Top positive review
I thought - wrongly as it turned out - that it was for people like me who were overawed by the grand dame of ...
Reviewed in India on 21 February 2018
When I first tried reading Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” in my early twenties, I was intimidated by its dense prose, long sentences, and paragraphs that sprawled across a full page. This modernist novel, written in “stream of consciousness” style and told through shifting perspectives, totally disoriented me. I remember giving it up after a few pages. Later, when I came across the movie “Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, I thought - wrongly as it turned out - that it was for people like me who were overawed by the grand dame of this genre, but were too pretentious to admit it. Actually, the movie was about a marriage slugfest and the title had nothing to do, whatsoever, with the eponymous writer’s famous book that defeated me so completely.
Then I grew up, got older, and perhaps matured as a reader. Because, when I took it up once again recently, the book sang to me.
The entire story is condensed into one single day of June 1923 in post-war London where Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway is busy with preparations for a party. During the course of the day, Clarissa chooses flowers, repairs her party dress, meets her old paramour, mingles with society’s glitterati, talks to a female friend with whom she was in love once, and muses on life’s existential concerns. In parallel, on the same day, there is yet another story unfolding - that of Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran, whose hallucinating mind is unraveling rapidly. The death of his friend Evans during the war has led to his PSTD. Struggling with her husband’s illness and her own ennui, his wife Lucrezia, takes Septimus to a specialist with the hope of a cure. As the day progresses, the two strands of the story intersect leading to a powerful climax that impacts the fate of the two protagonists.
The plot may appear wafer thin but the manner in which the story has been told is absolutely stunning. I have read quite a few modern writers who employ “stream of consciousness” narrative to allow the readers into the hearts and minds of the characters. However, I found that in this book Virginia Woolf employs a psychological realism that is quite unlike the others. The plot unfolds from multiple perspectives – many points of views and many voices. In some ways, I felt that her narrative technique is cinematic that includes flashbacks, rapid cuts, and panning between various characters as they respond to the same external event. For example, there is one scene where an aircraft is skywriting something and we see the event unfolding from the perspective of different characters, through their internal dialogue. Such amazing passages abound in the book.
Temporality and death loom large in the book. First, there is Clarissa who, having lost her youthful beauty, and lacking an occupation or an independent social role, fears that the drama of her life has ended. Then, there is Septimus Warren Smith who is very conscious of life and death and perhaps has better understanding about it than even his doctors. Clarissa and Septimus are intertwined because of their similar views on life and death. Finally, there is Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s old flame, who, frantic at the idea of death, stalks an unknown woman through the streets to forget about it.
Virginia Woolf’s handling of Septimus’ mental illness is heartrending. Here is a tortured soul who, having witnessed the death of his friend at the war front, blames himself because he did not feel anything at that fateful moment. But now, many years later, as demons begin to gather and hallucinations grow, he finds the face of his friend speaking to him from the branches of the trees. He is also let down by the medical profession as they fail to understand his plight and are more interested in committing him to a nursing home. According to these experts, it is improper for human beings to openly display the feebleness of their mind in society.
The book is far from dark and brooding as it might appear from the plot. Actually, the party that ends the novel is a life-affirming pageant for Clarissa. Her meeting with Sally Seton, a mother of five who had been an object of her crush many years ago, and her exchanges with Peter Walsh, a restless man she nearly married, affirm the choices that she made in the past. While proving us a glimpse of the hidden memories, troubled feelings, and fear of death that pervades the pompous and frivolous London society at her party, Clarissa also senses their bravery behind the façade that they put up. Despite the horrific news that she receives during the course of the evening, Clarissa and the novel come across as a tribute to optimism, endurance, and survival.
To my mind, “Mrs. Dalloway” is the work of a genius. I am sure that I will re-read this book sometime in the future - when I am no longer the reader that I am today. I am curious to know whether I would appreciate her artistry as much as I did on this reading, and whether it would have the same spine-tingling effect on me years later. Only time will tell.
I will go with 5 stars.