Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Few novels have been as ill-served by their canonization as Mrs. Dalloway. Assimilated to the classic tradition of the English novel, read alongside Austen by moodboard autumn rainlight with tea and crumpets, this slim modernist anti-novel was in fact a small-press (effectively self-published) attempt to make good on a set of brash manifestos rejecting realism, sentimentalism, and didacticism in fiction. Mrs. Dalloway is a remarkable spate of almost Futurist prose; set firmly in the present, a post-Ulysses day-in-the life novel, it rejoices at the passing of all senescent social orders.

In the opening section, which narrates a busy June morning in London in 1923, a VIP—probably a royal—in a motor car passes down Bond St., near where Clarissa Dalloway is buying flowers for the party she plans to throw that night. While the car is delayed in traffic, the public is suitably impressed by the presence of England’s traditional authority, and the people’s postwar thoughts turn to patriotism. Even the narrative voice, ever in motion as it flows from mind to mind, is moved to the famous digression that was to inspire the vertiginous magical-realist temporalities of One Hundred Years of Solitude:

But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand’s-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth. The face in the motor car will then be known.

Yet the monarch in the motorcar is upstaged in short order by a skywriting airplane zipping through the sky and bearing an inscrutable message (its words are never clarified for the reader, but we are given to understand it is a candy ad):

Dropping dead down the aeroplane soared straight up, curved in a loop, raced, sank, rose, and whatever it did, wherever it went, out fluttered behind it a thick ruffled bar of white smoke which curled and wreathed upon the sky in letters. But what letters? A C was it? an E, then an L? Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?

The plane is an image of the narrative itself, flying all around modern London, a technology that barely pre-existed the 20th century at all, inscribing an ambiguous message (one with no single K-E-Y) across our eyes.

Another modern experience Woolf insists upon in her novel is that of the Great War: the novel is an ensemble piece, but its co-protagonist, alongside the titular heroine, is the shell-shocked veteran Septimus Warren Smith. Smith is a member of the lower middle class who went to London for a clerkship and culture. His love of literature and of his literature lecturer, Miss Isabel Pole, lures him to a war he had supposed would be romantic but proved apocalyptic:

Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.

When Septimus’s beloved officer and friend (“It was a case of two dogs playing on a hearth-rug”) is killed, Septimus—essentially bisexual, like most of this novel’s characters—”congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably,” and even marries an Italian woman on his way back to England. This code of English masculinity, however, cannot repress his trauma forever: the day upon which Mrs. Dalloway is set proves to be the day of his terminal breakdown—a destructive instance of the novel’s concern with everything that flows, passes, and vanishes.

But Mrs. Dalloway narrates this break-up of order from within the consciousness of a very unlikely heroine. Clarissa Dalloway is a wealthy middle-aged hostess, wife to a conservative politician, bred to Victorian standards and to that extent (from Woolf’s modernist feminist viewpoint) ill-educated. In other words, she has nothing in common with her author, and in fact appeared in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, as a minor comic character, a satirical sketch of a self-admiring bigot. But in her own eponymous novel, Clarissa, though occasionally gently mocked by the narrative, absorbs much of Woolf’s own aesthetic energy.

Her desire to bring people together through the parties she throws echoes this novel’s own universalism of consciousness and the city, what critic Robert Alter has called its “urban pastoral.” And when Clarissa, in one of the novel’s central passages, questions the ethical status of her existence as she juxtaposes her love of roses and parties with the Armenian genocide, I imagine we are also to hear Woolf’s dismay at the human relevance of her own artistry:

And people would say, “Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.” She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again)—no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)—the only flowers she could bear to see cut.

A critic I once knew commented years ago that in this moment the English novel attains self-awareness and raises in the body of its text all those questions about itself that Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak taught us to ask of Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre. Even so, Woolf was not a postcolonial theorist but an aesthete, tutored by Clara Pater, sister of the writer who introduced art-for-art’s-sake into English literature. Clarissa, looking into the next house and seeing her elderly neighbor, muses on the mystery of human connection:

…that’s the miracle, that’s the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing-table. She could still see her. And the supreme mystery…was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?

