August 6, 2009

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

I finally read Mrs. Dalloway. It was a strangely unsettling experience. I had tried to read it many times before but never made it past the second page: my problem was (and continues to be) that I don't altogether understand how to read this novel. It drifts and wanders, and then pauses in a place that doesn't seem very significant, but becomes so as it is allowed to just be and develop on the page. You have to be patient--which may sound like a strange thing for a Victorianist to struggle with, but it's a different kind of patience than the kind you need for Dickens or Thackeray or George Eliot. So, although I have been very interested in the novel for a long time, I kept starting it and then putting it aside. This time I decided I should stop trying so hard and just keep reading, allowing myself to drift and wander and come back. When I did that, I started to fall under the spell of the language, which is beautiful and langorous but shot through with moments of startling clarity and, sometimes, brutality. And then, finally, I began to feel I was brushing up against the ideas of the novel, not in the abstract way I had considered them by reading about the novel, but more immediately, sensually as well as intellectually. So much has been written on this novel that I won't add any more commentary of my own, except the brief observation that I hadn't realized it was so much about London. Instead, here are my two favourite passages (so far):
Big Ben struck the half-hour.

How extraordinary it was, strange, yes, touching, to see the old lady (they had been neighbours ever so many years) move away from the window, as if she were attached to that sound, that string. Gigantic as it was, it had something to do with her. Down, down, into the midst of ordinary things the finger fell, making the moment solemn. . . . Why creeds and prayers and mackintoshes? When, thought Clarissa, 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 which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn't believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?
She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). The (all day she had been thinking of Bourton, of Peter, of Sally), they would grow old. 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.


JRussell said...

"I won't add any more commentary on my own, except the brief observation that I hadn't realized it was so much about London"

Isn't it interesting how _Mrs Dalloway_, a classic Modernist stream-of-consciousness text, gives at the same time such a sense of place, and of the irreducible density of objects and sensations. There's the cakes at the department store, the hats, Westminster Abbey, the flower shop, one could go on and on.
Obviously, I love this novel. It always seemed perfectly presented in the Hogarth Press typeface, which the old Oxford World's Classics edition reproduced photographically. But a few years ago OUP reset it, in an edition which crowds many more words on the page, and for me that made it harder to read. It's a novel to read slowly, and re-read. There shouldn't be too many words on the page for this work! It's one of the novels I always enjoy teaching even more than I expect I'm going to . . .
And yes, brutality. There is so much trauma of so many kinds in _Mrs Dalloway_.

maitresse said...

Those are my two favorite passages as well. They clarified so much for me.

Craig Monk said...

I think Dalloway was the final Woolf I read, after Waves, even. With the possible exception of Lighthouse, it's the one that teaches best.

So much of Woolf happens in people's heads; I really like that there are events in Dalloway to which you can point: see? this *happened* to so-and-so. It allows students to maintain their faith in positivist reality.

And, I know, your colleagues and friends all have opinions on reading modernist texts, but I'd say read them first as process. Once I appreciate the how, I see the what much more clearly.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thank you all for these comments. I think the point about fewer words per page is a good one (one thing I like about my Sony Reader--though that's not how I read Mrs D--is that when I increase the font size for my tired eyes, it gives me about one paragraph per screen, which really does help the mind focus, rather than skim!). Craig, your suggestion to read modernist texts "first as process" is intriguing. Do you mean that it helps to know the theory behind them, the reasons for what they do? I certainly think that if I had read Mrs D without having read about it (without, for instance, knowing about 'stream of consciousness') I would have been in real trouble.

I actually read the copy of Mrs D that is in Francine Prose's book The Mrs Dalloway Reader. I had read all the accompanying material more than once; I think it's quite a good volume for a 'beginner' to Woolf's fiction.

Next up will be To the Lighthouse, another one I have started many times.

Craig Monk said...

Absolutely right, Rohan, in my opinion. You have "Time Passes" coming up in Lighthouse. Rather than concentrating on who said what to whom? and how can so-and-so be here at this point? I first think of this primarily as "oh, here are external representations of how it feels when time passes or here is how we might understand how the paint chips off our insides" -- and, of course, the paradox of two contrasting paragraphs: one that follows five seconds passing and the next that, in fewer words, follows five years passing. Shouldn't the latter be much, much longer? Isn't this like how ten minutes typing this goes by in a hurry while ten minutes watching Dating In The Dark seems like an eternity? By the time I get through all that, it's much easier to accept that, right, they're just airing out the old house.

Oooh, my... I'm getting a wee bit lightheaded. Glad it's almost September!

R/T said...

I recall how Woolf made exquisite use of time motifs in MRS. DALLOWAY, which you brought back to my mind when you included the excerpt that begins, "Big Ben struck the half hour." MRS. DALLOWAY was an a wonderful reading experience when I first encountered it, and it continues to please and impress me; I have included it (not always with success) as a novel in my literature courses.