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Most of my novels at home have a devoured look to them: scribbled on, folded over, cracked down the middle, liberally stained with coffee. All the usual tell-tale signs of a ravenous reader I suppose, or at least, that’s what I tell myself to justify my messiness.
Reading has always been, much like writing, an intellectual expedition into places, spaces and moments, that I both, care very much and very little about. It is an alternative form of being and living, outside the humdrum of tedious mundanity. As a reader, I’m a solitary sojourner relishing curious excursions hither and thither, guided by a thoroughly subjective inner compass. On occasion, I stumble upon a book that serves, not only as a pleasant deviation from the common trail, but, as a fundamental game-changer to my perception of reality.
Enter, Virginia Woolf’s, “Mrs. Dalloway”.
Make no mistake, “Mrs. Dalloway” is an irreducibly strange book. On the surface, it sounds suspiciously dull. But there is a sense of playful deceptiveness to this monotony. It masquerades as a story about a single routine day and yet contains a multitude of pressing complexities about the human condition. It is an understated meta-analysis of the world that also delivers a cutting social satire against the primness of 19th century England.
The novel depicts a single day in June from the perspective of a number of characters. The year is 1923. The Great War is over, but the torrid memory of its unprecedented destruction still hovers over England.
For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed…but it was over; thank Heaven – over. It was June…and everywhere, thought it was still early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats… - Mrs. Dalloway
In a ritzy part of London, a middle-aged woman plans a party. She ventures out to get flowers. An old flame casually drops by for a visit. She is snubbed by an acquaintance. Later, guests pour into her house for the party. In the midst of all this, she hears news of a stranger’s violent death. In between these modest plot points, Clarissa Dalloway catapults through various thought processes and anxieties. Eventually, she lies down for a rest, and takes note of Big Ben singing out the hours as they pass.
There is a haunted and ethereal beauty to Virginia Woolf’s prose. Each word is meticulously chosen not only for poetic effect but to develop resonance in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished. The streets of London form a vibrant character in itself - the parks are buzzing with strollers and vibrating trees from the sounds of chirping birds. Just as London is pulsing with activity, life and the human mind pulses with a living force.
The novel also doesn’t assume the classic narrator’s omniscient (God-like) view over the world. Woolf’s narrator is uncannily reminiscent to the current-day equivalent of ‘freestyle rappers’; it cartwheels across different dimensions and settings, sometimes passing the storytelling baton to different protagonists along the way. The transition between narrators is so subtle it can hardly be noticed. It would not be too farfetched to think of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ as a chorus of voices, none of which match either in pitch or scale, yet when combined, they sing a mesmerising tune that speaks of human suffering, despair and regret.
But one quality of the writing stood out for me. It stems from the disorienting struggle faced by its characters in maintaining multiple identities without ever feeling at home in any one of them. It is a painful experience that is barely visible and yet unavoidable; it simmers on the surface, as each character excavates into the depths of their soul to seek a simple answer to ‘who’ they really are, as mortal beings.
Clarissa, for example, is examined through a clever weaving of past and present as she tumbles through an existential crises in regards to her position as the wife of a dignitary and as the perfect party host. ‘Why, after all, did she do these things? Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire? Might it consume her anyhow?’ She reflects on her life decision to settle down with a man (Robert) who provides more social circle security, prompting her to ask if snobbery motivated her decision. Furthermore, the reader becomes privy to Clarissa’s friendship with Sally Seton (Lady Rosseter), a relationship that seems to quietly transcend the rigid gender roles of the time.
Towards the end, we are treated to a line from Sally Seton that highlights the perennial contradiction we face in life; between logic and emotion. No matter the amount of intellectual proselytizing, we are all ruled by our passions and emotions.
“What does the brain matter,” said Lady Rosseter, getting up, “compared with the heart?”
But despite the underlying tension between heart and mind - often rather provocatively framed as a self-indulgent consideration in the backdrop of war and suffering- the book provides a stirring depiction of why beauty will never cease to exist:
Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.
We inhibit a civilization that consists of many lives within, and each life is constituted of many moments (both large and small), all contributing to an expansive definition of beauty. There is a universality to this experience that readers can relate to with minimal effort. The emotional upheaval that comes through a juggling of personal identities is, as Woolf testifies, somewhat subdued when one mindfully savours the most basic units of nature and our existence (“to watch a leave quivering in the rush of air”). In other words, the simple things are our refuge from life’s never-ending complexities.
The underlying point of Mrs. Dalloway, for me, rests on the acceptance that living (the verb) is legitimised by change and to live and learn is to also be part of that change, for better or worse. Through the linear plot progression and the multiple narrators, Woolf, has very deftly shown that personal regrets, desires, jealousy, love and friendship, underline the changing tides of circumstance, that materialise as quickly as they dissipate. Ultimately then, the question is not who we choose to become but how we make the best out of what there is. Because change and re-birth will always be a constant, one that can never be scribbled over.