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A Reverie For Mrs. Woolf

Joseph M. Reynolds

A Mrs. Dalloway retrospective is the least I can do. I owe Mrs. Woolf. She remains unabashed, uncompromising, and yet somehow demure. The Sancho Panza Literary Society is nakedly aspirational of the Bloomsbury Group, and Nicole Kidman even won an Oscar for artfully depicting Woolf’s most artful of suicides. But most of all I owe Virginia Woolf because she is my excuse to write the way I do. She is a kind of proof of life for people like me, proof of the palpitating something in the otherwise tangible nothingness of the speculative mind. And damn if she doesn’t do it with style that becomes substance, or at least blurs those nonsense and manufactured lines.

There is no pathos in Mrs. Dalloway that is independent from the concerted manner of its presentation; a novel which doesn’t so match its form to its theme, but actually generates its theme from its intricate use of its digressive and intimate formations. The novel reads like a kind of real time experiment in which the author has a preconceived plan for the methods she wants to employ, but is also perfectly willing to alter and extend those methods to fit the narrative angles and depths that naturally arise in the telling of the story—a story about a single day that sets out to portray that a single day, when lived through the mind and its associations, is never merely about the routine of that day but instead the totality of the human experience, and that mundane daily events, when again absorbed through the free-flowing connections of the unfiltered psyche, are inherently as momentous as depictions of royal intrigue, murder, or war. In turn, Woolf utilizes a digressive, observational style, and endows her characters with a rich and seemingly unedited brand of interiority.

Woolf makes frequent use of seemingly random and rambling mental associations, but it is falsely reductive and entirely incorrect to associate her sentence structure with that of notorious practitioners of the stream of consciousness technique like William Faulkner. Whereas Faulkner’s stream of consciousness vignettes are often incoherent in that they lack an organized plot schematic and continue for sometimes dozens of pages without any mark of punctuation, in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf’s digressive passages are wholly organized and the larger ideological and theoretical points of emphasis are connected to simple and definitive plot points by her adroit use of commas, parentheses, dashes, and semi-colons. On her stroll through London at the novel’s outset, Clarissa Dalloway visits Lady Bexborough’s and points to Lady Bexborough as the woman she most admires. She articulates her admiration:

She would have been, like Lady Bexborough, slow and stately; interested in politics like a man; with a country house; very dignified, very sincere. instead of which she had a narrow pea-stick figure; a ridiculous little face beaked like a bird’s. But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing—nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway (9).

This scope of this digression is astonishing, and a truly brilliant use (and righteous abuse) of the novelistic form and the utility of punctuation. In the space of a single paragraph, Woolf vaults from a simplistic physical depiction of a peripheral character, to a deeply introspective existential consideration of Clarissa’s age, femininity, and lack of sociopolitical agency and identity. She does this with no wasted motion, and all in a naturalistic and believable vignette of intellectual and psychological digression. The persistent usages of semi-colons and commas are the key connective tissue for this technical accomplishment. They allow Woolf to make grand speculations without giving the impression like she is stepping away from her narrative to make grand speculations, thereby not violating the narrative form of the novel. Her authorial voice is dominant and assured, but avoids appearing intrusive, and disguised arrogance is the only kind of humility we novelists can hope for, or should seek for that matter. (A grad school professor once told me that novel writing needs to be a democratic exercise; that there should be enough white space left on the page so that the readers can make up their own minds about what is happening, but that’s all bunk really—the writer shouldn’t determine conclusions, but the writer must determine the atmosphere, context, and subject, fully and without apology. Hate the book, burn the book, cherish the book, but it’s too important to be given off to something as whimsical as democracy).

