Poetry and drama should be read aloud, but novels are quiet – solitary and full of private thought. The novel was born in the city, and in the city one can often move about in complete isolation, deep in private thought. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway portrays this modern condition, as does the more lionized Ulysses, written by Woolf’s contemporary, James Joyce.
Joyce Carol Oates’ literary essay collection, The Faith of a Writer, cites the diary entry Woolf wrote after reading the newly published Ulysses: she became “puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned” after only six chapters. Nonetheless, Woolf seems to have taken inspiration from her colleague/rival, as Mrs. Dalloway, too, condenses the archetypical quest tale into a day in the life of an ordinary character. However, whereas the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses add up to an ambitious philosophical ramble, Woolf’s modest novel is a compact, dense and layered explorer’s map.
Published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway enjoyed revived interest in 1998 when Michael Cunningham published his intertextual novel, The Hours, and again in 2002 with the stellar Hollywood adaptation of Cunningham’s book. “The Hours” had been the working title of Woolf’s novel, which features one of her recurring characters and opens with the immortal line: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Thus ensues the walk to the florists’ through a vividly mapped London, followed by fraught preparations for the Dalloways’ evening party. The story’s setting and subplots provide imaginative space in which musings, wishes and recriminations stream through Clarissa’s consciousness.
As the title character moves about, however, Woolf also takes us through the thoughts of others: Clarissa’s husband Richard, her former beau Peter Walsh, the shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Warren Smith, his deeply unhappy wife Rezia – characters major and minor alike. As they pass by or interact with one another, Woolf’s narration gracefully creates that peculiar city atmosphere of people having shared experiences but living very much alone. The afflicted Smiths, for instance, have nothing whatsoever to do with Clarissa the social butterfly, or with most of her distinguished guests.
For that matter, Mrs. Dalloway herself has only the most tenuous of connections with the majority of her guests, anxious though she is to be the perfect hostess. Welcoming each guest, she frets: “So it wasn’t a failure after all! it was going to be all right now – her party. It had begun.… She must stand there for the present.… And yet for her own part, it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it.…” Who among us hasn’t had this kind of an out-of-body experience in a roomful of people, even among friends?
At the end of Clarissa’s day, Woolf intersects her life with those of all the characters – old friends, mere acquaintances, even the Smiths – in a poignant depiction of how deeply one human life can touch another, if only for a moment.
The world celebrates Bloomsday in honor of Joyce’s Leopold, but not Dallowayday for Clarissa, yet hers is a psychological journey as full of complexity and depth as any in modern literature. It is certainly worth spending every hour, every minute reading.
The e-book is available for free at the University of Adelaide and the Polyglot Project.