Day 551: Mrs. Dalloway

Cover for Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway is preparing for a party at her home. She goes out herself in the morning to pick up the flowers.

Clarissa Dalloway enjoys her walk. She loves the air, the invigorating city of London, the people. As she walks, she thinks about events from her past, particularly a summer when she was being courted by Peter Walsh at her home of Bourton.

On her walk, Mrs. Dalloway briefly encounters an old friend and we follow him and his thoughts for awhile. So through the day, the novel moves from the consciousness of one character to another, culminating in Mrs. Dalloway’s party. Thoughts and memories are triggered by random images, as Woolf tries to replicate human consciousness.

Woolf’s express purpose in writing this novel was to depict one day in a woman’s life. She also does a turn on the marriage plot—for we see thirty-some years later how that plot worked out.

Mrs. Dalloway harks back to her youth, when it seemed possible she would marry Peter. They argued a lot, though, and it seemed to her that he criticized her. We learn from Peter’s memories that he suddenly had the flash of a thought that she would marry Richard Dalloway. Convinced of this, he left for India. Now, he has returned to tell her he is in love again—with a much younger married woman who has children and is not of his class. Still, by the end of the novel it is as if he has forgotten his new love.

Clarissa married comfort and stability in Richard Dalloway. Instead of a challenging and more bohemian existence with Peter, she has a very structured life. But she is recovering from illness and sleeps in a narrow, prim bed in the attic. It is unclear whether she is happy, except in the delight of living she feels by her nature.

Septimus and Rezia Smith are a couple unknown to Clarissa who are also important to the novel. Septimus is suffering from a delayed shell shock and hallucinations from his experiences in World War I. Rezia, the wife he brought back from Italy, is taking him to see Sir William Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a Harley Street specialist who appears later at Mrs. Dalloway’s party.

As with other modernist novels, I sometimes felt I was missing something. At other times, though, I felt that my reaction was supposed to be something like “This is what life is.”

Having recently read The Hours (wrong way around, I know), Michael Cunningham’s tribute to the novel, I was fascinated by how, with slight adjustments of character and by breaking the novel into three time periods, he invokes even stronger feelings and gives us a fresh look at the material.

Day 539: The Hours

Cover for The HoursBest Book of the Week!
One of our Pandora channels repeatedly plays Philip Glass’s music from the movie soundtrack of The Hours. So, as soon as I began reading it, the intricate notes of the score became a mental accompaniment to the novel. That is, I got an ear worm.

I came to the novel with the slight disadvantage of being unfamiliar with Mrs. Dalloway, having been traumatized by To the Lighthouse in a college English class. But you don’t have to be familiar with it to appreciate this lovely, cleverly constructed novel, an homage to Woolf’s own.

The novel begins with Virginia Woolf’s suicide. But later it returns to 20 years before, when she is writing Mrs. Dalloway.

First, though, we meet a middle-aged woman, Clarissa Vaughn, whose best friend calls her Mrs. Dalloway. Like her namesake, Clarissa is eagerly going out into a crisp, clear morning to buy flowers for her party. This is New York, though, in the late 1990’s, and Clarissa’s party is for her dearest friend Richard, a poet who is dying of AIDS. He has recently been chosen to receive a prestigious prize for poetry, and the ceremony is that night.

Back in 1920’s Richmond, England, Virginia Woolf is trying to decide the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. Someone will die, she thinks, but will it be Mrs. Dalloway herself? Woolf also copes with her own fears about her mental state, her yearning to return to living in London, and a visit from her sister Vanessa Bell.

In 1950’s Los Angeles, Laura Brown struggles with being a suburban housewife and mother. Although she loves her husband and small son, she feels unsuited to this life.

Cunningham presents us with three stories, and a theme of threes recurs. Woolf has bouts of mental illness, Richard suffers from dementia caused by his illness, and Laura is struggling with depression. The jellyfish shapes and voices of Woolf’s migraine visions appear in Richard’s episodes of dementia. And Laura briefly sees a grayish jellyfish cloud floating over her son’s head. A forbidden kiss and the color mustard feature in more than one story. And other links that I will not name are more intrinsic to the plot. The three stories are so cleverly interwoven, we’re not sure if the events of one cause the events of the other.

This is a novel of astonishing beauty, cleverly constructed and entertaining. I’m going to find a copy of Mrs. Dalloway.