Oh my goodness... how does one write a review for a piece of text so bursting at the seams with all sorts of goodies as this novel is?
On the surface, it appears to be a boring little account of a boring woman getting ready for throwing a boring snobbish party at the end of the depicted day, with various interludes and people wandering around London during the course of the day, thinking all sorts of freeflowing thoughts and having flashbacks to their pasts. ...but every time you examine this novel to try and critique it, something new about the novel strikes you, until you are at a loss as to what to take and what to leave out...
I was about to finally embark on a completely new review of it, but just before I started writing down my impressions of this work as a cleverly crafted architectural construction made up of words, themes and concepts, it suddenly struck me out of the blue that Mrs Dalloway appears to be a parody of James Joyce’s Ulysses; and the more I thought about it, the clearer the picture became in my mind.
Consider this: Both novels experiment in very similar ways with structure and style. They are both diurnal novels (they take place in the space of one day), and while Joyce makes it very clear that he is parodying the Homeric Epic, condensing the form to take place in a single day, one can say the same of Mrs Dalloway, except that it is much more subtly done in the latter, and also can be more likened to an elegy than an epic, since Mrs Dalloway jumps around chronologically (almost more like a postmodern novel than one from the Modernist genre from which it derives) and is more lyrical in tone.
In both works there are two main characters although we share the consciousness and thoughts of many characters. While both novels dispense with the authority of a central narrative voice, there is a small structural difference between the two here. While the reader jumps from one character to the next in Joyce’s Ulysses, the reader is led out on a certain traceable path in Mrs Dalloway, and change of focus to the consciousness of the next character happens only when they are within physical distance of one another.
So, in Mrs Dalloway, it is almost as if we were an invisible psychic voyeur, travelling from one mind to another, and being carried from one location to another by the people whose thoughts we are privy to.
Both novels are physically grounded in one city, Ulysses in Dublin, Mrs D in London, but contain many allusions to other times and locations. In Mrs Dalloway, though, the time is marked on the hour--either by the chiming of Big Ben, or by a character noting the time on a clock, so if anything, Woolf is adding to Joyce’s structure.
Both are intertextual and allude to other works of literature. Another slight difference is that although Mrs Dalloway (the novel) certainly makes a lot of literary allusions, especially to Shakespeare, you can read it in a sitting and still get a lot out of it with just a fairly rudimentary knowledge of literature and the classics, unlike the daunting Ulysses (and may I say it, much of the work of TS Eliot, whom Woolf admired). In Mrs Dalloway, the literary references are just the topping on the cake, not the cake itself. The text doesn't depend on you knowing history, or having read anything else at all, because there are so many themes and bits of story woven through it--there is at least something for almost everyone to find in it, depending on your particular proclivities or tastes.
I shall have to investigate further on this Mrs Dalloway vs Ulysses idea, since I do know that Woolf was busy writing this as Joyce’s Ullysses was published; and there definitely was no collaboration between the two on the writing of their novels.
No wait... social commentary first, frills later. I’ll come back to my Woolf/Joyce obsession later.
The most important thing in my opinion about this novel is the social commentary. There is so much of it here--this entire novel is a satire, and Mrs Dalloway herself, the uppish, dull snob, is a figure of satire, the object of Woolf’s subtle scorn; part of the fine irony being that Mrs Dalloway is not a stranger to meting out scorn herself.
Three of the more ‘personal’ commentaries that stood out for me, were the commentaries on Britishness and the class structures of its society, but even more importantly the feminist and sexual orientation/sexuality/marriage themes and the commentary on psychiatric treatment.
The feminism theme is intermixed with a homosexuality theme, but there is more focus on the lesbian aspect of the homosexuality theme. Woolf depicts women and their own passions and needs and potential homo-erotic desires as being of necessity repressed due to the strictures placed upon society by its patriarchal focus.
Woolf subtly subverts; how slyly she inserts her secret messages. Sally Seton, Mrs Dalloway’s best friend in their youth, before they submitted to marriage, excited passion in her, made her flower and burn, but now that Mrs Clarissa Dalloway is married, her passions are dead, cold, and she seems to feel mainly duty in respect of her marriage. She had failed her husband by not feeling enough passion for him, and is therefore delegated to her narrow virginal bed in the attic.
One notices that Clarissa never expresses outright passion for any particular man. Never does Clarissa express the same passion for a man as she does for Sally Seton. ...and now her fire is spent.
