Reading Mrs. Dalloway

Posted: July 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Like any good modernist, Virginia Woolf expects her readers to work for their bread, that is for their enjoyment and understanding.

This is not an entirely new idea, not new at all really. Milton, who was well aware his poem was difficult, said he wrote Paradise Lost for the “fit audience. . . . though few.” But in the century prior to Modernism, i.e. the nineteenth century, it was more common to consider the reader’s comfort, and, in fact, the term “dear reader” was common in both Romantic and Victorian literature. I often joke that the Modernists, by contrast, said “F-You reader,” but that is only half true, and, of course, they never really said it so straightforwardly.

Modernists, I’m sorry to say, were snobs (and so are some of their PoMo descendents). They weren’t interested in reaching the vast middle class. On the contrary, they considered the typical consumer of popular books to be “bourgeois”—complacent, undemanding readers who didn’t want much demanded of them and, therefore, didn’t deserve the artists’ attention. Thus the Modernists were typically either indifferent to the needs of this audience or actively hostile to it. They wrote for the intellectual and artistic “avant-garde”—people who valued experimentation and innovation over tradition, form over content, who came to art to be challenged not coddled, who were willing, in short, to work for their pleasure.

(Note: Mark Morrison, a far more accomplished scholar than myself, with whom I attended grad school, would, I think, disagree with the previous paragraph. In his book: The Public Face of Modernism, he argues that, on the contrary modernists were optimistic about the potential of their avant-garde efforts to reach mass audiences. And I do recall once hearing that James Joyce hoped Ulysses would be a best seller (I might have heard it from Mark). If that’s the case, and they really hoped they would reach the same audience as say, H.G. Wells, with their experimental and challenging works, then, I guess they weren’t snobs. They were delusional.)

This is the time during which there arose a distinction between what we now call “literary” and “genre” fiction—though the Modernists wouldn’t have used those terms. Sci-fi, Fantasy, Horror, etc. are all examples of genre fiction. They tend to be exciting, plot-driven works that make use of suspense and action and mystery and magic to enthrall their readers. Literary fiction, by contrast, is character-driven, “realistic,” psychologically oriented, and sees language not as simply a means of communication but as an integral part of literary art, valuable in and of itself.

In this sense, Mrs. Dalloway could be the poster-child for literary fiction, though it was by no means the first example. But what distinguishes it from earlier literary fiction, such as the stories of Anton Chekhov, for example, is the unconventional nature of its story telling methods and of the story itself.

Take, for example, the plot. There isn’t one. It’s simply the day in the life of several characters in some way connected to a party being thrown by the main figure, Mrs. Dalloway.[1] Each one of them has a story, of sorts, but their conflicts are often subtle (like Mr. Dalloway’s inability to tell his wife that he loves her). It’s a bit like the 1991 film, Slackers, in which we follow around various characters, always switching perspective, as they go about their day in Austin, TX.

At the level of language, the sentences can be long and sometimes hard to follow, as Woof is as interested in the beauty as in the meaning of the sentences, sometimes more so. Take for instance this example:

There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodeness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, taker leave. (174)

This is part of a description of Clarissa Dalloway as scene by her old friend Peter Walsh. It’s 73 words long, full of clauses and including parenthetical expressions, and even parenthetical expressions with parenthetical expressions, without marking them off using punctuation as in this part that I have re-punctuated: [who] . . . . had about her {as she said good-bye to the thick, gold-laced man (who was doing his best ((and good luck to him)) to look important}, an inexpressible dignity. . . . .

So to understand and appreciate Mrs. Dalloway, you have to slow down and pay attention, almost be ready to diagram sentences in your head, and be willing sometimes simply not to understand what VW is writing.

But, to try and make things a little simpler, maybe, I’m going to give you some heads ups about and tips for reading this novel.

First, the Plot: As I’ve already said, there isn’t one, but there are two or three candidates for what we might call a plot. “Plot 1”: Mrs. Dalloway is throwing a party in the evening. She loves throwing parties because they celebrate life, but some people like her husband and old friend Peter Walsh think she’s superficial in this respect, so she’s both worried about the party succeeding and self-conscious about caring for it at all. “Plot 2”–Septimus Warren Smith and his Italian wife, Rezia, are spending the day in London where they will eventually meet Dr. Bradshaw, a psychiatrist who Rezia hopes will help her husband after their previous physician, Dr. Holmes, failed to do so. Septimus has gone insane after losing his best friend in WWI, has messianic delusions, and has threatened to kill himself.

These are the two big “plots.” A third, lesser, plot is the story of Peter Walsh who has just arrived, unexpectedly, from India. Walsh left England after Clarissa (not yet Mrs. Dalloway) rejected him, and now has come back some thirty years later to help a woman get a divorce so he can marry her. But that’s just why he’s here. What the novel is really interested in is how people see him and how he sees other people. Perpetually unlucky in love, he is sensitive, intelligent, and somewhat pathetic. His return brings back a lot of memories for Clarissa and others about their youth.

