Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

title: Mrs. Dalloway [purchase here]
author: Virginia Woolf
published: originally 1925; my edition 1953
genre: literary fiction
pages: 296
source: my parent's bookshelf and now mine :)

GENERAL SPOILER ALERT:  If you've never read Mrs. Dalloway, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here.  Since it was published in 1925, I'm writing with the assumption that I'm the one late to the party (which is usually the case with the classics) and many of you lovers of literary fiction have probably either read it already or are super familiar with the plot.  So, if not, stop.  Now.  You've been warned. 

"So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying 'that is all' more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all.  Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking." (page 58-59)

My parents are in the midst of a remodeling project (they're adding french doors that open onto a deck off of the dining room), and a crucial part of any home project is the purge, the figuring out of what to get rid of and what to keep.  On the chopping block was a bookshelf full of vintage books, mostly classics, that they'd acquired over the years.  With the exception of my recent splurge at Strand, I've been willfully resisting bookstores, so I'm excited for the shopping bag full of books that I'll be taking home to NYC bit by bit over my next several visits.

The first book from my haul I dove into was Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, chosen because it was referenced multiple times in Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest, and I wanted in on the references.

This copy was my mom's, evidently for a class in college.  I LOVED reading her notes in the front and back of the book (doesn't she have neat handwriting!?!), and it was pretty fascinating to see how they were teaching the tome when she was in college, though I wish I had read the notes after I read the book.  I kept looking for evidence of Clarissa's latent lesbianism and kept waiting for Septimus to finally crack.

I really enjoyed Woolf's narrative style.  It reminded me of a clean, steady continuous shot in a film, where the director is able to jump from one character's perspective to another seamlessly.  The shift between each characters' perspective seemed effortless and Woolf was able to weave the central characters' story lines together in a way that made sense and didn't seem forced (which is an issue many authors have when they try to compose a coherent novel comprised of multiple interconnecting stories).  

Like Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway takes place on a Wednesday in June (the entire 700+ pages of Ulysses takes place on June 16th, 1904), and like Joyce, Woolf is incredibly focused on the interior life of her characters, on the innumerable thoughts, experiences and impressions that collectively make up how an individual experiences the world. However, Woolf succeeds where I've often felt Joyce fails, in that her purpose seems to be communication whereas Joyce many times seems content with incomprehension and inaccessibility for the common reader (ex:  Finnegan's Wake).  To be fair, I haven't read Ulysses yet (I will!  It's on the list and is coming, along with a Bloomsday Reader, in that same shopping bag full of books from my parents!), but reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school left a bad taste in my mouth.  Even though both Woolf and Joyce are exploring the interior lives of characters, Joyce's exploration seems masturbatory and personal whereas Woolf's feels open and communicative.  Maybe I'll change my mind after spending more time with Joyce...

Balance and counterbalance seem to factor heavily into Mrs. Dalloway.  Woolf is constantly balancing two oppositional forces (desire v. duty, coming together v. falling apart, masculine v. feminine) and these conflicts serve to unify all the disparate action occurring over the course of the story: Clarissa pulling herself together at her dressing table in preparation for the evening's party balanced against Septimus' slow descent and unraveling to the point of suicide; her desire for Peter Walsh balanced against her dutiful marriage to Richard Dalloway; the vibrant Sally Seton of Clarissa's youth (with whom she shared a passionate kiss) balanced against the woman Sally becomes post-marriage to Lord Rosseter; women who feel deeply yet pull themselves together and press on balanced against the men, acculturated to feel nothing, who give up and fall apart.  There is just so much going on in terms of detail and imagery but it was all essential and working toward the common unifying themes.  Such a tight piece of writing!  Mrs. Dalloway is a master class in revision and paring down a lengthy piece to just the purely essential.

And the semi-colons!  Recently, I listened to UC Berkeley Professor John Bishop via iTunesU discuss Mrs. Dalloway, and he pointed out that her use of semi-colons were another example of coming together v. falling apart:  semi-colons take two sentences/ideas and bring them together, making them one sentence.  Pretty damn clever, Mrs. Woolf.  

Bishop also pointed out some interesting parallels between Woolf's life and that of her central characters of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, which I hadn't realized because I haven't read much on Woolf's biography.  Woolf was a central member of the Bloomsbury Group, and often hosted parties and gatherings for those involved, so, like Mrs. Dalloway, a part of her life concerned the bringing of people together.  Woolf later committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and drowning herself, allowing herself to come apart like Septimus.  Crazy how life imitates art.

Rubric rating: 9. I loved it and I'm excited to explore more by Woolf.  In fact, To The Lighthouse is on my nightstand...

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