When I first read Virginia Woolf, I wasn’t perhaps in the right frame of mind for it; I let frivolity and impatience cloud my first-ever reading of a stream-of-consciousness work in To The Lighthouse, and didn’t treat it with the respect it deserved.
Now, having read Mrs. Dalloway, I am in awe of Virginia Woolf. The clarity with which she puts forth the convoluted workings of the human mind are astounding- the various characters who weave themselves in and out of one another’s lives as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for her party come together in an intricate tapestry, and how real it seems!
Clarissa Dalloway, recovering from an illness, goes about preparing for a party, reminiscing as she does so over the circumstances that led her to marry Richard Dalloway instead of Peter Walsh, the man with whom she walked the woods and had innumerable arguments. She dwells over her love for brash Sally Seton and ruminates on the kiss they once shared. As she sits mending her torn dress for the party, she is visited by Walsh- now back from his long stay in India, unhappily married, and now in love with a married mother of two. She invites him to her party; he is not sure he should attend. Her husband brings her flowers as he returns from lunch at Lady Bruton’s; smarting at not being invited, she asks if she was inquired after. She stands uneasily with Miss Kilman, her daughter’s German-born teacher who detests parties and finds solace in religion and food.
Woolf picks people off the streets of London and examines their lives. Fresh from the First World War, people are still putting their lives back together; Septimus Warren Smith, sitting on a park bench with his Italian wife, is pondering over his crimes. He will not get a patient hearing, however, because the two doctors who examine him have diametrically opposing views, and what he does with himself in the course of the day carries its own reverberations to Clarissa’s party. She is angered that the misfortunes of a man she doesn’t know should inflict themselves on her party in the shape of the doctor and his wife who arrive late, bearing those sad tidings- but she is convinced that the party is a success. Peter Walsh is there, as are Sally Seton and her elderly aunt. Why, the Prime Minister is also present, being talked of with a sort of awe in hushed tones.
The minute examination to which Woolf subjects her characters is admirable. Splitting the day amongst the people who populate Clarissa’s life directly or indirectly, she drifts in and out of their heads, tackling the themes of suicidal depression and homosexuality, and life in general. Slights, disappointments, jealousy, inexpressible happiness- the vagaries of life and human reaction to them are duly dealt with. Can’t you just see yourself there, in transports of bliss one moment, grappling with trivialies the next? The past presses upon us even as we make our way into the future, the present manufacturing memories that combine and occupy their niches in the subconscious, dormant until roused to sudden activity by the smallest stimulus.
Mrs. Dalloway is a book to be absorbed and dwelt upon- and re-read.