Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness novel follows Clarissa Dalloway through one day of her life, in which she prepares for and hosts a party. The reader enters into the thoughts of Clarissa and of several other characters, most of whom come in contact with Mrs. Dalloway at some point during the day, but a couple whom she never meets. Why does Woolf deem it necessary to show the reader not only Clarissa Dalloway's thoughts and actions, but also those of several others? She reveals her premise through Clarissa's musings as remembered by Peter Walsh: "She felt herself everywhere; not 'here, here, here,'...She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them, even the places."  In order to paint a complete portrait of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf must show the reader how Clarissa acts and sees herself, but the reader must also examine Clarissa's relationships with others.  The resulting novel is a composite view, a mosaic which, when viewed from a distance, reveals an intricate design.  The same can be said of any individual's life; upon closer examination a web of relationships reveals itself.

Throughout the novel, Clarissa is contrasted with Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked WWI hero who suffers from mental illness, and in many ways Septimus serves as Clarissa's alter-ego or double. The two never meet, but Septimus' eventual suicide is mentioned during Mrs. Dalloway's party. Woolf criticizes the treatment of mental illness and demonstrates how it can only be interpreted through cultural norms, thus combining her criticism of issues surrounding mental illness with her criticism of social structures. Both Virginia Woolf and her character Septimus struggled with bipolar disorder, and Woolf joins other writers such as Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen whose achievements are rooted in psychological distress.

In the end, the reader is left to decide whether Mrs. Dalloway is a shallow socialite, an everywoman trapped by social structures and gender expectations, or perhaps an alternative of mosaic-like complexity.

Main character: Clarissa Dalloway
Other characters: are windows through which to view Clarissa
There was a lot of: walking, thinking, remembering
There should have been more of: I could wish for more dialogue, but it would jar the reader out of the characters' thoughts, so Woolf was right to leave it out
This book makes you want to: read the minds of twenty people who have a certain acquaintance in common, in order to build a more complete picture of that person.
This book makes you glad you don't have to: hear the unending stream of another's thoughts. Woolf was right to confine the novel to a single day.

(Final note: I read this book the week of March 27-April 2. I am a week behind on my blog but am keeping up with my reading.)

No comments: