Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

I finally read Mrs. Dalloway. It was a strangely unsettling experience. I had tried to read it many times before but never made it past the second page: my problem was (and continues to be) that I don’t altogether understand how to read this novel. It drifts and wanders, and then pauses in a place that doesn’t seem very significant, but becomes so as it is allowed to just be and develop on the page. You have to be patient–which may sound like a strange thing for a Victorianist to struggle with, but it’s a different kind of patience than the kind you need for Dickens or Thackeray or George Eliot. So, although I have been very interested in the novel for a long time, I kept starting it and then putting it aside. This time I decided I should stop trying so hard and just keep reading, allowing myself to drift and wander and come back. When I did that, I started to fall under the spell of the language, which is beautiful and langorous but shot through with moments of startling clarity and, sometimes, brutality. And then, finally, I began to feel I was brushing up against the ideas of the novel, not in the abstract way I had considered them by reading about the novel, but more immediately, sensually as well as intellectually. So much has been written on this novel that I won’t add any more commentary of my own, except the brief observation that I hadn’t realized it was so much about London. Instead, here are my two favourite passages (so far):

Big Ben struck the half-hour.

How extraordinary it was, strange, yes, touching, to see the old lady (they had been neighbours ever so many years) move away from the window, as if she were attached to that sound, that string. Gigantic as it was, it had something to do with her. Down, down, into the midst of ordinary things the finger fell, making the moment solemn. . . . Why creeds and prayers and mackintoshes? When, thought Clarissa, that’s the miracle, that’s the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing-table. She could still see her. And the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn’t believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?

And,

She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). The (all day she had been thinking of Bourton, of Peter, of Sally), they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

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