Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Mrs. Dalloway

This is the first in a parade of blogs I plan on writing, in which I’ll review certain novels, essays, and stories by Virginia Woolf. (As I am reading a lot of her works for a university project, I feel as if I must.) This blog is dedicated to Mrs. Dalloway (1925); however, expect to see reviews on To The Lighthouse, Jacob’s Room, Flush: a biography, The Waves, Between the Acts, and A Room of One’s Own in the coming days.


Mrs. Woolf


A Tidbit on Mrs. Dalloway:

Despite its taking place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway is an epic in its own right; for it unravels all the mysteries of time, beauty, and consciousness in the span of a single, sunny June day in 1923.

The day is hot, and all about London is a tingling, a bustling of life—shops and motor cars and omnibuses and airplanes and salmon on ice blocks and plumes on ladies’ hats, going this way and that. Virginia redefines the novel, insisting that the enormous can be found in the simple--can be seen in the goings on of everyday life—in this errand or that. Hush, she seems to say to the Victorians who preceded her; for you are missing the point!

Of Mrs. Dalloway Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, says it “contains some of the most beautiful, complex, incisive and idiosyncratic sentences ever written in English.” And indeed he is right. Virginia Woolf is perhaps one of the greatest stylists to ever write in the English language. Her approach is in fact very Shakespearean, in that one detects in it the ecstatic desire to use language to its very limit, to the very brim of its potential. Language, as a potential to illuminate, to create, to speak truth is, alas, a sea! And swimming in this infinite pool, flowing here and there, are the words that can teach us, save us, redeem us. (How vast the sea is!) And yet, given this glorious sea, which all writers are!, some choose merely to go water skiing or boating—these are the poor novelists… —But Virginia! She swims leagues below the surface, where there is but darkness—and to bring her findings to the surface, to the light, was her life’s devotion. And so we see, in Mrs. Dalloway, a panoply of her precious findings, moist and shriveled form the pressured depths. But, alas, there they are.

The manner in which she uses grammar is also extraordinary—but I’ll write on this another time, for, if not, this review would become absurdly lengthy.

What’s so extraordinary about this novel, and, indeed, all of Virginia’s work, is the way in which Virginia is able to put the most subtle of human connections into words. Her greatest gift is her recognition, her fleshless sensibilities, which allow her to recognize the workings of the mind in seeming trivialities—the swish of a curtain, the flick of a switch—and legitimize them through description, suggesting just how telling the smallest things are. I’m aware that I’m speaking in abstractions. –Yet it is these abstractions that she miraculously identifies in a smile or a gesture.

Where to? To Piccadilly Street. To the Dalloway home. To Peter Walsh’s mind. To Burton twenty years ago. For that is how this story is told. Virginia jumps from consciousness to consciousness in London, exploring the intricate connection between time and thought. Present blurs into past; past blurs into present. A moment we’re with Mrs. Dalloway, another with Peter Walsh, to whom she considered marrying in the past.

All of life seems to be capsulated in this single day, and Virginia shows us, through her characters’ reflections what happiness really is. It is these flowers—blue, red, lemon—that little girl with the pink dress, that little robin up in the tree, this day, this moment, her smile, his laugh. This is actually one of the largest themes in the novel: the idea that happiness is a moment itself—that life is a moment.

If you are a human being you can relate to Mrs. Dalloway. If you haven’t read any Woolf before, start with this book. There are so many exquisite moments. It’s very much like a treasure box, actually. Her images and phrasing is immaculate.

“…for the shock of Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her made the moment in which she stood shiver, as a plant on the river-bed feels the shock of a passing oar and shivers: so she rocked: so she shivered.”

“..There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale-as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer's day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower-roses, carnations, irises, lilac-glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely, in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!”

Virginia also makes it a point to spot the things of adventure stories—pirates and skeletons and gold—in daily London life, making a point that life is, indeed, a kind of adventure. And to live only for one day is very dangerous (there is a quote in like this somewhere in the book).

I feel as if I haven’t said anything about this novel. But I have work to do.

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