“If Woolf was better acquainted with profound sorrow than most, she was also, by some mysterious manifestation of will, better than almost anyone at conveying the pure joy of being alive. The quotidian pleasure of simply being present in the world.” – Michael Cunningham
Mrs Dalloway follows Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares to give a party on a day that sparks memories from her youth and ruminations about life and the decisions she has made. Point of view sets flight and alights on a myriad of characters with similar preoccupations. In many ways this is a novel about failure – no one has turned out as they had hoped, or imagined. They have compromised, muted themselves, become whole new, less courageous and seemingly interesting people.
Sounds kind of depressing, you may be thinking. But here is where the magic of Woolf comes in – this isn’t a tragedy. It’s just the way the cookie tends to crumble. I repeat: not a tragedy! Most lives are not made up of fireworks and triumphs, but of quotidian living where not much happens; where smiles have to be produced, work accomplished, coffee drank (hey, Prufrock). And yet Woolf makes the most ordinary things in an ordinary person’s day – objects, small interactions, the workings of a city – yield joy and meaning. A “fresh” morning becomes a “lark”, exclamation mark.
The contrast to Clarissa’s comparatively charmed life is Septimus Smith. He is a war veteran suffering from PTSD and possibly schizophrenia. London offers unbearable stimuli as he hears birds singing in Greek, the face of a friend killed in battle appearing behind railings, as “the world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames”. He too is in search of meaning, and recalls his youth’s desire of being a poet. He, too, has failed; or rather been failed, catastrophically so.
Intertwined with the characters’ personal lives is context: the novel is a picture of London life in the mid-1920s and of how technological developments started to affect communal spaces and unify personal moments into moments of shared experience. This is Woolf’s gig: capturing The Moment. It’s in the language and the content. It tries to represent in the most realistic way possible what it is like to experience a variety of thoughts, sensations and observations within seconds. Time and memory are not linear in our minds. And what are we, but our minds? What a mess. A mess that culminates in intensity.
In Mrs Dalloway, content takes a backseat to form, and I have to mention her use of stream of consciousness, partly because of my obsession with Woolf, but also because it’s inevitable. She was a pioneer of the stream of consciousness in English, along with Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce. The third-person free indirect style and her characteristic use of punctuation create a fast-paced rhythm that emulates excitement and urgency. Most sentences give you a sense that you are being led to a crescendo, to a revelation, to a climax. It’s exhilarating. This is how she conveys what Michael Cunningham phrased as “the pure joy of being alive.”
Tomorrow I will be back with a passage that I hope will convince you that all this talk of intensity and punctuation and whatnot does, in fact, have legs. Come back then, yes?