Well, no: what solves it is the text we’re reading: art, literature. And the solution goes little further than the mere act of juxtaposition as stimulant to thought and feeling. On the other hand, Mrs. Dalloway in certain of its passages discloses a frank supernaturalism. When I visualize the novel, I see flows of shimmering CGI soul linking character to character across the space of London they traverse and the lifetimes they recall. Clarissa agrees, almost:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

In another of the text’s self-images, a mysterious beggar sings on the street a song of love without beginning or end or even clear meaning, like this very in medias res and stream-of-consciousness novel:

…a frail quivering sound, a voice bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning…the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth; which issued, just opposite Regent’s Park Tube station from a tall quivering shape, like a funnel, like a rusty pump, like a wind-beaten tree for ever barren of leaves which lets the wind run up and down its branches singing… Through all ages—when the pavement was grass, when it was swamp, through the age of tusk and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise, the battered woman—for she wore a skirt—with her right hand exposed, her left clutching at her side, stood singing of love…

Again the narrator sees centuries or millennia beyond the narrative, this time in the direction of the past; Mrs. Dalloway takes place in one day, and also in eternity, and eternity is traditionally perceived by the artist and visionary.

There are real stakes to aesthetics, then, even if aesthetics leads us to see everything as sufficiently transient within the endless flow of time to inspire a cosmic quietism. Woolf’s narrator only surfaces once from immersion in narrative to deliver a Dickensian address to the reader. This is when Septimus visits the psychologist Bradshaw, a smug, self-made, self-satisfied rapist of the psyche (“Sir William Bradshaw, a great doctor yet to her obscurely evil, without sex or lust, extremely polite to women, but capable of some indescribable outrage—forcing your soul, that was it,” Clarissa later observes). In an extraordinary tirade, the narrator links Bradshaw’s moralizing counsel of “Proportion” to imperialism:

But Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged—in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus of London, wherever in short the climate or the devil tempts men to fall from the true belief which is her own—is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance. Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace. […] But conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will.

Psychology, like sociology and other emerging disciplines that address themselves as sciences to the human condition, were taken by a number of 20th-century writers (Woolf, Lawrence, Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon) as deadly and dangerous rivals who would schematize the soul and perfect forms of social control of which church and state could previously only dream. We like to think we know better; but I wonder if I do know better than Virginia Woolf.

The turn toward the human sciences, then, is a change the novel does not celebrate, precisely because Woolf seems to suspect those very human sciences of serving as a conservative force. Elsewhere, the novel imagines Clarissa’s ambitious, curious daughter riding an omnibus, portending a very different future for women than women’s present as exhibited in the life of Mrs. Dalloway:

…and to each movement of the omnibus the beautiful body in the fawn-coloured coat responded freely like a rider, like the figure-head of a ship, for the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture.

And the novel gently mocks its men: the kind, solicitous, faintly ridiculous Mr. Dalloway, “[b]earing his flowers like a weapon”; the definitely ridiculous Hugh Whitbread, brandishing his prize fountain pen; and the disappointed radical, colonial administrator, and would-be lover of Clarissa, Peter Walsh, always fiddling with his knife—all trying to stave off the passing of their reign with the prosthetic phalluses they wield. Peter alone understands; walking to Clarissa’s part at the novel’s conclusion, he thinks:

…envying young people their summer time and the rest of it, and more than suspecting from the words of a girl, from a housemaid’s laughter—intangible things you couldn’t lay your hands on—that shift in the whole pyramidal accumulation which in his youth had seemed immovable. On top of them it had pressed; weighed them down, the women especially…

Cultural revolution, however, has no internal brake. How aware of this fact was Woolf? As she denounced men’s illegitimate dominance over literature, did she quite foresee the time when students would dismiss her own work as elitist mystification, a poor substitute for a novel by a worker or woman of color? I suspect her amoralism registers her awareness of this possibility that history would devour her own work just as it devours the works and rules of men. If Woolf’s amoralism makes available and at least partially articulate suppressed energies of interest to the progressive, as in this remarkable passage on Clarissa’s queer excitation—

…yet she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older, or some accident—like a faint scent, or a violin next door (so strange is the power of sounds at certain moments), she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.

