Who’s Afraid of Mrs Dalloway?
I’m reading Mrs Dalloway because it’s embarrassing that I’ve never read it before. I was an English major in undergrad and I don’t think you can, or should, make it out of that experience without taking on Woolf. I had read A Room of One’s Own, some short stories, and Orlando, a novel that, for some reason, remains obscure. But I wanted to be in the conversation, the Virginia Woolf conversation, so I bought Dalloway, started reading, and was reminded of this: when it comes to Virginia Woolf, always, always, believe the hype.
Mrs Dalloway is mind-boggling in its construction. It has no chapters and is just one long stream of sentences—it was one of the first novels to employ the stream-of-consciousness technique—and they are gorgeous:
Far was Italy and the white houses and the room where her sisters sat making hats, and the streets crowded every evening with people walking, laughing out loud, not half alive like people here, huddled up in Bath chairs, looking at a few ugly flowers stuck in pots!
Mrs Dalloway is hilarious, insightful, and cunning in its criticism of the domestic life, of British manners. If it came out today, it would still be considered innovative.
And it reads quickly. You’ll find yourself speeding along as you ride Clarissa Dalloway’s day (the whole book is a day in the life of a young middle-class woman preparing for a party). The book could be read in one sitting, but that would be a shame because you’d miss out on all the complexities—the psychological, the cultural, and the spiritual. It’s the type of book where you always think there’s more going on than you realize, that it’s all hidden in the subtext, until you look at it more closely and say, “Oh, but it’s all so simple,” and then you feel closer with Virginia Woolf and maybe even the world.
Woolf also does what Edith Wharton does—and what I wish Jonathan Franzen did more of—which is, create a world of laughter amidst biting social criticism. Though she is harsh, I never get the sense that Woolf ever truly despises or disdains the world. She is merely a vigilant opponent in the game against manners and society. As she tears her culture apart, she moves through it gracefully, with the ease of Roger Federer, the intelligent nuance of Bill Gates. Beloved, yet conquering the entire way through.
If I were going to criticize anything about the book, I’d say that it’s better when the point-of-view stays with Clarissa. Sometimes Woolf jumps from head-to-head, i.e., “he thought” then “she thought,” and sometimes, unless you’re really paying close attention, it can be confusing to figure out who is thinking what. You should always pay attention, or this book will lose you.