Clarissa's take on marriage is very interesting indeed:
For in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him. ... But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable, and when it came to that scene in the little garden by the fountain, she had to break with him or they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced...
Intolerable? ...both of them ruined? Is Peter too demanding for her? -and too flighty, perhaps? Should a marriage be a staid, stable institution where each person has enough space to be themselves? ..and yet, what does Clarissa really have to show for her life? I'll have to re-read this novel. (I still wanted to, in any case, in order to suss out the bit where a beggar woman sings an ancient song--those passages felt like poetry to me, and I think that Woolf wanted to say something in them about the passage of time, of archetypes and permanence in spite of flux?)
...but getting back to the social commentary--with the exception that she seems to have felt stronger passion for a woman than for a man, Clarissa Dalloway seems to be the perfect woman according to the mores of the early twentieth century. She has no ‘masculine’ interests, and her sole accomplishment in life appears to be that she is a good hostess.
Sally Seton, on the other hand, appears to be a rebel. Not only did she , in her youth, act in ways that are frowned upon by society, but especially frowned upon for women. For instance, she discusses uncomfortable social issues with Clarissa and reads and discusses the works of Plato and William Morris, a libertarian socialist, and together they aspire to change the world.
..and yet, later on we learn that Sally has also dutifully settled down to become a wife and mother. Sally is a smart woman, and she knows what her options are. Not many.
One has to ask yourself, given the memories Clarissa had of how rebellious and passionate she and Sally were when they were young and unmarried, is Woolf not telling us that females have to kill their inner passions to fit in with society--with male, patriarchal expectations of what they should be and how they should behave? This seems to be the implication in the passage: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.
The novel was published in 1925. Although first-wave feminist groups had already gained wide support towards the end of the nineteenth century in countries like the US and France, beyond small protests and smaller, less formal groups and individuals speaking out for female suffrage, organized feminist groups hadn’t gone mainstream in Britain by the time that Woolf was born, and she herself had to taste the bitter pill of educational discrimination, not to mention sexual prejudice in the psychiatric treatment meted out to her. Gay rights weren’t established either, so writers still had to be careful how they voiced both their views on homosexuality and on women’s rights. Woolf slips in a lot of subtle sarcasm, though, disguised just enough to keep her out of hot water.
Nowhere is the sarcasm of Woolf, a writer herself, more obvious than in the following passages:
But she [Lady Bruton] had to write. ... After a morning's battle beginning, tearing up, beginning again, she used to feel the futility of her own womanhood as she felt it on no other occasion, and would turn gratefully to the thought of Hugh Whitbread who possessed—no one could doubt it—the art of writing letters to the Times. A being so differently constituted from herself, with such a command of language; able to put things as editors like them put; .... Lady Bruton often suspended judgement upon men in deference to the mysterious accord in which they, but no woman, stood to the laws of the universe; knew how to put things; knew what was said; so that if Richard advised her, and Hugh wrote for her, she was sure of being somehow right.
...in other words, a woman’s place in the universe, is where the men place her. Women are even too dumb to write their own letters, it's only when a man writes them for her, that they are "right".
With the character of Mr Dalloway, who is simply a good hostess and nothing else, Woolf seems to be saying: this is the value that society places on a well-bred woman: to be merely ornamental, to be an instrument toward her husband’s wellbeing and never to live for herself. Also, I think that Clarissa's parties, the parties where people just show up just to be seen, in which having the Prime Minister show up is a feather in your cap, is a device that Woolf uses to show up the vacuousness of the life of the middle-aged 'successful' upper middle-class woman, and this is definitely one of the commentaries on the class system in the novel.
The novel ends with Clarissa’s extraordinary nondescript mediocrity: even a man in love with her can find nothing more remarkable about her than simply her presence, the fact that she exists. All he can remark about her, is: “There she was.”
There are hints at socialist leanings peeping at us from various places in the novel, and we especially see the sting of being excluded from the prerogatives of the upper classes in the bitterness expressed by the Dalloway daughter's tutor, Mrs Kilman.
Regarding Woolf’s scorn for the psychiatrist in the novel, and the disastrous consequences of his proposed ‘treatment’--since Virginia herself suffered at the hands of early twentieth century “psychiatry”, a prescription of no activity along with being force-fed, she has some first-hand experience at the hand of the kind of quackery she describes in the novel. Unfortunately, discussing Woolf’s commentary in this regard (the trials and treatment of Septimus Smith, Clarissa’s structural antagonist in the novel) might be giving away spoilers, so I’ll desist in favor of getting on to another hobby horse of mine, Woolf’s recurring structural and metaphorical themes.
