to explain why Woolf’s book is so ripe for revisitation.
I also listened to the discussion on In Our Time podcast.