Mrs. Dalloway is the first book that I've finished from my Classics Club list, and I cannot imagine a better start to my project than this book. I've been meaning to read this book for a long time now, so I had built up a lot of expectations for it. I am happy to say that Mrs. Dalloway both defied and exceeded all of my expectations, and was a more finely crafted, emotionally resonant, honest, and enjoyable book than I could have hoped.
The book takes place over the course of one day, starting with Clarissa Dalloway going to buy flowers for her party, and finishing at the end of the party late that night. Through this one day the reader is given a window into the life of Clarissa Dalloway, the central character, and to other characters that are connected to her in some way or another. We see Clarissa's marriage to her husband Robert, old suitors whom she rejected, friends from her childhood, and people she passes on the street. It does not have much of a plot, but is instead driven by vivid characterization and a dreamlike style. Mrs. Dalloway is the portrait of a woman, a flawed and human woman, and of the many people who orbit around her in one day,
The first thing that really struck me about Mrs. Dalloway was the style, for which it is rightly famous. Like many of her modernist contemporaries, Woolf experimented with style, in this case using a stream-of-consciousness narrative that focuses on portraying the consciousness and thought patterns of her characters. Since people almost never think in logical or linear paths, the narrative wanders from subject to subject. The style matches these wandering thoughts perfectly, with the sentence lengths and amount of description changing to match the mood of the narrator. This style makes the characters thoughts feel incredibly real and honest, like you're looking through a window into each character's mind. The narrative moves seamlessly between characters, transitioning from one narrative perspective to another both smoothly and without warning, making it sometimes difficult to realize that it's happened until the end of a sentence or paragraph. While this can sometimes be confusing, it is a perfect way to transition from one person's experience to the next; it makes the book as a whole just as wandering and fluid as the individual narratives. It's things like that, the way that the larger and smaller structures reinforce each other and work together thematically, that make Woolf such a good writer, and make her books so effective.
The stream-of-consciousness style and the free-indirect narrative mean that the characters in Mrs. Dalloway are incredibly rich and lifelike. Each time there is a change of narrator, the reader is given an entirely different perspective on the characters. When Clarissa is narrating, she seems like a reasonable and good person, and her decisions, actions, and estimations of the other characters make as much sense to the reader as they do to her. When the narrator changes to Peter Walsh, we see Clarissa in a different light, more silly and flawed. When Clarissa described her marriage early in the book, I was inclined to dislike her husband Richard, and Peter's opinion of him only supported those feelings. But during the brief section where Richard narrates, I saw him for what he was, not evil or cruel, but a well-meaning, flawed, and all-together too human man. Woolf's characterization, her ability to portray the feelings and motivations of characters so well that the reader understands and believes them, her insistence on making even her antagonists real people, is something that I found completely surprising and utterly pleasing.
The style and characterization in Mrs. Dalloway are not just aesthetically pleasing and inherently interesting; like in any good novel, they also serve thematic purposes. Many of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway are detached or separated from the people around them. Clarissa is described as "cold" by a number of characters, and her marriage to Richard is a distant one. Peter Walsh just returned to England from a long stay in India, and is constantly reminded of how different the two places are, and how much people have changed, or not changed, since he left. Septimus Smith has shell shock from his time in the war, and is kept mentally distant from both his wife and from reality in general. The narrative voice compliments and draws attention to these many kinds of distance through the use of free indirect style. Rather than using "I" or "we" like in a first person narration, the novel is in the free indirect style, which is a special kind of limited third person narration. Rather than being an impartial narrator, in this style the third person narrator sees and describes things only how the character would see or describe them. This makes the narrator and the characters nearly indistinguishable, but still separates them through the use of third person pronouns. This narrative style allows Woolf to provide a rich and detailed portrait of the characters using stream-of-consciousness writing while still keeping the narrator detached from both the characters and the author. This separation between narrator, character, author, and reader matches the separation between the characters themselves, and puts the reader in the same situation as the characters.
As much as this novel is a portrait of the distance between people, it is also a story of people trying to make connections. Clarissa's party is, above all else, her attempt to bring people together. Woolf's use of smooth transitions between characters, the repetition of ideas and places in the thoughts of different characters, and the lack of chapters and rarity of section breaks all endeavor to make connections between the wandering strands of narrative in the same way that the characters try to make connections with each other. The themes of this novel pull in two separate directions, pointing toward the loneliness of the modern world and the many ways in which people find connection. Woolf manages to incorporate both of those elements and, through her mastery of style, fuse them into a coherent and aesthetically pleasing whole.
I feel like I should mention some of the problems that people have with Virginia Woolf. Many people find the fact that she only writes about upper-middle-class white people and completely ignores the existence of the working class and minorities to be problematic. I think that this is a valid critique not of any single novel, as no novel can have everything in it, but of her output as a whole, especially her nonfiction. In Mrs. Dalloway there is only one working-class character, Ms. Kilman, who is not portrayed in a good light even in her own narration. This erasure of the working class and minorities is a problem not just with Virginia Woolf, but with both literary Modernism and early feminism as a whole. I think it's important to interrogate the limitations of these works even as we enjoy the beauty and virtuosity of the writing. Another problematic element is the depiction of empire in Mrs. Dalloway, specifically the British colonization of India. I personally don't know what to make of this theme, which returns multiple times throughout the novel. Partially because of the free indirect style, I don't know where the characters' opinions on the matter stop and where Woolf's ideas and possible biases begin. I will have to read the novel a few more times before I can say anything conclusive about empire in Mrs. Dalloway, but I wanted to throw it out there as something to pay attention to if you are reading this yourself.
Mrs. Dalloway is often hailed as one of the modern classics, and after reading it I can absolutely understand why. Woof's use of style and structure serve to paint a picture of a woman, a truly human woman, complete with flaws and strengths, full of new hopes and failed dreams, and to show the people who come into contact with her throughout the course of a day. Despite the high literary style, it feels honest and uncontrived. The characters feel familiar, like the people you meet every day, and the feelings and thoughts they have could very well be your own. It is a beautiful, luminous, haunting book that will only improve upon rereading. I had a lot of expectations going in to this reading, and I am happy to say that Mrs. Dalloway exceeded them all.
Rating: 5 stars.