Clarissa Dalloway is having a party. She doesn’t go in much for religion, but parties are her church and her art form, and Virginia Woolf’s classic quotidian novel focuses on the day of one such party. As the novel begins, Mrs. Dalloway has walked out to buy flowers for a party she is throwing that evening. Throughout the day, as the bells of Big Ben toll the hours one by one (and the half hours, and the quarter hours) Mrs. Dalloway muses on the past, on love, on her marriage, and on what might have been. Meanwhile, as she goes about her day, the reader skims from Clarissa’s thoughts to the thoughts and contemplations of her husband, daughter, servants, ex-flame, and others she encounters or nearly misses each hour.
Somehow, I had not managed to read Mrs. Dalloway before – as I mentioned to a work colleague, I think many people hit these modern classics in college, but I majored in industrial relations. I mostly read economics textbooks and labor studies during the school year, and I really only had the summers to catch up on fiction. I’ve read a few Virginia Woolf novels before – Between the Acts, To the Lighthouse, Night and Day and The Voyage Out come to mind – and while I liked some of them (especially Between the Acts) I can’t say I really “got” Woolf. I still probably don’t “get” her entirely, but I loved Mrs. Dalloway.
There’s so much in Mrs. Dalloway, I can see myself reading it again and again and again and taking something new away with me each time. On this first reading, what I was most struck by was the widening gulf between Clarissa Dalloway and her nearly-grown daughter, Elizabeth.
As Clarissa walks down the London street on her flower-buying errands, she muses on the state of being mid-life. She will never be a bride again, or a new mother. Instead, she looks ahead at a stretch of years unbroken by any more milestones except the final milestone – death. (And Clarissa has been ill – some trouble with her heart.) Perhaps that’s why she cares so much for her parties:
Well, how was she going to defend herself? Now that she knew what it was, she felt perfectly happy. They thought, or Peter at any rate thought, that she enjoyed imposing herself; liked to have famous people about her; great names; was simply a snob in short. Well, Peter might think so. Richard merely thought it was foolish of her to like excitement when she knew it was bad for her heart. It was childish, he thought. And both were quite wrong. What she liked was simply life.
“That’s what I do it for,” she said, speaking aloud, to life.
Elizabeth, by contrast, stands at the very beginning of her life. She is just recently “out” and has sprouted into a beautiful young woman. Men are starting to notice her, heads are beginning to turn, but she’s not interested in the glittering city life that her mother thrives in.
And Elizabeth waited in Victoria Street for an omnibus. It was so nice to be out of doors. She thought perhaps she need not go home just yet. It was so nice to be out in the air. So she would get on to an omnibus. And already, even as she stood there, in her very well cut clothes, it was beginning. . . . People were beginning to compare her to poplar trees, early dawn, hyacinths, fawns, running water, and garden lilies, and it made her life a burden to her, for she so much preferred being left alone to do what she liked in the country, but they would compare her to lilies, and she had to go to parties, and London was so dreary compared with being alone in the country with her father and the dogs.
Elizabeth, in short, is nothing like her mother – she is her father’s daughter in every respect. Richard Dalloway is a good, kind man, who loves his wife and daughter but struggles to speak Clarissa’s language – and Clarissa always wonders whether she made the right choice, when she married security and steadfastness in Richard, instead of fire and passion in Peter Walsh. And Clarissa can’t reach Elizabeth any more than Richard can reach Clarissa.
(She was like a poplar, she was like a river, she was like a hyacinth, Willie Titcomb was thinking. Oh, how much nicer to be in the country and do what she liked! She could hear her poor dog howling, Elizabeth was certain.) She was not a bit like Clarissa, Peter Walsh said.
Of course, the reader doesn’t need to wonder what it’s like for Clarissa and Elizabeth, since Woolf takes you inside their minds and thoughts – a mother and a daughter thinking and speaking past each other and wanting different things always. Having a daughter myself, I was fascinated by this dual perspective, and Woolf does it so well. You can feel Clarissa’s mild melancholy and twinges of envy and misunderstanding; you can feel Elizabeth straining at the strings binding her to the city and wishing she was in the country – you can see the gap between mother and daughter widening.
I’ll be coming back to Mrs. Dalloway over and over again, I know. I wonder what I’ll find there next time.