What could seem further from our polarized, diverse world and abbreviated social-media discourse than Virginia Woolf’s 1925 stream-of-consciousness novel Mrs. Dalloway with its, aristocratic title character Clarissa Dalloway consumed with giving an elegant party, and its author’s long periodic sentences, full of metaphors, allusions, parentheses and interior hesitations? And yet, in a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review Yale University senior lecturer in creative writing, Michael Cunningham provides an introduction to a new issue of Woolf’s book that is so compelling it commands attention.
Cunningham‘s novel The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999, pays homage to Mrs. Dalloway. As he reminds readers The Hours was Virginia Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway – a better choice, I think, because the novel covers a June day in 1923, the hours of which toll away on Big Ben throughout.
Virginia Woolf wasn’t the first to adopt a free-association literary style and a structure that continually alternates past and present. In 1918, in Ulysses, James Joyce introduced stream-of-consciousness, as he followed his protagonists, Leopold Bloom and Stephan Daedalus around Dublin for 18 hours on June 16, 1904 – events now celebrated as Bloomsday. Unlike Ulysses, however, Mrs. Dalloway contains characters who don’t interact. She switches from one to another, deepening the theme that we are all unknowable, to others and to ourselves. In the middle of a sentence, for example – typically a long sentence – a reader can conclude that Clarissa Dalloway is prudish, sympathetic, cold, welcoming, insincere, the perfect hostess, handsome, pale insecure, content. The ambiguity is particularly felt when she is doing the observing or remembering, or when her old flame Peter Walsh is. Back in town from India, is he still in love with her? Is he a risk-taking romantic, a failed radical, a sharp critic of society or a sentimental fool? And Clarissa? Does she regret marrying the stolid Richard Dalloway because she couldn’t keep up with Peter’s passion and dreams?
Although the Clarissa-Peter relationship dominates Mrs. Dalloway Woolf does something eccentric, extraordinary, by introducing a parallel narrative, the story of young Septimus Warren-Smith, a shell-shocked war hero whose increasing hallucinations resonate for our own world of post-traumatic stress disorder. Clarissa and Septimus never meet, but they are both haunted by memories – hers, mistakes; his horrors.
It’s ironic that at the rare times Woolf’s sentences are short they are particularly moving: “As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame.”
Cunningham calls Woolf’s “dark and disquieting” novel “profound in scope and depth. Swooningly gorgeous he says of Woolf’s prose, Mrs. Dalloway has obviously inspired his own. Full of telling analogies and elegant sentence rhythms, Cunningham’s introduction, like Woolf’s novel, implies the importance of recognizing the parallel lives lived silently, invisibly, alongside our own. A thoughtful and humane consideration for our own fraught and chaotic time.
Joan Baum is a book reviewer from Springs, New York, and host of the podcast Baum on Books.