Mrs. Dalloway, for Woolf in Winter

Taking up Mrs. Dalloway again felt a bit like settting sail on some remarkable ocean, where you embark gingerly at first, but soon get caught up in the gentle rocking motion of the wave, the ceaseless undulations of thoughts and impressions, the passing clouds of emotions and sensations which drift through the minds of Clarissa Dalloway and all the other characters who entwine with her life on this one ordinary day.

Such a remarkable novel, really, if one places it in the context of its day, where many novels were most often straightforward, moralistic, even a bit pedantic.  But Woolf changes all that with this novel, this fresh wind blowing across the world of literature, sweeping away the old in favor of sparkling new ideas.  This Mrs. Dalloway, this outline of a day in the life of one English woman, this book that heightens the emotions and actions and memories of a group of ordinary people in ordinary time and places them in their rightful place as paramount to the society in which they live.

So, while reading Mrs. Dalloway, I can’t help examining the trajectory of my own thoughts, wondering if the stream of my consciousness might yet turn into this exquisite bubbling brook that Woolf sets down on the page.   Sadly, my thoughts always reach a dead end, become dammed up before they explode into the myriad of beautiful reflections which emanate from Mrs. Dalloway’s compatriots.

Constructing an entire novel around the confines of one 24 hour period and one middle aged English woman must have seemed a dangerous risk to Woolf.  “I have to create the whole thing afresh for myself each time…it is the penalty we pay for breaking with tradition and the solitude makes the writing more exciting though the being read less so.”   With Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf took a brave step toward re-imagining the novel, a bold move at a time when people were shell-shocked from the wounds of the First World War, a world where people have yet to be lulled back into the complacency they felt before the shot heard ’round the world rang out.  Yet in the midst of Mrs. Dalloway’s fresh start, death still hovers…Septimus Smith, the young soldier whose emotional war wounds turn out to be mortal after all, the news of his suicide intruding upon the long anticipated party scene.   And Clarissa herself acknowledges for one brief moment the sense of hopelessness we all fall prey to on occasion…”She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself.  She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.  The clock was striking.  The leaden circles dissolved in the air.  He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.”

Pay attention, Woolf practically shouts at the reader, clocks striking the hours of the day away.  Pay attention to time passing, to people changing, to their neediness and pain.  Pay attention to the beauty that surrounds you, to the ideas of the moment and the memories of the past.  Pay attention, for like a broom sweeping across the precipice of the mind, it can in one instant be gone forever.

~for more impressions of Mrs. Dalloway, visit Sarah, this week’s hostess of  the Woolf in Winter readalong~