Friday, 5 September 2014
Mrs Dalloway by Virgina Woolf
Caution: This review may contain spoilers
Mrs. Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post-World War I England. It is one of Woolf's best-known novels.
Created from two short stories, "Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street" and the unfinished "The Prime Minister," the novel addresses Clarissa's preparations for a party she will host that evening. With an interior perspective, the story travels forwards and back in time and in and out of the characters' minds to construct an image of Clarissa's life and of the inter-war social structure. In October 2005, Mrs. Dalloway was included on TIME magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.
I do not consider Mrs Dalloway to be an easy read. On the contrary, it was a challenge. Not in the sense that it was difficult to understand - I think it is open to all kinds of interpretation - but in the sense that it was hard to stick with. Even so, I found it to be one of the most thought provoking books I have read. I would put it down in frustration and then find myself analysing the story so far, as I went along. That is what kept me going. I was compelled to pick it back up and see where it would go.
Here is my interpretation:
For me this book is about a woman who made the sort of choice that many women of her time and in her position made. Clarissa Dalloway is an upper-middle class woman who chose comfort and security in a husband over true love. Twenty years on from that choice and she is still doing her best to come to terms with it. She cares for Richard, her husband, and she loves her comforts, but I got the impression that a day has not gone by when Clarissa has not thought about Pater Walsh (whose marriage proposal she turned down in favour of Richard's), even if it is to contemplate what she considers to be his failures (no title, no position, a series of failed relationships and no children) and reassure herself that she made the right choice. That is why it was not a coincidence that she would have thought of him the morning he arrives at her house (after a long period away in India). The exchange that occurs between them is very telling. They both experience intense joy which they do their utmost to conceal from each other and suppress. When her daughter makes an appearance Clarissa exclaims "And here is my Elizabeth!"- as if to showcase her 'achievement'. Annoyed, Peter leaves quite abruptly and Clarissa is left to return to her thoughts. She feels a sense of melancholy but cannot pinpoint what is causing it. She puts it down to a jibe made by both Peter and Richard about her fixation with organising high society parties. Could that really be what is causing her melancholia? Or is she in denial?
In parallel, the novel is also about a young man, Septimus Warren Smith, who has survived and returned home from World War 1 with his new Italian wife, Rezia. Like most men in his situation, Septimus never speaks of what he experienced during the war. Instead he does his utmost to conceal and suppress it. He is haunted by the horrors and starts to see dead bodies and talks to the dead. Rezia just wants him to be 'normal' and fears he is mentally ill. He talks of killing himself but his general practitioner is clueless and keeps saying there is nothing wrong with him. Rezia's persistance enables a referral to a famouns psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, who confirms that Septimus is very unwell. (At which point I was thinking Hooray!) Sir William's suggestion for treatment is to have him committed for ... wait for it ... bed rest! It soon becomes clear that Sir William has his own unsympathetic ideas about what is wrong with Septimus and he becomes more of a hinderence than anything else. Virginia Woolf describes someone experiencing post-traumatic stress before it had become a recognised condition and, as the reader knowing what they don't, I found myself getting exasperated with the doctors for failing him.
With Mrs Dalloway, Virgina Woolf demonstrates the absurdity and banality of British upper-class life, emphasised by comparing Clarissa's woes with those of Septimus. With the exception of Septimus and his wife Rezia, it is hard to like or even care about these people - which I think is the point. Should we feel sorry for Clarissa? Peter is of the same social class as her so marrying him would not have left her poverty stricken. As far as I am concerned, she made her bed and must lie in it.
I really liked the way Woolf seamlessly takes you in and out of the various characters' heads. Also, the subtle yet powerful way the two stories merge.
A challenging read but well worth it, in my view.