Monday, May 23, 2011

"Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

I am reading Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's 1925 stream-of-consciousness novel. Clarissa Dalloway (aged 52, London socialite, married to a high-ranking government official and mother of a daughter, Elizabeth) is planning a party. On the morning of the party her household whirs along like a well-oiled machine, servants polishing silver and arranging furniture and laying in supplies. Things are looking pretty good for Mrs Dalloway. On her return from a brief walk (during which traffic has stopped as a limousine carrying--perhaps--the Queen of England passes down the street) Mrs Dalloway receives two shocks: first, she learns that her husband has been asked to lunch--alone--by a witty and popular noblewoman and second, she is visited by Peter Walsh, who was her beau some 33 years ago and has come to tell Clarissa that he's in love. The story continues from there.

The narrative is almost entirely made up of internal dialogue; there is very little in the way of descriptive prose or dramatized scenes. Clarissa goes for a walk. A couple sits in the park. Clarissa is visited by Peter Walsh. Peter goes and naps in the park. That's the first half of the book and it sounds pretty dull if you just relate it in terms of events. And if you were to ask what the central conflict is, what the story question is ("Will X manage to do Y before Z happens?"), I'd have to say that there really isn't one.

And yet this book is constantly moving, sucking me in and carrying me along and I'm reading it really quickly to see what comes next. It's all, as I say, taking place in the minds of the characters, and that's precisely what gives life to the events. The reaction of a neighborhood to the possibility that the Queen is being driven past them, within arm's reach even, and what it means to be a Londoner in 1923 is far more interesting than the action of the Queen being driven past. More sly on Woolf's part is how the attention of the patriotic crowd is drawn from the Queen (if it's her in the limousine) to a plane sky-writing an advertisement for toffee. The marketing is more immediately interesting than the confused emotions surrounding patriotism and nationalism and nobody is even looking when the royal car finally drives through the gates of Buckingham Palace. Peter Walsh, when he's walking to the park after having visited Clarissa, gets distracted by a pretty girl and he follows her discretely for some blocks, building up an elaborate fantasy life between him and the girl and then she goes into her house and it's all over and Walsh mourns that he's had such an adventure but couldn't possibly share it with anyone because it's all made up and a bit sordid, you know. And on like that and all of it's absolutely true to the life of the mind and fascinating.

It's all telling, too, not showing. This novel, in fact, violates many of the Rules that are widely promulgated about writing. I might go so far as to say that it proves the rules wrong:

You do not need to have a clear central conflict.

You do not need to have a "story question."

You do not need to have a single point-of-view per scene.

You do not need to avoid flashbacks.

You do not need to delay supplying backstory until after a conflict is established.

I will say, of course, that in order to get away with all of the rule-breaking listed above, you need to have absolute control over your form, you need to have a sophisticated and honest understanding of the human heart, you must be a brave writer and you must write absolutely beautiful prose. Then again, you should have all of those qualities anyway as a writer.


  1. Oh! I love rule breakers and have meant to read this book for so long...thanks for the reminder!

  2. You hit on it exactly. We should have all of those qualities anyway.

    About Mrs. Dalloway Woolf said, "I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side."

  3. Anita: Don't forget to read it, now.

    Robyn: The Septimus character (paranoid schizophrenic, we'd call him these days) is amazingly well done and scary. I feel sorry for his wife.

    One thing Woolf does successfully in Mrs Dalloway is show how even sane people's minds operate by a set of rules that is not entirely rational.

  4. Scott! I'm happy to see that you're reading this book. And I'm glad you're liking it. Woolf is one of my favorite writers. Her prose is so exquisite, and she was groundbreaking, at least in my mind, in a lot of ways. She also always seems to exude intelligence.

  5. Domey! Yeah, this comes out of the discussion you, Michelle and I had about Woolf. I've only read her nonfiction so I thought I'd read one of her novels. I also thought I should read one that neither you nor Michelle has read, so we can have a discussion of Woolf that comes from three different reading experiences. That could be cool, or it could be a train wreck. I'd like to find out.

    It's true that when I read Woolf I'm pretty sure that she was very smart. It's also true that her writing reminds me of DH Lawrence and James Joyce. Or they remind me of her. Hard to say which way the influences went. I wonder what was going on in prose and poetry in 1922 in Europe. I might have to take a serious look.

  6. Bailey, wonderful explanation about how Woolf shows how even sane people's minds operate by a set of rules that is not entirely rational. Truedat!

    You know in her novel, The Voyage Out we actually meet the Dalloway's (and not favorably either) for the first time. Have you read that?

  7. Robyn, That's interesting about The Voyage Out. I had no idea. I've always wanted to do something like that, where the characters of one book appear in another book. I'm most familiar with To The Lighthouse, which is one of my favorite books. You seem to be a Woolf expert!