Probably the things I love most about Woolf’s art, is her exquisite imagery and her use of metaphor. Here is one right at the start : “ what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.”
Isn’t that a truly fresh metaphor, in more ways than one?
How about this clever play of light and darkness to announce exactly that-- a theme of intermittent light and darkness, joy and pain, life and death:
Signs were interchanged, when, as if to fulfil some scheme arranged already..., now they struck light to the earth, now darkness. Calmly and competently, Elizabeth Dalloway mounted the Westminster omnibus. Going and coming, beckoning, signalling, so the light and shadow which now made the wall grey, now the bananas bright yellow, now made the Strand grey, now made the omnibuses bright yellow, seemed to Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting-room; watching the watery gold glow and fade...
Here psychologically speaking Elizabeth is in light, and Septimus is in darkness. Ain’t that neat?..and that is how it goes in the entire novel. Every single thing that every character hears or sees, or what happens in the physical reality in the novel, can be seen as a metaphorical background for what is conceptually happening. In that sense it is very artificial, but aren’t all works of fiction artificial structures?
Mrs Dalloway is a highly stylized work of art, its form and imagery constructed with mathematical precision, and yet part of its charm is that it is also subtly enough rendered with tasteful brush strokes in pleasing but subdued colors, that one doesn’t notice its artifice immediately.
I have discovered that in general, Woolfe’s works tend to be structured like music that has certain leitmotifs echoing through the work in a recurring pattern. People familiar with the structure of musical compositions will know what I mean here—remember that analysis of “Peter and The Wolf “ by Prokofiev that you once did at school all those years ago? Those ‘themes’ that are declared when each character is about to enter the scene? Woolf does a similar thing with symbols like birds and flowers in her texts. And the novels often start off with symbols that she is going to be weaving through the work. In The Waves, for instance, it is water (and a wave movement/pattern) that she uses in this way, and The Waves starts off with a description of water (the sea) and of intermittent patterns (waves). This way, the reader is alerted to look out for the recurrence of the theme throughout the novel.
Flowers is one of the themes in Mrs Dalloway, and mention of them echo intermittently throughout the novel. Some people make a game of flower and bird-spotting in Woolf’s novels. Personally, I’d love to know how many times larks are to be found on her pages.
Another little game I'd like to try out, is to see if there is approximately the same amount of text between the hours counted off in the novel. Sound obsessive? Yip. ..but I suspect Woolf was probably a bit of an OCD sufferer herself, -she had to get her structure just-so...
...talking of obsessions, my Joyce/ Dalloway obsession is calling to me again...
One does know that Woolf was partly impressed, partly a bit condescending towards Joyce’s huge novel. Since Mrs Dalloway is all about satire, I’m conjecturing... I wouldn’t be surprised if Virginia decided to include Mr Joyce’s novel in her satirical comment about culture and society, by having her work echo aspects of it.
Finally: But no, this can’t be correct, I don’t think? ... in one breath VW condemns Joyce as "boring and vulgar" and yet, she admires his experimentation with style and form, commenting that Joyce is “attempting to do away with the machinery”. The "Mrs Dalloway vs Ulysses" mystery, has started taking on the dimensions of a faint (or not so faint) obsession with me. As I’ve started digging for more on the subject, I found that other people had come to the same realization as myself, and some are defending Woolf and others are more accusatory--
no accusations are ever openly made
(or perhaps I didn't search thoroughly enough: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/262308536?page=2&type=review#comment_72534105 ); most of them are veiled...and this is because if anybody was not telling, it was Virginia herself. Virginia is more often than not, dismissive of Joyce in her letters and diaries, and yet some admiration for him shines through in unguarded moments. I am reminded of Henry James’ attitude toward Poe—overtly scornful of his childhood literary hero, and yet, there are influences to be seen in the works...
Was Woolf indulging in a bit of literary one-upmanship here? "I can do it more elegantly and soooooo much shorter than you can...?" :D
I guess we’ll never know. Be that as it may, this novel shines on its own little pedestal as an artist’s delicate tapestry of satire, social commentary, structure and metaphor.
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