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.

The problem with J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring sitting on a shelf
So great, and so unopened.

Tolkien is the single most influential fantasy writer in history, but I’m struggling with my re-read of Lord of the Rings

Few authors are as impressive as J.R.R. Tolkien, and few literary feats are as influential as The Lord of the Rings and its extensive legendarium. In the first half of the 20th century, Tolkien built a cohesive, powerful lore that would determine the shape of fantasy writing for decades. Fantasy without Tolkien is like astronomy without the solar system. There are other stars, like Dunsany, the Brothers Grimm, and the Arabian Nights, but the foundation and vantage point of modern fantasy would be annihilated. That being said, there are definite problems in LOTR that are keeping me from completing a successful reread.

Hobbits and MacGuffins

First off, everything in LOTR is subjugated to the Quest, to taking a MacGuffin of Power to a Place of Significance (credit for that phrasing to N.K. Jemisin). It’s a great quest, a beautiful quest. No quest greater. The problem is, once the ultimate outcome of the singular driving force of the books is known (they melt the One Ring, hooray!), a lot of the page-turning juice evaporates from the story. As Frodo evades Nazgûl, orcs, and barrow-wights, the certainty of his mission’s ultimate success makes the prospect of him becoming an abrupt damp spot somewhere in Eregion much less concerning, especially when I can remember every betrayal and obstacle along the way. No future readthrough of LOTR will ever be as exciting as the journey I took in 7th grade.

Right, Wrong, and Nothing in Between

Also, the morality of the world is so stark it’s barren. The characters range from demonic malefactor to angelic savior. Anyone between those two extremes is either an upstanding and respectable servant of good or a servile and contemptible thrall to evil — no one has complex motivations. For comparison, Voldemort is one of the most cartoonishly villainous antagonists in the history of the written word, but even Harry Potter had people like Snape and Draco. The first repents and becomes a double agent, and the second is just a particularly virulent bully who gets in way over his head. Neither is a gleeful servant of evil. LOTR’s absence of moral nuance leads to an empathic flatness — it’s hard to gain purchase on anything emotionally interesting. Not to mention this all-or-nothing black-or-white approach to right and wrong facilitates orcing, the problematic classification of a race as less-than-human and deserving of genocide. N.K. Jemisin discusses it succinctly here (she is the current apex fantasy writer, and fingers crossed that The Stone Sky wins her a third Hugo in a row). The presence of an entire underclass that deserves to be murdered in LOTR sours the whole narrative.

Who Run the World?

Finally, there are almost no women of significance. Margaret Atwood sums up the third problem well:

In Tolkien, there are hardly any women at all, only two, but three if you count the spider, which I do. With a name like Shelob you really can’t miss it.

If your first impulse is to say “But there are four women — you’re forgetting Éowyn!” you’re missing the point. The principal cast of characters is overwhelmingly male, so much so that their quest becomes kind of a stag party, which leaves the book with all the interpersonal depth of Hot Tub Time Machine. One of the major beauties of literature is how it explores the struggles and complexities of being human, and that’s hard to access fully if the main narrative is basically a bunch of dudes on a camping trip.

The good outweighs the bad, but not for me, not right now

Lord of the Rings is glorious, and always will be. I can still see, clear and entire, Fangorn Forest, the Mines of Moria, and the white towers of Gondor. I can smell the ale spilled on the floor of the Green Dragon at Bree and feel the bite of the cold wind on Weathertop. Middle-earth has been paying rent in my brain since I was in middle school. It smashed its way in through the sheer weight of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, the thick, heavy bones that support everything he wrote. Tolkien’s masterpiece is a wonder. It is irreplaceable and irreplicable, but the MacGuffin-based plot, the simplistic morality, and the lack of interpersonal texture are all making my 3rd readthrough difficult.