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"Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

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One learns in special relativity of the absolute elsewhere - that region outside past occurrences and also outside of future occurrences. One feels that the consciousnesses of various characters of Mrs. Dalloway to be absolutely exclusive of each other: specifically here I mean those of Septimus Warren Smith - a minor character suffering from madness which had its origins in the Great War - and Mrs. Dalloway herself. That these two universes should actually intersect is the great miracle of this very idiosyncratic novel.

With their sudden tangents, nested phrases, and occasional trop de longueur, its sentences remind one of Henry James’s. But here, the effect is more stream of consciousness, because we follow the fears and memories and self-doubt of the eponymous heroine, her most intimate associate, Peter, and the harrowing delusions of a suffering war veteran. Taken together, these thoughts and feelings cut for us a cross-section of post-World War I England and hold it up for inspection. The author is rather pitiless with her subjects: she knows the fear and doubt which undercut the lives and level the emotional landscape of 1920s London.

It is the great democratizer: Mrs. Dalloway's own doubts and terrors show her surprising affinity for those less fortunate:

“Then (she had felt it only this morning) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. Even now, quite often if [her husband] Richard had not been there reading the Times, so that she could crouch like a bird and gradually revive, send roaring up that immeasurable delight, rubbing stick to stick, one thing with another, she must have perished. But that young man had killed himself.”

The last sentence refers to Septimus, whom we encounter at abrupt moments through the book, who panics in the face of the medical establishment and leaps to his death. How does Mrs. Dalloway hear of his demise? At her party the evening of that fateful day, when the distinguished Doctor’s wife tells her of it.

This episode, which Mrs. Dalloway hears second-hand, affects her deeply. It generates a terror which she must suppress so that she can play hostess at a glittering party. And so: personal histories will trail behind us and ensnare us in the end. Woolf shows us this truth: it  crosses class lines, lines of sex and social position. At length she portrays London poised on a precipice, holding Mrs. Dalloway in its arms with everyone else, ready to plunge into an epic, swallowing darkness.

This is a very effective psychological novel, with its close, sometimes disjointed retelling of the terror and delusion that we feel. The author manages all this with a careful, almost fussy, diction that nevertheless results in a kind of bluntness. The hurt feelings, the desperate hopes, the entrenched animosities, all see the light of day. It’s a distinctive achievement, memorable and affecting, and I’m certainly glad to have made Miss Woolf’s acquaintance.


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