This story is, in fact, always more concerned with what people are thinking during the day than what they are actually doing.

Other important characters and “plots” include, but are not limited to, Richard Dalloway’s afforementioned inability to express his love for Clarissa; Mrs. D’s hatred of Miss Kilman, a religious woman who has befriended her daughter; Clarissa’s feeling excluded because she was not invited to lunch by the famous Lady Bruton; Lady Bruton’s desire to exert political power by using powerful men to help her achieve her agendas (such as encouraging emigration); and the unexpected appearance at the party of Sally Seton, the “wild girl” of their youth who grew up to marry a rich manufacturer and brags of having 5 boys (despite the fact that she and Clarissa once shared a passionate kiss).

Setting: London, four years after the end of WWI, i.e. the early 20s. The Dalloways are rich and somewhat aristocratic. Mrs. Dalloway has been sick before the start of the novel, possibly related to the influenza epidemic that killed 20 million people after the War; she and her friends, though almost all well-to-do, were radicals—at least in principle—in their youth, favoring socialism, though none of them ever went beyond talking and theory in that regard.

Shifting Perspective: This is one of the most difficult things about the novel because we are used to novels staying in one perspective, that is showing us the world through one set of eyes or, if it’s going to have multiple perspectives, (as in, say, the novel, Game of Thrones), each person gets their own chapter. In Mrs. Dalloway, however, the perspective can shift from paragraph to paragraph with no warning at all.  One minute you’re in the mind of Mr. Dalloway, the next in the mind of some vagrant woman who plays a very minor role in the story. Woolf gives us almost no cues to alert us to the switch other than the shift in the voice of the character, that is the way they express themselves to themselves (since a lot of this story is about what people are thinking to themselves).

Ambiguous Pronouns: This one kind of annoys me, because it is a common problem in student writing. Often you can’t be sure at first what is the antecedent to a given pronoun. In other words, Woolf uses the word “she” in a sentence, but it might refer to more than one person, and so you have to go back and reread to make sure you’re getting it correct.

Here’s an example: in the previous paragraph we’re told that Mrs. Dalloway has entered the room where her maid Lucy is getting stuff ready for the party. Then we get:

“Oh Lucy,” she said, “the silver does look nice!”

“And how,” she said, turning the crystal dolphin to stand straight, “did you enjoy the play last night?” “Oh, they had to go before the end!” she said “They had to back at ten!” she said. “So they don’t know what happened,” she said. “That does seem hard luck,” she said (for her servants stayed later if they asked her). “That does seem rather a shame,” she said . . . . “ (38)

I don’t know about you, but that paragraph with all those “she saids” messed with my head. Is it Lucy or Clarissa being referred to when VW writes “she said?” I couldn’t be sure until I had read the sentences a couple of times and then realized it was Lucy who had been to the theater. All this is made more difficult by the fact that VW uses quotation marks when she is not really quoting.

What do I mean? “They had to be back at ten!” she said. Think about it. That’s Lucy talking about her and her friends. She must have said to Mrs. Dalloway “We had to be back at ten!” but we’re really not hearing Lucy talk directly, we’re getting her speech indirectly as processed by Mrs. Dalloway—or the narrator.

This type of maneuver is called “free indirect” style and is usually confined to what people think, not what they say as in Darn, they would all have to leave early, Lucy thought. It looks like direct thought, but it’s not, it’s indirect as queued by the “they” instead of “we.” But why use that technique in dialogue?

If a student of mine in creative writing made these kinds of “mistakes,” I’d call them out on it, but we have to assume that VW knew what she was doing. So what’s the point? One is tempted to say, to make more life more difficult for the reader. And that might not be entirely wrong. Remember, she wants us to work for our art. But, maybe she’s also saying something about the way we process other people’s speech in our own minds, so that, what you are saying to me is actually experienced by me not really as you speaking but of my mind registering what you are saying, a subtle, but maybe important difference.

The other major difficulty you should be prepared for is that there are No Chapters. The best you get to divide this novel up are occasional extra blank lines between paragraphs to mark off a section as on page 29. But there are precious few even of these. I counted 7, and one of these came after 90 plus pages of no breaks.

So, you’ll have to figure out for yourself when it’s time to take a break, so to speak. I’d suggest never spending less than 20 minutes at a time, though, reading this novel or you will never keep track of what’s going on. This is not Facebook or Twitter. This is some serious reading that requires some serious attention span, and that’s not something  we get trained for anymore.

But here’s your chance to practice the skill. . . .

[1][1] Framing an entire novel in the course of one day was an idea VW borrowed from her fellow Modernist, James Joyce, author of Ulysses. Be grateful I didn’t assign that novel as it is four times as long and ten times as difficult as Mrs. Dalloway.


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