Review: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is fresh and clear nearly a hundred years after its publication

Human consciousness, accurately captured, doesn’t age and doesn’t go out of style.

I just finished reading Mrs. Dalloway, and it is the best pure Art I’ve experienced in years. It is beautiful, full stop. Reading it is like closing your eyes in a rowboat on the middle of the ocean — you’re rocked slowly, effortlessly back and forth, you inhale buffets of fresh salt air, you feel the warmth and shadow of the sun as clouds cover and uncover it — it is an art so sure, so natural, that reading it is relaxation. It is one of those rare books that, being read, makes the reader more deeply human. My alma mater committed educational malpractice when they gave me an English degree after I somehow dodged reading this in my courses.

nice rich lady, fears death
On the surface, just rich people running around, whiling away the time. Inside, so much more.

Mrs. Dalloway covers one summer day in London, as Clarissa Dalloway (née Parry) prepares a party for her and her upper-class friends. As she’s walking through London, as she’s running errands, as she’s sitting in her room, her mind wanders seamlessly between what’s in front of her, what she’s processing then and there, and her deep internal life. Woolf builds a facsimile of human thought so faithful that it breaks normal perception — Clarissa’s thoughts are your thoughts, the barriers between the reader and the read tremble, become porous. The technique is stream of consciousness, but I’ve never seen it used to better effect, done with more sheer control, more ability to enfold and instill empathy — not with Joyce, not with Proust, not even with Woolf’s other experimental novel, To the Lighthouse.

Look at this, the opening paragraphs of the book:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning–fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”–was that it?–”I prefer men to cauliflowers”–was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace–Peter Walsh.

The narrative moves so effortlessly from speech to thought, from the trivial everyday to a memory so important and deep-seated that it’s still clear, still rises unbidden to the forefront of the soul 30ish years later, and the effortlessness, the smoothness, is the beauty of the book. We are lulled into the thoughts of another; we inhabit them fully. A woman steps out of her front door into a beautiful London day, and immediately thinks of a beach when she was 18, and we are on the beach with her.

Woolf’s power does not limit her to just Mrs. Dalloway — wherever there’s a character, there’s an entrance into their internal state, and the characters range from bit players like a woman selling flowers on the street to the man Clarissa Dalloway almost married, Peter Walsh. The result is a deeply pleasurable flitting from consciousness to consciousness, like some demon who is sequentially possessing a fraction of the population of west London. Woolf follows about twenty characters this way, and they are mostly nearer or further friends and acquaintances of Clarissa Dalloway, the people between whom she is “laid out like a mist…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.”

The book moves forward in that it begins in the morning and ends in the evening, in that the people run errands, meet acquaintances, and talk to each other, but so much of the novel takes place in the characters’ internal lives, as so much of human experience takes place in our internal lives, that the plot is almost secondary. Its achievement is in its exploration of the thoughts and fears of each character, from little annoyances like a traffic jam to whoppers like the contemplation of death.

George Saunders’ conception of fiction as a “compassion-generating” machine applies here. Even though the characters might just be worried about getting the wrong type of flowers, or that they have the wrong dress for a party (and that’s not all they’re worried about), those trivial things are important to us, because they are important them, and while the book is open, we are them. Characters circle one round the other, their thoughts rising and falling, rising and falling, so flawlessly, so beautifully, that Woolf’s narrative is as powerful and eternal as the tides.