Monday, 19 March 2018

But nothing happens!

Mrs. Dalloway I imagine that many youths have developed a loathing for Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway because they have been forced to study it. The story begins with Clarissa Dalloway setting out to buy flowers for a party she is throwing later at her home in London. Its narrative weaves in and out of the minds of several characters, follows them as they wander through streets and parks, and accompanies them to appointments. "But nothing happens!" I can hear the teens cry. Having been exposed to Proust's reflections on tea and cake at school, I understand their anguish.

Woolf takes us into the minds of her characters using a stream-of-consciousness technique. As a writer, I was enthralled by the style and will more than likely read Mrs. Dalloway again. As a reader, I found it much less endearing. Without the usual narrative breaks of chapters, it's impossible to gage how much to read in any single session. There weren't even any section dividers in the ebook I used. This lack of visual markers, combined with the need for great concentration often resulted in my own thoughts drifting away from the narrative.

And yet I did like the book. The three main characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith and Peter Walsh and the action takes place a few years after the European War (when Woolf was writing there had been no second disaster). Clarissa has recently had a heart attack and Septimus suffers from shell-shock. They are two sides of the same coin. Peter had proposed marriage to Clarissa many years before, but she had turned him down because, "in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house." She had chosen Richard Dalloway for that reason rather than Peter, with whom "everything had to be shared".

I can't say that I related much to the primarily upper-middle-class characters, but Woolf's way of taking the reader on a walk with their thoughts was very appealing. It made me long to be in London again, on a hot day in June, experiencing the bustle, enjoying window-shopping, hearing Big Ben chime, wandering the streets I know very well. Mrs. Dalloway is a classic of early 20th century literature and the first of Virginia Woolf's books that I have read. It has changed my opinion of stream-of-consciousness, but I won't be reading Ulysses any time soon.

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