Originally published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway is the first of Virginia Woolf’s widely acknowledged masterpieces, a canonical work of high modernism employing streams of consciousness (streams of different characters’). The novel takes place entirely on a pleasant summer day and evening in which Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a gives a party that includes England’s prime minister, various cabinet ministers, and other prominent Londoners, including physician Sir William Bradshaw. The morning before the party, “the path not taken,” Peter Walsh, the suitor Clarissa rejected to marry the solid/stolid Richard Dalloway unexpectedly appears, back from India to arrange a divorce. Peter still carries a torch for Clarissa and/or has never fully recovered from being rejected. His visit unleashes remembrances of summers past on both his and Clarissa’s parts. Then, at the party, Sally Seton, to whom Clarissa was erotically attached at the same time as Richard and Peter were vying for her hand in marriage, appears, having married well, produced multiple offspring, impatient with the pretentiousness of Clarissa’s party and happy to have Peter to talk to.
Other consciousness sampled by the novelist include a resentful religious fanatic, Miss Kilman [!], who is alienating the affections of Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, a shell-shocked World War I survivor of the trench warfare (Septimus Warren Smith) and Lucrezia, the woman he married in Italy and brought back and who is very worried about her deeply traumatized husband. Clarissa is, and seemingly long has been a bit abstracted from the motions she goes through as the ornamental wife of a member of parliament who throws elegant parties and mingles with the political and economic elite. She seems superficial to Peter and Sally and not altogether present to herself. She is not introspective, but vaguely feels that her life lacks meaning and purpose, that her husband doesn’t really know her, and that her daughter is slipping away into the religious mania of Miss Kilman.
Septimus is excruciatingly painfully aware that he has lost any capacity to experience any emotion. By the time his closest friend, Evans, was killed, “Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognising that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The war had taught him. It was sublime. He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War, death, had won promotion, was till under thirty and was bound to survive. He was right there. The last shells missed him. He watched them explode with indifference. . . . There was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.”
The dead were with him—or he was with them, a dead man walking and sitting in the sun. Septimus is (in my view) the central character, even if he can only make a slight ripple on the still (stagnant?) pool of the title character’s consciousness. (I don’t think that it is a plot-spoiler to note that Septimus and Clarissa never meet.)
It is possible, however, that it is this reader who is more interested in post-traumatic stress disorder (as new cases are proliferating in the military occupation of Iraq) than in Clarissa’s social set and wistful regrets about having taken the safe path of marrying Richard rather than Woolf having intended this bass line as so foundational. Plus the resonances of knowing about Woolf’s own depression and eventual suicide (not least from their representations in The Hours on page and screen). Still, it seems that, recovering from physical illness, Clarissa Dalloway has a milder form of despair about her inability to connect with or care about other people and is a sister (in spirit) to Septimus in his anguish.
Even if my emphasis on the Septimus thread in Woolf’s complex tapestry is idiosyncratic, it is still impressive that she could make a male character whose life experiences were radically different from her own cloistered domestic life so compelling. (It is also interesting that another female novelist, Pat Barker, produced the most compelling and extensive portrayal of Word War I shell shock, using and going beyond the records left by Robert Graces, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owens, all of whom are characters in Barker’s exceptional trilogy.)
The portrayal of malevolent medicine, in the person of Sir William Bradshaw, also stands out—again, perhaps in part from knowing too much about the author’s long experience with alienating alienists. Of the fashionable physician, she wrote “He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up. It was this combination of decision and humanity that endeared Sir William so greatly to the relations of his victims.” Whew! Mrs. Woolf could cut and Sir William is not the only character she and/or Clarissa view with some asperity. That is, there is some social comedy in a more bitter than Jane Austen extension of the Austen tradition in the swirling streams of consciousness modernist novel.
It seems that what I have chosen to quote includes sentences of almost Hemingwayesque brevity. There are many others than twist and turn, and abrupt (unmarked) shifts from one character’s stream of consciousness to another.
The book is not at all the “blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James’s characterization of human consciousness). It is carefully constructed, moving through one day and evening with memories and triggers of memories that are plausibly within what the characters might think (insofar as the characters can be detached from the texts that invents and animates them!). In my view there are some eddies of observation and memory that did not need to be included (Lady Bruton’s in particular [and she is another character with a too-obvious name]), but this may be only a symptom of my attenuated attention span. The edition I have runs 293 pages with relatively large typeface.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray