Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway

Though it’s a fairly short novel—just under 200 pages—Mrs. Dalloway is not a light, easy, or superficially entertaining read. The two factors that, for me at least, made it at times a grind to get through are, one, that there’s precious little action in the book, and, two, that it is written in a very “literary” style, i.e., plenty of long descriptions, lots of elaborate metaphors, much that is hinted at or implied rather than spelled out, and language that feels at times as much like poetry as prose.

Truth be told, I found it considerably easier to adjust to the first of those two factors. While the book has only a minimal amount of external “action,” it is rich in internal, psychological “action,” if you want to call it that. It’s a character study of various overlapping lives, an examination of how each person sees themselves, their past, other people, and the world. And I find that kind of thing quite interesting, though it would be even better if we could get the psychological stuff in a story where there’s also more actually going on.

I was less able, however, to get past the second factor. And that’s on me; I don’t mean it as in any way a criticism of the book or of Woolf’s writing style in general. She is generally praised as an excellent writer, a skilled crafter of beautiful, evocative prose, and I assume that’s accurate. So the writing style is a strength, not a weakness. I’m just saying I’m not the kind of reader who is able to appreciate this style to more than a very modest degree.

Some, but far from all, of that is a matter of patience. This is the kind of writing that is best read slowly, lingered over. It’s not intended to be read like you’re reading some newspaper article for information, or something straightforward like that.

I just don’t have the patience for that. Whatever I read, I read it at roughly my usual pace, and I catch whatever I happen to catch. In the case of Mrs. Dalloway, let’s say I “caught” 15% of it as I drifted in and out, trying to focus but finding my mind wandering a fair amount since the material mostly wasn’t engaging me.

If I were to really go through it painstakingly slowly, stopping after every paragraph or even every sentence, to make sure I know who is being spoken of, what is intended literally and what is intended in some ironic or non-literal sense, and how to interpret each metaphor or other figure of speech or word game, and looking up every word or reference I’m not familiar with, maybe I could bump that up to where I caught 40% of it—a lot better, but still not great, simply because while my mind is excellent at some things, it’s mediocre or worse at others, including fully appreciating all the value of “good” writing like this.

But anyway, on the surface Mrs. Dalloway tells the story of one day in the life of the title character. In fact, though, it’s about her life as a whole, and beyond that, really she’s just one member of a sort of ensemble cast, and it’s about the others’ lives as much or almost as much as hers.

At least that’s the way I see it. I may be wrong. Maybe the book is named for Mrs. Dalloway because she really is the central character, in the sense that the material about the other characters is mostly there to illuminate her story, or to play some symbolic role, such as each of the other characters representing some part of her, or whatever. But it feels to me more like a book about multiple people in roughly this same milieu, where they all have their own independent importance, and Mrs. Dalloway is only the “main” character in the sense that more total pages (by not all that great a margin) happen to be devoted to her than to any of the others.

The “story,” such as it is, which takes place in London in 1923, concerns a party being given by Clarissa Dalloway. For most of the day—most of the story—she is preparing for her party, and then the last approximately 30 pages describes the party itself that evening.

I want to give a capsule introduction to some of the characters who get the most attention in the book—since it’s so much more about characters than events—but a thought that occurs to me is that it’s hard to do that without making the characters seem like stereotypes. That would be misleading, because, to Woolf’s credit, these characters aren’t simplistic in that way. It’s not like if you’re presented with some basic fact or two about them that you can then fill in the rest.

But I’ll proceed anyway:

Mrs. Dalloway herself—Clarissa Dalloway—is 51 years old. She is married to a Member of Parliament. They, and the people they associate with, are from the upper echelons of society, as evidenced by their having household servants, and the Prime Minister himself coming to her party.

She’s kind of an “in between” character to me—neither too much of this nor too much of that. She’s of at least average intelligence and manifests a capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection, but she doesn’t stand out as unusually intelligent and insightful. She’s evidently reasonably attractive and has a certain charm that many are drawn to—certainly one of the other main characters fell hard for her—but it’s not as if the author and the people in her life go on and on about what a remarkable beauty she is and how she is the most sought after of all women (as is so common with female lead characters in novels, especially older novels). She can see reasons in her past and present for regrets, doubts, and disappointment, but for the most part she’s able to keep all that in perspective and is quite content with her life. She is restricted and repressed in certain respects in the pre-feminist world in which she lives, but finds opportunities to exercise her talents in ways that she believes do some good and give her life meaning (she feels very good about the parties she throws, for instance, regarding them as bringing good people together in ways that they enjoy and benefit from). It doesn’t feel like she married the great love of her life—it seems to have been more a “practical” match—and it’s not a marriage that you’d say has a great deal of passion, but there’s at least some mutual fondness there and they fit each other tolerably well; it’s not as if it’s a miserable relationship and they hate each other and one or both of them are desperately looking for a way out.

Peter Walsh is the character that I probably most identified with. When he was young, he had courted Clarissa, but ultimately she went with a different option and married Richard Dalloway instead. It’s not that Walsh was of a lower class, or some kind of extreme rebel or radical, or had some major flaw that made him unappealing to her, but there was a sense that in some way he was just a little different from the norm, a little less safe a choice than Dalloway. Opting for Walsh would have constituted at least a modest gamble; it would have been choosing with one’s heart, giving in to youthful passion.

But ever since then, Clarissa has been “the one that got away” in Walsh’s mind, the woman he still at some level pines for. Much of his life he has spent overseas; the day the novel takes place he has just returned and is seeing Clarissa for the first time in years or decades.

In those intervening years, it’s not that he “saved himself” for her, or was unable or unwilling to have relationships with other women; in fact he was married for a time, and now is involved with a married woman and is in London in part to facilitate her getting a divorce so they can be together. But his marriage didn’t last, and he’s frankly not all that gung ho about his present entanglement. It may or may not even be necessary for him to be in London in connection with her divorce; he came in part precisely to have an excuse to separate from her for a time, to let things cool down so that she would have an opportunity to think twice about what they are doing and opt instead to remain in her marriage.

No, he still feels the old pull for Clarissa. She’s still the one the mere thought of whom—and even more so the presence of whom—pushes his buttons. When she comes near him at the party, “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?”

Sally is a fairly minor character in terms of how many total words are devoted to her, but feels like a significant one. She was a childhood friend of Clarissa—and Walsh and others of that circle.

She strikes me as like Clarissa only more so. That is, Clarissa was—as almost everyone is—a bit more impetuous, a bit more romantic, a bit more passionate in youth than the older version of her that married Dalloway and settled into a pretty conventional life. But Sally was even more the free spirit, the non-conformist (though frankly still not to any extreme). She was the one who expressed provocative opinions and secretly smoked cigars.

Yet she too followed the path of Clarissa and married a stable, moneyed fellow and lives a comfortable adulthood as a conventional housewife, which surprised people more in her case. But at least in the little bit that is said about her, there’s no indication she has even the modest amount of self-doubt about her life that Clarissa does. She seems the type who does what she thinks is best with her life at any given time and then just moves on—it’s good to be independent and a bit of a firecracker in one’s youth, and it’s good to move on from that and settle into a normal life when the time comes.

A key moment told in flashback between the young Clarissa and Sally—certainly impactful for Clarissa though it’s not specified if it stays with Sally in the same way—is the time they shared a kiss. Decades later, Clarissa remains fascinated, tantalized in some way, by the memory.

Is that an indication that Clarissa is a lesbian, or at least bisexual? That’s not at all clear. I get the impression that such a thing may well have been literally unthinkable for her. It’s not that she recognized some kind of homosexuality in herself and quickly tried to repress it or deny it, nor that she wistfully realized that unfortunately there was just no way to pursue such a lifestyle in her time and place at an acceptable cost and so went with her second choice and married a man instead; I suspect she never even formulated the notion of being gay as a possibility.

It’s like if someone in 14th century Europe were exposed in passing to some idea we would recognize as akin to something in Buddhist philosophy, found it intriguing and still occasionally thought of it decades later but never really followed up on it or realized where it fit in some larger philosophical or religious scheme. It’s not that such a person would necessarily have held off becoming a Buddhist because of fear of persecution in a religiously narrow-minded society; more likely they wouldn’t have had the foggiest notion what Buddhism was.

One of the most unpleasant, and saddest, characters is Doris Kilman, some sort of tutor or mentor of Mrs. Dalloway’s 17 year old daughter Elizabeth.

Kilman is a cringeworthy example of one of the types of people who falls into fundamentalist religion, one of those people who are mistreated, or are chronic losers, or have low self-esteem, and who find it gives them comfort and a pleasing, smug sense of superiority to be one of the “enlightened” ones who knows the meaning of life and God’s purpose and such.

Kilman suffered during the war for being of German descent and not denouncing Germany enthusiastically enough. She is physically unattractive and socially has, if anything, an anti-charisma. Those flaws and most others would be overlooked by society to a significant degree if she were as wealthy as the Dalloways and their ilk, but she’s not.

But now she has found God, so she’s happy, or at least is trying to convince herself that she is. She had developed considerable bitterness toward those she perceived as being directly or indirectly responsible for her suffering, and her newfound religious zealotry has at best barely papered over that bitterness. About the closest she comes to Christian love is to intermittently embrace the arrogant notion that her “enemies” are too pitiful to bother to hate, because, unlike her, they are still lost in the darkness of not knowing religious truth.

She especially finds it difficult not to hate Mrs. Dalloway, who represents to her all those who have enormous advantages because of their wealth and don’t even fully appreciate or acknowledge that, and who oppress people like her and make snap judgments of them based on appearance and such.

Mrs. Dalloway doesn’t much care for her either, but whereas the damaged and embittered Kilman blows any such negativity between them up into a big deal, to Mrs. Dalloway it’s almost too trivial to rise to the level of consciousness. She spends less than 1% of her time thinking, “I’ve never liked that Kilman girl; I hope she isn’t having too much influence on my Elizabeth,” whereas Kilman is very conscious of her ill will toward Mrs. Dalloway, and takes a sort of malicious delight in influencing Elizabeth in a direction that will make the mother and daughter relationship less close.

