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.

Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is the literary equivalent of going to the gym

It’s easy to make excuses not to do it, you wonder halfway through why you’re doing this to yourself, but then you feel great for the rest of the day

I did something I haven’t done in a while. I read an extreme academic heavyweight, To the Lighthouse. I bought it eleven years ago for 2€30 in a used bookshop in Angers, France, and it’s been following me, unread, from apartment to apartment, through degree after degree, through breaking up, getting back together, and getting married — the beautiful smooth blue pebbles on its cover a soft presence in the back of my life. Driven by the English major’s vague guilt at not having read all of the Canon, the recommendation of a friend, and the glowing praise of the greatest living American writer, I finally tackled it.

Woolf's book in front of a picture of lots of books
Prettiest book I own, and I didn’t open it for a over a decade.

It is the story of the Ramsay family, their hangers-on, and the time they spend at a beach house on the Isle of Skye. Each page was a struggle. This is the kind of book for which critical praise exists — if I hadn’t taken it on faith that this book was great, I probably wouldn’t have gotten past p. 50. Each sentence is so incredibly dense, sometimes German in its refusal to resolve until the final word. Very little happens. There are heaping piles of interiority. But it’s so good. The language is perfect and sure. Woolf’s understanding of the inner processes and concerns of her characters is powerful. The flow from perspective to perspective is effortless, a smooth stone skipping across a clear stream.

Mrs. Ramsay is the dominating voice of the first section of the book, and Woolf’s expert use of stream-of-consciousness means I know Mrs. Ramsay better than I know many of my actual friends. Nearly everything in the book is stream-of-consciousness, happening in the moment, inside this or that character’s head. One example is from the onset of night, when Mrs. Ramsay is finally freed from all the emotional work of being the matriarch, the social center of the entire extended household:

For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

Woolf had so little space (225 pages), and for many characters could only give slivers, but the artistry of it is that those slivers were everything — I barely read anything about James and Cam (youngest son and daughter of the Ramsay clan) but have such a powerful understanding of who they are because the small pieces of them I was given were so perfectly selected as to sketch an entire human being.

BIG spoiler coming up, but I mean, there’s barely any plot, so

And Mrs. Ramsay — oh Mrs. Ramsay. Kind matriarch, wants the best for everyone. When she dies, it is sudden and unexplained. The way the book treats her death closely mirrors actual familial loss. Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, will, and body fill the first section of the book. In the last section, she’s just gone. Absent, with her friends and family wandering around trying to see the shape of their lives now that she’s not in it. The vacuum left by her loss pulls at everything that happens for the rest of the book. Lily Briscoe, a family friend, stands on the lawn of the beach house and thinks of Mrs. Ramsay:

To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have — to want and want — how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! … [s]uddenly, the empty drawing-room steps … the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness.

That is what grief is. To want and want and not to have. The physical hollowness of loss. All the pieces of your life swirling around a center that is no longer there. My mom died last summer, and this is how I felt. This is how I will always feel. And Virginia Woolf is good enough to capture this piece of universal human psychology in a century-old book.

I am a huge partisan of action, of Things Happening in Books. Literature was invented for story-telling, not to impress your graduate advisor, and when authors forget that, the result is the most boring book ever written. However, when a practitioner of interiority literature is as impressive as Woolf, when her insight pierces to the center of all human thought and action, the absence of a car chase or two barely matters. The things that happen in our skulls are events, after all, and an author capable of accurately capturing what makes us us is a gift.