Saturday, January 16, 2010

Woolf in Winter: Mrs. Dalloway

Beauty anyhow. Not the crude beauty of the eye. It was not beauty pure and simple - Bedford Palace leading into Russell Square. It was straightness and emptiness of course; the symmetry of a corridor; but it was also windows lit up, a piano, a gramophone sounding; a sense of pleasure-making hidden, but now and again emerging, when, through the uncurtained windows, the window left open, one saw the parties sitting over tables, young people slowly circling, conversations between men and women, maids idly looking out (a strange comment, theirs, when work was done), stockings drying on top ledges, a parrot, a few plants. Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.

Here I am a day late for the Mrs. Dalloway edition of Woolf in Winter, hosted by Sarah of what we have here is a failure to communicate. Grrrr. I had to work all day too, and we can't use the Internet except on lunch break, not even to check email. And my desk faces in to everyone else's, so I can't even sneak it. Now I feel like I missed a party. Darn darn darn. It's all Octavia Butler's fault.

So anyway - Mrs. Dalloway! The problem with Virginia Woolf is that I never know where to begin with her. This is my third Woolf novel, following Orlando and The Waves, and once again I am left feeling confused. I just don't understand how it is that a woman who could write so beautifully and creatively about the "infinite richness" of life, who could articulate the inarticulate, who could link one character's internal world to another's and weave such an intricate tapestry - how could this woman have committed suicide? Of course there is a darkness to Mrs. Dalloway in the form of Septimus Smith's vividly-rendered mental illness, but the overall impression is that of an author in love with life and deeply understanding of the human soul. This isn't Poe and his overwrought masochism or Plath and her foreboding verses. Every Virginia Woolf novel I read is an homage to the Human Infinite.

I find myself comparing Mrs. Dalloway to The Waves. Though their stories differ, both use the stream-of-conscious method to blend multiple characters into one book-long chorus. It's not a collective consciousness (like some hive mind or the Borg). I'd say it's an omniscient perspective, like some all-seeing force has stepped back and is observing people think, move, interact, and grow old - like someone standing on a mountaintop and looking down at all the trees, lakes, crags, and the tiny village in the distance. In The Waves, however, the characters are already bound together as a group of schoolmates who remain close throughout their lives. By contrast, the two pivotal figures of Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway, never meet and never will. Mrs. Dalloway never even learns his name, only that he is a "young man who had killed himself." And yet Woolf is able to show us how they are connected, and how the news of "the young man who had killed himself" brings an odd measure of peace and self-understanding to Mrs. Dalloway, alone in the midst of her grand party.

It's like "the butterfly effect" of chaos theory: the idea that small and seemingly insignificant actions within a system can nevertheless have large-scale, long-term effects on other aspects of the system. I think part of what Woolf is asking us to do here is consider our place within society and what we do in it. Mrs. Dalloway the novel really doesn't offer us any transcendental truths or metaphysical notions of the cosmic and the divine. Clarissa Dalloway has a sudden vision of a man desperate to preserve his own happiness, and then realizes that her own life has been nothing but a performance. It is her individual truth, nothing more. But most people's lives are not epic.

Mrs. Dalloway is life and life only. It is about the rhythm of the everyday and slow, subconscious dance that takes place as people live and work together. That's it. But we are large, we contain multitudes.

17 comments:

claire said...

I was struck by the "life" so evident in Mrs Dalloway, too. Being a suicide case, I had it in my mind that her books would be depressing. I think she has so much life and soul and beauty within her that it was impossible to contain. Often, those who look deeper into themselves/society/life/the world are those who seek a higher plane and are often disappointed with what they see in themselves/society/life/the world. I see so much of Woolf projected into Septimus. I see her holding herself out as Clarissa, but being Septimus inside.

Anyway, you aren't late for the party. I have only finished commenting a few hours ago, and done replying to the comments on my post a few moments ago. :)

Vintage Reading said...

Enjoyed your review. I read Woolf very quickly when I was a student in order to meet essay deadlines, and I've never re-read her but I really must.

I do like the black and white colour theme of your blog.

JoAnn said...

Now that you're here, the party can really get started! I'm away from home this weekend, so haven't visited all the participants or even answered comments on my own post yet.

I was also trying to figure out how a woman who wrote so beautifully and perceptively about life could have commit suicide. Although I want to reread Mrs. Dalloway right away, I'm going to give To The Lighthouse a try.

tuulenhaiven said...

I hadn't really thought about the mystery behind Woolf's ability to write with love about life and yet her difficulty with actually living it...! I think Claire is probably close to the answer. Very interesting.

Eva said...

I agree with Claire's analysis of Woolf's suicide. I read Hermione Lee's excellent biography of her a few years ago, and it helped me understand what led up to her suicide much more than if I had just read her fiction.

She had a chronic mental illness, and I wonder if it was just being fed up with that that partly drove her to it. I have chronic illness myself, and while it's physical, and I'm not suicidal, there are days when I'm exhausted just thinking of trying to function halfway normally through years and years of life. I imagine with a chronic mental illness, it's that much more terrifying, because your very core is in danger...even if I can't walk from pain, I'm still myself. But when Virginia had fits, and was institutionalised, that must have been so awful and dislocating. Like she could no longer even trust her own mind.

