Read from: February 17th to 27th 2014
Oh, these modernists, what a mess they’ve made of the narrative! What a wonderful, wonderful mess! Gone is the narrator with his arrogant omniscience, gone is the plot with its mania of ordering the events, gone is the safe timeline, gone the round characters, gone, all of them, for they are lies, they pretend to imitate reality while they do not. Or so Virginia Woolf thinks:
"Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged: life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display...?" (Modern Fiction)
And, indeed, the Mrs Dalloway’s narrative seems a “luminous halo”, a continuous murmur of thoughts and words, a universe made of bits of consciousness instead of objective images, of voices overlapping one another until no one can tell them apart, like in the parenthesised sentence of the following quote, where it is hard to say whether is Clarissa, Richard or the narrator speaking:
In came Richard, holding out flowers. She had failed him, once at Constantinople; and Lady Bruton, whose lunch parties were said to be extraordinarily amusing, had not asked her. He was holding out flowers—roses, red and white roses. (But he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words.)
A pond-like universe blending the past, the present and the personalities, in which are thrown, like pebbles, a theme, a motive, a symbol making circular waves, as suggested to Virginia Woolf by the painter Jacques Raverat, suggestion she enthusiastically assumed, firm in her belief that people don’t think linearly, but “all over the place”. The main “pebbles” disturbing the peace of Mrs Dalloway universe being the meaning of life and the righteousness of death.
Therefore, here comes, one June morning of the year 1923, Clarissa Dalloway crossing the London streets in search of flowers for her evening party, while thinking of her youth, her choices, feeling she has good reasons to enjoy life, were it not overshadowed by death:
She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.
Meanwhile, a flummoxed Septimus Warren Smith wanders the London streets accompanied by his wife but alone nevertheless, or not so alone since the ghost of his past is always with him:
He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself—
The life has lost its meaning when his friend died in the war, and is now only a blurry landscape he does not care much to contemplate anymore:
It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.
Like a distant echo, Septimus is the voice Clarissa shut down a long time ago, the depth she refused to explore when she chose safety instead of adventure, conventionality instead of passion, high society instead of uncertain future, Richard Dalloway with his “second-class brain” instead of impulsive Peter, the mirror she had always been afraid of.
There is a pathetic and somehow tragic contrast between her snobbery and her inner sensibility, the way her mood can switch from important to trivial matters, and her vanity take over, become as important a source of suffering:
… feeling herself suddenly shrivelled, aged, breastless, the grinding, blowing, flowering of the day, out of doors, out of the window, out of her body and brain which now failed, since Lady Bruton, whose lunch parties were said to be extraordinarily amusing, had not asked her.
In the end, it is her yang, it is Septimus she was never acquainted with, that saves her for a while, for by killing himself he allows her to continue her quest for a meaning of life. At least it is how it seems, since the young man (and we know it from an early draft of the novel in which he doesn’t appear and Clarissa dies in the end) dies in her place.
She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.
But how long until Clarissa tires of her quest? For the shadow is there as always, a quiet, menacing promise.