The agile use of punctuation isn’t merely a tool that gives Woolf permission to make the grand philosophical statements she aspires to in the text; if one examines the above excerpted digression again, it reads like a veritable flow chart of intellectual association, and one can trace one line to the next like following links on a chain. There is an authenticity here; the reader can genuinely believe and relate to how a daydream about a woman Clarissa admires can yield thoughts about her own feelings of inadequacy, and her own feelings of imprisonment to that inadequacy. In this fashion, there is no separation between plot and abstract ideas, and Woolf’s grand technical accomplishment in Mrs. Dalloway is in her deft and virtually sublime ability to vanquish any notions that a text must either be story driven or existentially driven.

The connectivity between seemingly disparate aspects of the novel’s structure is accomplished in several other ways, including the usage of physical images to link the wealth of the novel’s characters into a singular and interwoven fictive community. The mysterious regal automobile, and the plane with the disputed skywriting both travel in motion and catch the eyes of a multiplicity of characters—this links the characters to the same observational experiences and emphasizes the inherent connectivity of human eventfulness, solving the common structural problem of including too many characters in a narrative undertaking, for fear that they will become confusing distractions and water down the poignancy of the central figures. The observational technique permeates the entirety of the novel, and is actually journalistic in its way, focusing on factual aspects of concrete things as opposed to the purely symbolic and entirely psychological tenets akin to a more traditional stream of consciousness technique. Mrs. Dalloway, as a work of art, is really primarily an intensely existential and ontological speculation, but all of its metaphysics begin with an attachment to actual, and almost always simplistic, facets of everyday observance—soldiers marching uniformly leading to considerations of empire and discipline, young women carelessly crossing streets yielding contemplations on youth and romantic intrigue and excitement, etc. The extensive philosophy of the novel becomes “forgivable” to the even the staunchest devotee of narrative pacing and storytelling because it all originates from real moments of observation and public experience; born from the actions of corporeal living, and not a conscious removal from the physicality of life to have separate moments of consciousness and articulation.

Woolf’s accomplishment in structural and technical connectivity reaches its most complete level with her employment of interiority. She writes Mrs. Dalloway from an intimately close third-person perspective, and she grants interiority to multiple characters, primarily Clarissa and Peter Walsh. After Walsh returns from India and has his initial morning reunion with Clarissa, he walks through London and the bells of St. Margaret’s revive persistent feelings. Woolf writes, “Then, as the sound of St. Margaret’s languished, he thought, She has been ill, and the sound expressed languor and suffering. It was her heart, he remembered; and the sudden loudness of the final stroke tolled for death that surprised in the midst of life, Clarissa falling where she stood, in her drawing room. No! No! He cried. She is not dead! I am not old, he cried, and marched up Whitehall, as if there rolled down to him, vigorous, unending, his future.”(47) This kind of interiority imbues all of the novel’s vignettes with a kind of self-absorption, even as they relate public or shared experiences. Again here, Peter’s intensely metaphysical diatribe begins with a real or tangible event—the sonorous ringing of the bells of St. Margaret’s, and the intended connectivity between the interior dilemmas of people and the routine of London life is achieved and vividly evident. Mrs. Woolf’s conceptual desire was to compose a novel that could explore the nature and futility of existence by depicting a single, and altogether ordinary, day in the life of a woman. It is solely her narrative technique that allows her to reach this extraordinary aim, as she doesn’t elevate flower buying or party preparation to the realms of the epic or grandiose, but instead artfully displays how all mundane activity is evocative of something more than it appears, including the remembrances of things past, by utilizing digressive punctuation, intense interiority, and even a dearth of chapter breaks to simulate the unbroken and involuntary associations of the sometimes horrid and too often unfulfilling human enterprise, which somehow remains worth writing about.

Fitzgerald has always been a kind of undead mentor of mine, and he accomplished many of these same things Mrs. Woolf does, without any of that burdensome humility or concern for narrative structure. And Hemingway is a giant who I love with a kind of unyielding ferocity. But it was Mrs. Woolf who taught me that one need not foment an armed insurrection to be a real writer. So thank you Virginia. Dead too soon but never quite gone.

Work Cited Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Richmond: Oneworld Classics, 2012. Print.

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