Written By Ciaran Dermott
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Perhaps no novel represents the extraordinary literary innovation of Virginia Woolf other than her 1925 classic, Mrs Dalloway. A preeminent figure in British feminism and modernism, Woolf was the central figure of the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals which was to play a large part in the changing face of art during the early twentieth century, in particular the liberation of sex. Her writing is known for its poetic expression, its narrative fractures, and, the excruciating vividness of the sensual experiences of her characters. Along with Joyce and Faulkner, she is often widely credited as being a pioneer of a new style which would come to be known as the ‘stream of consciousness’. A style that changed the face of literature forever.
“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?”
Taking place over the course of a single day, Mrs Dalloway charts the party preparations of London socialite Clarissa Dalloway. The events of her day are, perhaps, mundane. But the manner in which the novel is narrated is incredible. Swapping effortlessly between times and places in Clarissa’s head, Woolf constructs a deep web of human consciousness that allows us a glimpse into the real mind of her character, even as it masterfully layers a complex plot that subtly relates to the events of the present day. We are given a mere day with Clarissa, however by the end of the novel we feel as though we may have seen an entire lifetime. This intense stream of consciousness style not only creates an accurate depiction of the human mind, allowing the reader to ride Clarissa’s thoughts as she is distracted from pondering romantic decisions from her past by the admiration of the flight of a bird which pierces her vision, but also allows draws attention to the subjectivity of time and space. The novel has the ability to change our understanding of the universe in which we live in the way that only the very best art really can.
Clarissa is not however the only character we are able to become acquainted with over the course of the book. The narration flows through the sad story of another character, the traumatized Septimus Warren Smith, whose tragic story may have more of an impact on our faithful hostess than we might originally think. As Clarissa’s party takes shape, people from her past make appearances and she is forced to confront the choices she made in her youth. Ultimately questions are raised as to whether Clarissa has been making her own decisions, or whether society has been making them for her.
“But nothing is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?) as the complete indifference of other people.”
Woolf questions a lot of tough themes, although always with a poetic flourish which reminds the reader they are reading a work of sublime literature. The First World War, repressed homosexuality, class and gender inequality, all lie just below the surface of this seemingly unremarkable day of party preparation. Like the figures in Clarissa’s past, they remain vague until they are needed, and then the narrative calls for them with an unhampered ferocity.
“She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable — this interminable life.”
A modern masterpiece, perhaps only hindered by its somewhat pretentious literary aspirations. Without being snobbish, very few casual readers will be able to dive into Woolf’s stream of consciousness style without becoming lost. Even for experienced readers who have studied literature, it is easy to get confused with the fleeting perspective. Perhaps, however, the cost of true art is a certain amount of exclusivity. To the intellectual, Mrs Dalloway is a novel that continues to hold diffident realisations.