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Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway

. 2 min read

Mrs Dalloway is one of my favourite books by Virginia Woolf, but To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts are equally brilliant and of course I greatly enjoyed Orlando as well. Mrs Dalloway recounts the thoughts, the doubts, the worries and the feelings of Mrs Dalloway, an upper-class woman in London, as she prepares for the party she will give later that day. Actually, this more or less summarizes the plot, because except for Orlando there isn't much of a plot or a storyline in the work of Virginia Woolf.

Orlando, by the way, is an interesting "counterpoint" to Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts, because it extends over several centuries, whereas the other three novels condense time by concentrating on one day, indeed just as Ulysses.

Virginia Woolf renunciated the 19th century novel and the idea that life tells a narrative, that it unfolds as a tragedy, a comedy, a detective or some other style figure. A story creates a unity that doesn't exist, or at least not necessarily, thereby distorting reality.

But how to tell a story without telling a story? Virginia Woolf's own solution was to render reality through the thoughts of her characters, that is, through the stories they tell themselves to create a unity in the disparity of events that is life. But these stories change continuously, they are coloured by moods, desires, fears etc. It is for this reason that her work has a strange sense of depth, her stories are "vertical" so to say, whereas the typical adventure story is "horizontal".

In Mrs Dalloway we witness from nearby how Mrs Dalloway's moods and thoughts swing throughout the day.

Virginia Woolf is a formidable stylist. I love the musicality and the flow of the sentences in Mrs Dalloway. Every sentence seems to be composed by content, sound, rhythm and structure. It is so perfect that it is almost imperceptible. It only shows retrospectively when you read the halting, faltering prose of less gifted authors. The final sentence of Mrs Dalloway for instance, is so simple and so natural, and yet those four words are pregnant with meaning. They create an openness to life that resonates long after you have put the book aside.

Mrs Dalloway is also an exceptional reflection on the various dimensions of time. The "dimension of the present moment", as exemplified by the repeated reference to the striking of Big Ben and to other clocks, the passing of time as perceived by the different characters, nostalgia and memories of days long gone, for instance Mrs Dalloway's recollection of her own youth, Peter Walsh’s memories of London before he left for India and their shared memories of the summer Mrs Dalloway refused to marry Peter. The party itself is a repetition of a similar gathering some 30 years earlier.

In What is Philosophy" Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wonder "How a moment of the world [can] be rendered durable or made to exist by itself?" (p.172). To answer this question they refer to Virginia Woolf: "'Saturate every atom', 'eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity'" (idem). Mrs Dalloway is the perfect example of this idea.

Take for instance this passage: "In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June" (p.4).

This sentence is full of style figures all of which add to the evocation of this particular moment: the repetitions, the alliterations, the use of the comma and semicolon, but also the choice of ingredients. Notice also how the reference to the aeroplane, the carriages, the motor cars and the vans places the novel in a historical and geographical, urban context, just as the aeroplane in Between the Acts.