She’s a petty, creepy, homely religious nut, in other words.

Most of the significant characters in the book—all I’ve mentioned so far and a few more I could mention—have a substantial connection with Mrs. Dalloway and/or interact with her regularly. However there is another, almost fully independent storyline, in Mrs. Dolliver involving a few other characters who are really not a part of her life and who only overlap with the story of her and her party to a tiny degree.

Septimus Warren Smith is a veteran of the Great War who suffers from shell shock, or what we would today call post traumatic shock syndrome. Part of the trauma was his experience of the war in general, and part was the death of his close army buddy Evans. At the close of the war, he married a young Italian girl named Rezia.

Smith is sometimes depressed, and sometimes claims to be unable to feel anything. He is sometimes functional and reasonably in touch with reality, and sometimes blatantly loony. He is sure his experiences have somehow enlightened him and believes it is now his duty to share the wondrous truths he has discovered with the world, but he’s unable to articulate them in any coherent way. He speaks of suicide. He hallucinates that Evans has returned and is communicating with him.

He’s so caught up in his suffering, his delusions, his mission to educate the world, etc., that he seems to only infrequently even acknowledge his wife Rezia. Rezia, for her part, is mostly focused on how his deterioration has made her life miserable. She is constantly trying to get him to act more sane so as not to embarrass her in front of other people, and so as to give her at least a fighting chance of sustaining her own illusion that they have normal lives and a normal marriage, or at least that his problems are minor and curable enough that they will shortly.

She manifests little of the empathy you would want to see for a spouse, or even for just another human being. That’s certainly to her discredit, but I’m inclined to largely excuse her due to her youth and inexperience. She is little more than a child, in a situation she experiences as utterly confusing and overwhelming, with no clue what’s going on with her husband, feeling like she has been robbed of the life she expected to have as a married woman.

Smith is treated by—or, perhaps more accurately, victimized by—some particularly distasteful representatives of the medical and mental health professions.

Their physician Dr. Holmes is bad enough, but then they’re sent to the famous specialist Sir William Bradshaw, who is a more extreme, more repellant version of Holmes.

Woolf herself had mental illness issues her whole life—including depression that eventually led to suicide—and indeed was confined in asylums at times. So her scathing take on doctors and the mental health profession is no doubt heavily informed by personal experience.

The doctors are arrogant to the point of having the stereotypical God complex associated with the profession. They don’t listen to the patient, or anyone else about the patient. They consistently assure Smith and his wife that there is nothing wrong with him. They presumably mean nothing physical like a broken arm or cancer, with the implication being that mental illness doesn’t count or is no big deal. They don’t treat Smith’s case as having any urgency, and act like little in the way of treatment is even needed, beyond stern admonitions from authority figures like themselves to buck up, I suppose. They do suggest—or order—that Smith “rest” in expensive facilities they’re eager to commit him to.

The thing is, this is an area of medicine that even today is fairly primitive—there are a few drugs that can be shown to do more good than harm to at least a modest degree for certain patients, but beyond that there’s a lot of uncertainty, mystery, and guesswork still in psychiatry—and we’re talking about almost a century ago when the field was truly in its infancy. People working in mental health ought to be especially humble, willing to admit they might be wrong, eager to listen and obtain any additional evidence they can, willing to change course as the evidence changes, etc. Instead, people like Bradshaw are the precise opposite of this. They make snap judgments and never change them, carry themselves like the most infallible of experts, and act like there’s no need for feedback or assistance from the patient, colleagues, or anyone else. Zero humility, zero self-doubt.

Smith is mostly hostile to the doctors, partly because he sees the same failings that Woolf and the reader sees, and partly because he’s delusional and paranoid. He regards them more as enemies or fools intentionally or unintentionally apt to harm him, than as allies in helping him get better. He sees that they don’t understand what he has been through or what it has done to him, certainly aren’t going to listen to the profound messages he has for the world, and aren’t open to persuasion on these points because they are so sure of themselves and their conclusions. So he wants no part of them.

Rezia is somewhat more trusting of the doctors, since they’re telling her mostly what she wants to hear—that there’s nothing wrong with Smith, and that soon they’ll be able to have the kind of normal married life she craves—and since, due to her youth and naiveté, she is even more intimidated than the average person by their swagger and pompous air of expertise. She’s still a bit wary though, and uncertain what to believe.

As I say, Woolf’s writing is not of a style that connects best with me. But in the end, maybe more got through to me than I thought as I was reading. Some of these characters and some of the issues Woolf raises clearly made an impression on me. (I did have to laugh, though, thinking about how reflective all these folks are, dwelling like they do on reminiscences about their past loves, analyzing the mores of their social circle, contemplating death, etc. Surely if you were to get inside real people’s minds in this fashion you’d find only a tiny amount of those types of thoughts and a hundred times as much about the Kardashians, that great pair of shoes they can’t wait to buy, and Angry Birds or whatever the latest hot phone game is.) So, yes, I got something out of Mrs. Dalloway, and no doubt if I were to reread it I’d get more. But this strikes me as the kind of rich book that no matter how much I caught, there’s more that I missed, that a different sort of reader could more fully appreciate.

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