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.