Book report #29 (2020)

DallowayMrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. Pub 1925

Another of the should-reads and never-read-agains, I sought this out specifically for the pre-1925 category.

Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway is having a party tonight. We see the entirety of the day told in considerable detail and meet many people in her circle and beyond. The perspective shifts throughout as characters are seen and their thoughts picked up one after another. There is little action and much detail about inner thoughts and memories. The party is a success.

I guess it was a style in those days to write without purpose. Like Joyce’s Ulysses (a comparison that Woolf apparently did not like but to me is unmistakable), Woolf’s story seems to be about nothing, and uses a lot of words to say not very much in a stream-of-consciousness style that can leave the reader a bit lost – what are we talking about again? Indeed, I found the digressions and distractions a bit tedious, especially with the grammatical licence often taken (so many semi-colons), and frequently had to flip back a few paragraphs to remind myself who was speaking and where they were in time and place in the story.

Yet, unlike with Joyce, I found that eventually (after nearly half the book) I was interested in the characters and familiar enough with the style to persist to the end. Throughout we gradually learn of the history and feelings of most of the characters, and can see that most are somewhat trapped in their lives, both by their personalities or styles and by circumstances and the times. The long interior views, with their memories and ruminations, reveal the why of so many of the whats. Moreover, we see several chances for things to actually happen – the opportunities for situations to be changed or reinforced or explained – that are snuffed out or lost in the mundane experiences of the every day or by the impotence of the characters to behave any differently then they have in the past. Things that might never be noticed in an ordinary day are explored in considerable – sometimes bordering on tedious – detail.

For example, when Peter visits Clarissa, she has been thinking of him that very morning, wondering what her life could have been like. When he visits, there is a moment of possibility – a possible meaningful conversation and decision/action point – when he asks her, “Are you happy?” This big open ended question, full of potential for honesty and big change, is never answered as they are interrupted. The spell of their intense connection is broken by the opening of a door and the intrusion of the present, with all its demands and requirements for resolution and rectitude. We are left wondering “what if”, and perhaps this is part of the point – that there are often moments of possibility in our ordinary lives for extraordinary questions or changes or events, that we either don’t even notice or choose not to pursue, our own what-ifs that are not regrets or remorse, just curiosities if we chose to examine them more closely.

In the end, I liked the book but didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t as horrible as the first half suggested it would be. Things did happen and characters and thoughts explored with a modicum of purpose, but were difficult to follow through the meandering sentence structure, long paragraphs, and confusing punctuation around any dialogue. In the end, the circle of Clarissa is understood and we see (I think) that she is likely happy as her life is what she wanted it to be, being thought of but not thought about, being known of but not known, being looked for but not sought – even if she’s reluctant to acknowledge that that’s exactly what she wanted.

Fate: charity shop.

2 – a book published before 1939
7 – a book by a female author
11 – a book you feel you ought to read
13 – a book with someone’s name in the title
24 – a book by an author whom you’ve never read

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