Number 9 was chosen for the latest Classics Club Spin Challenge which meant I was to read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. A miracle happened. I actually read it, and weeks before the August 31st deadline to boot!
The only other novel that I’ve read by Woolf is Orlando, which I have fond memories of reading back in the 1990s. I’ve also read her nonfiction classic, A Room of One’s Own, several times for writing projects and personal enjoyment.
Where to begin writing about Mrs. Dalloway…
I’ll just jump in and say I admire Woolf’s writing technique and the deep feelings this novel evoked in me. Some of the scenes and sentences took my breath away. However, I didn’t particularly enjoy the overall reading experience. I prefer a straightforward narrative. A story that builds or unfolds with each turn of the page.
Mrs. Dalloway is not that. It is a brilliant novel and I can see why some people consider this a writer’s novel. There is much to learn here about technique.
For readers who actually finish this novel (I’ve heard from several who haven’t been able to get into it), I think this is one of those books people are happy to have read. I already sense that it is one of those books for which appreciation deepens over time, with subsequent readings, and, of course, if studied in class with a good teacher. I doubt I’ll ever pick up this novel again, but one never knows. I’m old enough to know never say never, especially when it comes to books.
This first reading was just a breeze-through to get the gist of it. I wanted its essence to just wash over me without getting stuck in the weeds (or shoreline vegetation, as the imagery may warrant). That just isn’t possible with this novel. I was sucked into the characters’ lives and, at the same time, was hyper-aware of each word. There were times I couldn’t help myself and underlined beautiful sentences or wrote notes in the margins, especially relating to symbolism connecting to previous passages. (Talk about setting one’s self up for a future read!)
In a nutshell, the story is about Clarissa Dalloway preparing for a party she’s hosting later that day. The novel is set during that one day, but easily moves back and forth across decades via Clarissa’s and other character’s thoughts, and with the help of an omniscient narrator. So many memories and current struggles are imbedded in this slim novel. My head was spinning and not necessarily in a good way. It is exhausting.
The transitions from character to character are brilliant. As a reader you move from one mind into another. For some of these transitions, if I wasn’t paying close enough attention, I’d have to stop and read back a few lines or even paragraphs to see whose mind I was in now. This novel does not lend itself to lazy reading.
One of the themes I enjoyed following is that of being middle-aged and the associated joys and struggles. Clarissa has just entered her 52nd year and another major character, Peter Walsh, is 53. Both of these characters are somewhat depressed and reeling from the effects of World War I and the massive societal changes it has triggered. The novel was published in 1925 as Woolf herself was grappling with these changes. In addition to these larger forces, there are the circumstances of each character’s own life, particularly in regards to their decisions and relationships. Most of the statements about growing older are mixed-up with these specific circumstances and should be understood within their context.
That said, I related to Clarissa when she thinks, “She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on” (8).
I’m currently 52 and most of the time I feel ageless, but there are times when I feel very young. In my mind, I have felt younger and more free with each passing year. On the other hand, there’s no denying that my body feels different. It takes a bit longer to recover from strain and there are associated aches and pains where there didn’t used to be any. And there’s nothing like the shocking reminder of one’s age such as when you’re enjoying a favorite song on the radio only to have the DJ come on and say that it was #1 forty years ago.
Clarissa’s comment about slicing through everything like a knife — I feel like that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In my own life, there’s the fact that while I do still get nervous about some things, it is more of an excited nervous than a worried nervous, and I mainly feel an ease about walking through situations. I know I’ll be just fine going to a job interview or dinner party with new people or some other social situation. As Peter Walsh reflects, “The compensation of growing old . . . was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained–at last!–the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence,–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light” (79). I’ve found this to be true, both before an experience and after, when reflecting on recent or distant events.
But I don’t think such confidence and comfort are the only aspects of the knife that Clarissa is referring to. I think her imagery of “a knife slicing through” is also turning towards danger and depression. There’s the violent image of a knife in connection with murder and suicide, but I think she’s implying more that a knife cuts through its task with ease, with no feeling. It does its job with no thought or joy, like a person merely going through the motions. It does what its supposed to do as if on autopilot (or being piloted by someone else); The dullness of living life by rote. And I know feeling like you’re outside of life looking in is a part of the hell of depression.
That’s just my take on two sentences. If you’ve read this novel, you know how much there is to think about. It made my head spin!
I finished the novel two weeks ago and I’m still thinking about some of the lines that grabbed me. Its a brilliant novel and I’m so happy to have finally read it. Would I have picked up Mrs. Dalloway without the challenge of The Classics Club? Maybe, but maybe not. It would have continued to jump out at me at the bookstore or from a list of books to read ‘before you die’ just like is has for years, but thanks to The Classics Club this is one more great novel that is now lovingly lodged in my heart and mind.