—it also discloses a nihilistic individualism that may disturb the public-spirited reader even as it touches indelibly the private spirit. Yet the “common reader” Woolf championed, who is not retained by the state to instruct the young or by vast corporations to provide “cultural” alibis for monopolistic predation, often loves literature precisely because it offers an escape from morality, a vicarious experience of what life could be if it were lived elsewise and more intensely, or at least more alertly, not so much without regard for others (one is always regarding others) but without regard for the socially-sanctioned image of “the other” (think of the children, etc.), for whose often purely notional sake we are to behave well.

Mrs. Dalloway is a scandalously amoral novel; Woolf might have said with Melville, “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.” Recall what Septimus discovers in the pages of his beloved books when he returns from the war:

Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language—Antony and Cleopatra—had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity—the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.

Is this canonical nihilism so bad, really? If he, if his generation, if England had perceived such literary nihilism beforehand, if it had been given voice in their educations, they might have been spared material devastation by an acknowledgement of the spiritual devastation that we are all heir to. (But Woolf is not all spirit: note the fierce but sympathetic social observation compressed into that one parenthetical word, “translated.”)

When Clarissa learns of the death of Septimus, a man she has never met and was not, given the disparities in their social standings, likely to meet, she is as empathetic as anyone could wish, literally enduring his death in her flesh, though she has not even been told how he died (and in fact, Clarissa exhibits psychic powers throughout the novel, reading Peter Walsh’s mind and unwittingly sharing Septimus’s visions):

He had killed himself—but how? Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness.

This allows her to see—but don’t tell Bradshaw this, or you will be locked away by protocol, now as then—that there are fates worse than death:

A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

And finally, his death recalls her to her life in a passage that would probably annoy and offend if it were ventured by a contemporary writer:

She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

This passage never goes well in the classroom—in a social setting, neither I nor the students can get past condemning Clarissa here, though every honest person knows just how she feels. I had a good moment with it the other day, though. I said to the class, “Who approves of Clarissa’s reaction?” They looked at me blankly; no one raised a hand. “Who disapproves of it?” I asked, imagining I would get a livelier response. But they still looked at me blankly, and only one or two hands straggled up. Finally, I said, “Who knows you’re supposed to disapprove of this, but the complexities of human emotion being what they are, you see where Clarissa is coming from?” Most hands shot into the air, and one student even exclaimed, “Oh yeah, definitely!” I call that a victory for aesthetics, and I imagine the pupil of Clara Pater and the self-elected sister of Shakespeare smiling slyly somewhere further back or further on in the stream of time.



  1. You might be interested in this brief essay from NYRB which attempts to understand Clarissa Dalloway through Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49:

    At first I thought it was opposed to your categorization of Mrs. Dalloway as a “scandalously amoral novel,” but thinking about it further it seems you both essentially agree on the idea of aestheticism in literature unconcerned with morality as the only way of representing certain human experiences.

    It’s been far too long since I’ve read either novel, so I can’t really offer my own comments.

    • Thanks! That’s a great piece; I basically agree with all of it. (I wonder if there’s any reason to suppose Pynchon had not read Woolf.) I haven’t ready CL49 in a while, but I recall there’s a Pater connection when the narrator refers to “gemlike ‘clues'” to the conspiracy in allusion to Pater’s “hard, gemlike flame” of the aesthetes. Pynchon is more sentimental than Woolf, though, as her city is all missed connections whereas Oedipa cradles the old vagrant. Oh, and it just occurred to me that both Oedipa and Clarissa are ostensibly right-wing heroines written by left-wing authors, which is interesting. Somebody should try that today.

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