In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf captures a woman’s joys and frustrations in a single day by revealing her thought processes. Although some other character’s thoughts are captured as well, it was Clarissa Dalloway that I related to.
If you read my reading journal last week, you’ll know that I struggled to read Woolf at first. It was confusing and rambling and I didn’t want to keep reading. Someone suggested that I slow down significantly. So I did: I began reading it aloud. As I did so, the stream of consciousness writing style became clear to me.
The turning point for me – where I decided I wanted to continue reading – was as Clarissa (Mrs. Dalloway) stood looking in a bookstore window, trying to decide which book to buy for her ill friend.
“…Ever so many books there were; but none that seemed exactly right to take to Evelyn Whitbread in her nursing home. Nothing that would serve to amuse her and made that indescribably dried-up little woman look, as Clarissa came in, just for a moment cordial; before they settled down for the usual interminable talk of women’s ailments. How much she wanted it — that people should looked pleased as she came in, Clarissa thought and turned and walked back towards Bond Street, annoyed, because it was silly to have other reasons for doing things. Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. Oh if she could have had her life over again! …” (page 10)
I do that: I try to imagine what people want from me. I try to do things because I feel I should. My husband, like her husband, is my example of what I should be: doing things for the things themselves or for myself (i.e., because I personally want to take my friend this particular book). I often find myself thinking that if I had my life over again, I’d get in the habit of doing things right.
In the next paragraph, she ponders what she’d do differently if she did have her life to live over again, and she mourns the death of who she is or was:
“…She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway. …”
This paragraph struck me even though I’m completely different from some of the specifics Woolf mentions. I’m young; I’ll probably have more children; I am rarely called Mrs. Reid and never Mrs. my-husband’s-first-name Reid. But somehow I did relate to Clarissa. Sometimes I do feel invisible, unseen, and unknown. I spend 12 hours a day awake with a toddler, alone, and when I do go in public, people see me as the mom with the toddler. They see me through the filter of what I’m doing, and not as myself. Clarissa’s feelings are similar to some of the feelings I have as I go through life as a busy mom with a busy kid. Who knows me?
The rest of Mrs. Dalloway has so much more in it that I got out of it on this read. As I read, I kept thinking, “I need to reread this before I can write a proper post.” Suffice it to say, I’m not writing a proper post this time around: I will have to reread it to get more of the marvelous depth I found in Woolf’s introspective look at a variety of people.
Throughout, Clarissa was the one that I was fascinated with, and on this read, I didn’t see the necessity of the other character’s detailed experiences. I’m sure if I reread it, I’d see just why certain people are brought into the story.
I related to Clarissa’s frustration at the party, even though she’d been so excited about it. I, too, often plan something only to wonder during the whole event “Why did I want to do this again?!”
In the end (spoiler warning), I found it touching that Peter was the one to recognize Clarissa as Clarissa, and not as “Mrs. Dalloway.” I felt he was the only one who never stopped seeing her as herself, and I am comforted knowing that this is the type of relationship I have with my husband. How precious it is to me to know I am not “unseen” and “invisible” to him! If only Clarissa could have had friends (beyond Peter, who probably wasn’t going to be around for long) or a husband who could have seen her properly.
I suppose Mrs. Dalloway is a depressing book, for that reason. Clarissa feels alone and sad. Despite the joy of the morning and the planned events, the evening’s party only brought her lower into her aloneness. But as I finished the novel, I didn’t feel depressed, I felt enlightened. I felt I wasn’t alone because others (even fictional characters) go through internal battles, others feel “unseen” in the middle of a busy street, and yet these “others” survive. They do find some moments of joy and friends that recognize them for themselves.
What point made you want to keep reading? Or did you enjoy it from page one?
What character did you most enjoy reading about?
[Woolf in Winter: a group read-a-long]
[Women Unbound: Because it focuses on a 1920s woman]
[A Year of Classics: written 1927]