Ok, I'm going to stop rambling now. But I'd highly recommend that Lee biography! :)

anothercookiecrumbles said...

What a fantastic review. This was the first Woolf I read, and I was amazed at how closely she links two characters who'll never meet, to truly bring out the depth of the book.

Jason Gignac said...

So, it's interesting, you talk about Mrs Dalloway taking on lives that aren't epics, but that each of us is 'large, we contain multitudes'. Reading the book, does it make YOU feel as if, thoguh your life isn't epic, it's large and contains multitudes? Or did you just see in the book what you already knew about yourself?

Sandra said...

You bring out some lovely points. She was such an intelligent woman, she noticed everything-and managed to capture it in words in a way no one had before. And someone young and reasonably healthy like yourself should not be able to understand a person throwing their life away. The simple answer is that she was suffering and wanted it to stop.
I got so much from the comments on this book that I have to read it again. I look forward to the next book and your thoughts on it too.

Richard said...

I really like what you say about Woolf's "omniscient perspective" in Mrs. Dalloway, E.L. Fay! It really does feel that way, doesn't it? Even though you also have the sense of being set down in the middle of a you-are-there moment with a mutiplicity of distinct characters' points of views. Contrast this 1920s style with Sigrid Undset's, where she forcefeeds you plodding omniscient narrator details about every character by turns, or Willa Cather's, where chacterization is stereotypical when not severely lacking in general, and you'll see why Woolf's characters seem to live and breathe with a "reality" absent in some of her big name contemporaries. Looking forward to the rest of the Woolf in Winter reads and looking forward to your posts along the way!

Christy said...

Thank you for your comment, that made me think did I feel that Clarissa was shallow? Shallow is possibly the wrong word. In comparison with what Peter wanted and felt she could be as a person, she settled for safe. Was safe wrong? Not necessarily, it was the path she chose. In fact I put the quote in about her being more shrewd than Sally. It's a book that leads to great discussions.
Christy

E. L. Fay said...

Claire: Maybe you're right. That's so tragic to think about.

Vintage Reading: Thanks! I've changed my blog layout so often in the past. This is the longest time I've stuck with one look!

JoAnn: I haven't read The Lighthouse but The Waves is an incredible companion for Mrs. Dalloway.

Tuulenhaiven: Yep, I agree. I think Claire got it right, although, obviously, as others have pointed out, Woolf also had a serious mental illness.

Eva: Ooooh, great insight! Thank you so much for sharing!

Anothercookie: Thanks!

Jason: Hmmm, you're right. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. . . Actually, by "epic" I mean "Lord of the Rings-style epic."

Sandra: You're right . . . But I still don't quite understand it.

Richard: LOL, I didn't think to compare Woolf to Undset. Wow, can you imagine of Woolf or some other genuine Modernist experimentalist had written Kristen Lavransdatter? Now that would have been an achievenment!

E. L. Fay said...

Christy: Yes, I agree - she's a very "safe" character who sought security. And I think she tries to bend herself to fit into the role demanded by her secure position as one of the English elite. So I think she comes across as shallow, but that's really because she's basically repressing herself. Am I making any sense?

kikiv68 said...

I gave you a Happy 101 Award at: http://bookcation.blogspot.com/

Emily said...

I think you really get at something that bugs me about going into the world and answering the question "I hear you like books - who's your favorite author?" with "Virginia Woolf." Because her suicide is all many people know about her (her suicide, her snobbishness, the fact that her books are "difficult"), so people assume she's really depressing, whereas I find her books to be the exact opposite - so full of life, of genuine love of life.

As regards her suicide, having also read Hermione Lee's biography I think Eva's comment is very accurate. She was 59, which is young, and yet she'd lived and struggled a long time with exhausting bouts of mental illness and she could tell another one was coming on and just didn't feel capable of dealing with it. It is really sad. But on the other hand, she lived really bravely and made such amazing art during the 59 years she lived.

Whoa, long comment. Great review, and I'm glad you loved the book!

saveophelia said...

Much like you, I felt it was hard to reconcile her suicide with her gift of capturing the intricacies of human life. I saw that a specific biography was recommended and having re-read Mrs. Dalloway and beginning my journey with To the Lighthouse, I'm really interested to see if these themes carry on with her other works.

Frances (Nonsuch Book) noted in her review the abundance of water references. It really makes me wonder if her death by water was meaningful and intentional...

Amy said...

Oddly, I don't have trouble with her apparent love of life and suicidal ending. Maybe because I get the sense, especially from Mrs. Dalloway, that her appreciation for life came from a tenuous source, if that makes sense--people who aren't suicidal may take more for granted than someone who's thought about dying.

Frances said...

Wow. There is so much here. And a great post you add to the conversation. What Lena comments - "It really makes me wonder if her death by water was meaningful and intentional..." - is really where I am headed with the water imagery. The choice of method of suicide then becomes poetic, part of the body of work.

And how could she have committed suicide? Sometimes, having lost a friend in this way, I think that it is difficult to reconcile what you know about the world with your intellect with what you are emotionally capable of processing. What you think with what you feel. A tragedy of mental illness. And outside Woolf's control.

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