Woolf in Winter: Mrs. Dalloway

Before I read Virginia Woolf, I knew a fair bit about her and her work, but her chief characteristic in my mind was the “stream-of-consciousness” I’d read about, and she felt very wrapped up in the idea of the internal life.

It turns out that was a pretty good idea, but not in the way I expected. Where I thought Woolf’s narration would focus on the interior, instead her characters’ thoughts are all externalized. Clarissa Dalloway does not go around London thinking and feeling, but noticing the outside world, remarking on it, appreciating it, being taken back by it to another time—in which memories she’ll also notice things, remark on things. The narrative is almost materialistic in this way, because of its sensuality—the characters are reacting to sights, sounds, smells, with which they’re surrounded in an incredibly lush and vivid London.

It all makes for an incredibly absorbing text—especially on re-read. After living through that whole June day with Mrs. Dalloway & Co., now that we know her quite well, the opening scene of her in Bond Street is almost jarring in how crisply her character comes through in every paragraph. There is Peter Walsh’s pocket knife on the very first page, and the first mention of “the perfect hostess” on the fifth—Woolf wastes no time in introducing the motifs that will recur like haunting memories. “[S]he had cried over it in her bedroom,” and she still can’t get that nagging reproach out of her mind.

Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts of death start up right away as well, and death too is wrapped up in materialism. Not to say that Mrs. Dalloway is upset about her earthly body; on the contrary. An atheist, she is confident that she will live on, metaphorically—in the very same material things she notices and remarks on every day:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

Some of the most beautiful passages are about death, passing on. An unidentified figure of greatness passes in a motor car,

an enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth. The face in the motor car will then be known.

A very different, but just as vivid, vision of London. There is a great sense of joy at life, regardless of the fact that it will one day cease, and there is joy in even the wedding rings and gold fillings when they are buried under a grass-grown path. Mrs. Dalloway’s joy intrudes on her thoughts: “All the same, that one day should follow another…that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park…it was enough.” And death is only “unbelievable” because it means “no one…would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant…”! For all the heavy emotion that is indeed here, there is also an irrepressible excitement about this whole sensory world that Mrs. Dalloway just can’t stop thinking about.

Update: Check out more Woolf in Winter posts on Mrs. Dalloway here.

7 comments to Woolf in Winter: Mrs. Dalloway

  • I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book very much. The points about death are very enlightening. I clearly need to read this book again. But I am learning a great deal from the other Woolf in Winter readers. My post (such as it is) is now up:

    http://freshinkbooks.blogspot.com/2010/01/mrs-dalloway-by-virgina-woolf.html

  • You picked some of my favorite quotes, Nicole! (Oh, who am I kidding? They’re all favorites.) It’s great that you point out the value of re-reading here, and went back to the first few pages – it really is remarkable how the characters are all fully there from the very beginning, isn’t it? And the interweaving of the outside world with the interior, the past with the present – another thing I adore about this novel. Great post, and thanks so much for joining us!

  • That quote about Clarissa being laid out like mist on the trees is a favorite of mine. It’s amazing how much talk of death there is in this book, and yet Clarissa’s excitement about life provides perfect balance.

  • This focus upon external objects is one of the things that makes Cunningham’s The Hours such a great book too. With all of his detailed focus on the objects of the work. Given the famed interior monologues of Mrs. Dalloway, a first time reader might not expect this richness of detail about the material world. Nice post! Looking forward to your thoughts on To the Lighthouse at the end of the month.

  • Eva

    I think it’s incredible how Woolf orchestrates Mrs. Dalloway…none of the words or ideas seem extraneous at all. And you’re right; from the very first page, the book just feels so self-assured!

  • Your posts are always so insightful, Nicole. I didn’t realize till now how external Clarissa’s thoughts were. This is why Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness isn’t tediously dramatic. This was my first time to read her so am learning so much from everyone’s posts. I admit to being somewhat disoriented when I read it, but loved the language and craving to do a reread.

  • Thanks for your kind words about my post. I really enjoyed reading your remarks about Mrs D. For me, the one thing that has come out of the whole discussion is that there is so much symbolism in the text, and so many meanings to be made from reading it. There are so many beautiful passages, and I especially like the one you chose to quote, about being laid out like a mist between people. Woolf had a way with words, no doubt about that.

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