  8. Geez, Scott. Have high standards much?

    Granted, I agree with you. And Woolf's prose is enough to lay you flat, sometimes. It's breathtaking, and exquisitely rhythmed.

    It all comes down to something I figured out a while ago: you do what you can get away with. If you're breaking the rules? Then by god, do it with STYLE.

    Or at the very least, chutzpah.

  9. So what brought the Woolf on? I didn't think I was that convincing in our conversation. I just love Woolf, though. What I love so much about Woolf is how you can feel that she wrote exactly how she wanted to write. Some of her stuff makes no sense to me, and I love that. I dive into it and lose myself in it because it's beautiful and makes me feel even if I don't understand where she's going. That's writing, to me. I want to pick up Mrs Dalloway now. I think I'll re-read Orlando and then pick up that one.

  10. Robyn: We have on our shelf (if memory serves; I'm at work right now), To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, The Common Reader, The Voyage Out and Flush (a biography). I have begun To The Lighthouse but have always been interrupted. I've read The Common Reader (25ish years ago) and now I'm reading Mrs Dalloway. So I'm nothing like well-read in my Woolf.

  11. Simon, here's how I do it: I think of the best book I've ever read. I compare the best thing I've ever written to that book. I figure out why the best book I've ever read is better than the best thing I've ever written ("What's s/he got that I ain't got?") and then I try to write something better than the best book I've ever read. Rinse and repeat.

  12. I do the same thing, but I don't rinse.

  13. Michelle: No, really, it was your talk about Orlando that did it. I agree that she was writing exactly as she wanted to, and it's inspiring stuff. I also feel sometimes that she's waiting for me to catch up and figure out what she's talking about. And some of it's just impenetrable, but maybe it was opaque to Woolf, too, but it felt right so she left it because it was correct on some deeper level than intelligible English language. Poetry often makes no sense at all while making perfect sense, as you know.

  14. That's why your keyboard gets all sticky.

  15. Yep, sometimes it just works. I think the reader has to be open minded enough to just enjoy the "scenery" in a novel of this sort.

    I loved the voice of your post Scott. I've got a pretty good idea of what I'd be in for if I read the book. I'm sure I will. You made it sound fascinating.


  16. Davin, I am NOT a Woolf expert (I wish I was), but I love to read her writing. It ALWAYS broadens my horizons in one way or another. Makes me think about the human condition. Kind of what Michelle talked about. I admit that I have never read To The Lighthouse. I am going to add it to my collection though.

    I do know that The Voyage Out was her first novel. I think, anyway.

  17. I love Woolf's writing, too! There is a movement and flow to that piece that makes it work as telling and jumping from one mind to another. Of course, the prose is beautiful and the subject matter is interesting. Those are given in great writing. But the style and flow of the writing provide the continuity and immediacy that are usually achieved by sticking to one POV and showing-not-telling.

  18. Donna: Here's an excerpt so you know a little better what to expect.

    Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she went upstairs, paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room. Women must put off their rich apparel. At midday they must disrobe. She pierced the pincushion and laid her feathered yellow hat on the bed. The sheets were clean, tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be. The candle was half burnt down and she had read deep in Baron Marbot’s Memoirs. She had read late at night of the retreat from Moscow. For the House sat so long that Richard insisted, after her illness, that she must sleep undisturbed. And really she preferred to read of the retreat from Moscow. He knew it. 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. Lovely in girlhood, suddenly there came a moment — for example on the river beneath the woods at Clieveden — when, through some contraction of this cold spirit, she had failed him. And then at Constantinople, and again and again. She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together. For THAT she could dimly perceive. She resented it, had a scruple picked up Heaven knows where, or, as she felt, sent by Nature (who is invariably wise); 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. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over — the moment. Against such moments (with women too) there contrasted (as she laid her hat down) the bed and Baron Marbot and the candle half-burnt. Lying awake, the floor creaked; the lit house was suddenly darkened, and if she raised her head she could just hear the click of the handle released as gently as possible by Richard, who slipped upstairs in his socks and then, as often as not, dropped his hot-water bottle and swore!

  19. I read To The Lighhouse many years ago and it has stuck with me all these years even though (and I hate to admit this) I'm not quite sure what it was about. While I was reading it, though, I didn't mind.

    I love how she could take a moment and make it eternal. That sounds cheesy and kinda lame but that was the impression it left on me.

  20. You'll always be able to find books that break convention or do it in a way that isn't the 'expected' way. Henry James, Dickens, and all the other hugely famous writers whose works survive the test of time.

    But there are also some great silent movies people still enjoy, doesn't mean audiences will accept that kind of overblown acting style in a modern movie (even though Nic Cage gives it a damn good try).



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