Tuesday, June 23, 2009

109. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

History: Published in 1926. Mrs. Dalloway continues to be one of Woolf's best-known novels.
Plot: Clarissa Dalloway goes around London in the morning, getting ready to host a party that evening. The nice day reminds her of her youth at Bourton and makes her wonder about her choice of husband -- she married the reliable Richard Dalloway instead of the enigmatic Peter Walsh, and she had not the option to be with Sally Seton for whom she felt strongly. Peter himself complicates her thoughts by paying a visit, having returned from India that day. He stays in her thoughts way after the visit. Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I, spends his day in the park with his wife Lucrezia. He suffers from constant and indecipherable hallucinations, mostly concerning his dear friend Evans who died in the war. After he is prescribed involuntary commitment, he commits suicide by jumping out of a window. Clarissa's party in the evening is a slow success. It is attended by most of the characters she has met in the book, including people from her past. She hears about Septimus' suicide at the party, and gradually comes to admire the act -- which she considers an effort to preserve the purity of his own happiness.
Review: Woolf's style--she is one of the most foremost proponents of what has become known as "stream of consciousness"--allows readers into the minds and hearts of her characters. She also incorporates a level of psychological realism that Victorian novels were never able to achieve. The everyday is seen in a new light: internal processes are opened up in her prose, memories compete for attention, thoughts arise unprompted, and the deeply significant and the utterly trivial are treated with equal importance. Woolf's prose is also enormously poetic. She has the very special ability to make the ordinary ebb and flow of the mind sing.
Mrs. Dalloway is linguistically inventive, but the novel also has an enormous amount to say about its characters. Woolf handles their situations with dignity and respect. As she studies Septimus and his deterioration into madness, we see a portrait that draws considerably from Woolf's own experiences. Woolf's stream of consciousness-style leads us to experience madness. We hear the competing voices of sanity and insanity.
Woolf's vision of madness does not dismiss Septimus as a person with a biological defect. She treats the consciousness of the madman as something apart, valuable in itself, and something from which the wonderful tapestry of her novel could be woven.
Opening Line: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Closing Line: “For there she was.”
Quotes: “Love and religion! Thought Clarissa, going back into the drawing room, tingling all over. How detestable, how detestable they were!”
“For the truth is (let her ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase their pleasure of the moment.”
Rating: Very Good.

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