I’m so glad my Virginia Woolf cherry has popped. It was starting to become shameful. During conversations, upon hearing that I didn’t have a fave VW novel and that in fact I’d never read her, my friends would react with shock—SHOCK I tell you—and then a kind of embarrassed-for-asking dismay. Me, of all people, not to have bonded in my adolescence with this iconoclastic, feminist literary icon! Some may even have considered whisking me away to some seedy little biblioteque on the outskirts of town, where under the gentle guidance of a patient librarian I could, you know, peruse the “W” shelf more thoroughly.
I think now there has been some sort of divine plan in my reluctance to dip my toes in Woolf’s stream of consciousness. It strikes me that Mrs. Dalloway
is—among many other things — a novel that speaks poignantly and eloquently to the middle-aged among us. But then, as jo and I have been discussing here
, maybe I just would have read a different story in it had I read it earlier, or seen a different set of images through the kaleidoscopic lenses of Woolf’s characters.
I didn’t identify with Clarissa as much as I recognized
her; she is a woman not only of her time, but of mine (and maybe yours). She is a certain type of woman who exists in every generation, perhaps.
Clarissa is the epitome of the materially-wealthy but spiritually and emotionally disillusioned Baby Boomer: the idealism and passion of her youth has now faded, her self-identity, wrapped up in her role as wife, mother, hostess-with-the-mostest, has become unfulfilling. Her débutante daughter (her surrogate self) has taken up with a religious freak. Her husband lunches with a woman she perceives as more powerful and competent than she (and who can’t resist telling her that she’s the cause of her husband’s stalled political career; although Woolf is also careful to show Lady Bruton as a puffed-up, self-important dowager—a dying breed, along with Hugh Whitbread, along with the entire British aristocracy—whose political maneuverings are clumsy and ultimately, likely, ineffectual). Richard brings Clarissa flowers as proof of his love, but they don’t talk—or sleep—together anymore.
Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, [Clarissa:] went, upstairs, paused at the window…. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room. …The sheets were clean, tight stretched in abroad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be. …For the House sat so long that Richard insisted, after her illness, that she must sleep undisturbed…. So the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading, for she slept badly, she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet. (p 23)
And did they ever really communicate, or is this a marriage, if not of convenience, of expectation? An upwardly mobile politician with good prospects; he seemed like the right choice at the time. But, here is Peter: the one that got away. Clarissa simultaneously regrets and rationalizes her decision to let him go. He is flighty, lacks a seriousness of purpose, a scholar and writer who hasn’t lived up to his potential, has botched one marriage and is now involved in a second complicated entanglement that doesn’t bode well and to which he is not committed (all because he can’t let go of Clarissa). And now, he’s back in London and hoping Richard can arrange a job for him.
Each of these characters – Clarissa, Richard, Peter – is having a mid-life crisis like any self-respecting Baby Boomer does. Each — and their country! — is at a cross-roads. The times they are a-changin’, but before they do, there’s an anxious, stagnant vacuum in the zeitgeist that none of them, no matter how clever their rationalizations, light-hearted their chatter, or perfect their party, can fill.
Peter and Clarissa are two sides of the same coin; she would have been him had she not married well. He is her past (and she is his): romanticized, on the brink of seemingly infinite possibilities at the time, but gone. It is her past she mourns, the self she should have become; and her present — the self she did become — she struggles to make sense of.
The time she thought she had to become who she thought she would be has passed. She can’t fully admit this, because to do so would mean acknowledging the emptiness and meaninglessness of her life. So instead, she throws parties. Every flight of fancy, every enthusiasm and exuberance in which she professes to love life, is surrounded by death or some kind of emptiness. I perceive Clarissa’s adamant insistence that life is wonderful and her manic frenzied outbursts as overcompensation for her true state of mind and her intuition, which she skitters around and never raises to full consciousness, that her life is, rather, one of emptiness and isolation.
And let’s talk about Richard, Clarissa’s slightly shadowy husband. Yet another character who’s come to a certain age and is facing the realization that this is as far as he’ll go, this is it. A practical man, though: he doesn’t appear to think too much about it, but rather accepts his lot and gets on with it. Only through other lenses (Clarissa’s, Peter’s, Lady Bruton’s) do we see him clearly.
But that is true of all of them, isn’t it? And this is Woolf’s genius. The chatter, the gossip, the endless speculation and self-examinations never penetrate the real meaning of things. They, and particularly Clarissa, see, think, feel but do they ever truly understand? Certainly not their own characters, and only partially those of others. And how well do they interpret? Are they even accurate reporters? My sense is no. Not only do they misinterpret, but they see only the surface.
(There is an interesting commentary here on consciousness and especially the subconscious. For her thorough, and no doubt justified dislike of psychiatry, Woolf must have known of Freud and Jung; she is exploring consciousness and unconscious motives here — especially Clarissa’s.)
Woolf is saying that none of us ever see the truth of our own situations, and also that we can’t know the truth about others’. We see, feel, experience and interpret the world through our own lens—one lens—and we are seen, felt, experienced and interpreted by other individuals through theirs. Only in the aggregate, by putting them all together and triangulating them, can we get a glimpse of the real meaning (in this case, the reader becomes the omniscient one). Meaning is a slippery changeling; at any moment, it can slip away in the same way, perhaps, as one’s reason can.
And now to Septimus: why does Woolf give us Septimus? In addition to being a commentary on the tragic state of psychiatry, the ignorance around mental illness of the time (which of course Woolf knew all too well), the folly of the cures and the hypocritical and harmful “healers,” Septimus is the classic foil: he shows us insanity (oh, and how well does Woolf write it!) so that we can recognize how fragile sanity is; how much a matter of perception, how relative it is, and how thin the line between reason and lack of it. He is also death, in contrast to Clarissa’s life.
I cannot help but feel that all of these characters — including Septimus — are different aspects of one larger character. They exist as a kind of ‘collective unconscious’ and, in that, are emblematic of their society. For the entire country is in transition, and that topic threads through the text: what is Britain to do about India; and what is to become of the stodgy old lords and ladies, dangerously, bumblingly incompetent but still in power? The old must give way to the new, both in personal and political life. The War, like Clarissa’s influenza, may be over, but what’s left is a country and a way of life that is dead. Even though Woolf doesn’t show us, directly, any agents of change within Mrs Dalloway,
she does show us a world, and the people in it, who will be casualties of it.
I reserve the right to alter or even completely delete and rewrite this review as conversation ensues in Virginia Woolf's Library
!! (thank you, Elizabeth, for the thread there!)