Slow-Read Sunday, Mrs. Dalloway (Final Thoughts)

We’ve broken up our reading of Mrs. Dalloway into three parts: (1) questions about Mrs. Dalloway to p. 275 of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader; (2) questions about Mrs. Dalloway to p. 331 of the Mrs. Dalloway Reader; (3) to the end of the novel.

Today, a day late due to Memorial Day activities (the smoked brisket was a big hit), I’ll offer some final thoughts after my first reading of Mrs. Dalloway.

If you’d have asked me five years ago whether I’d ever read Virginia Woolf I would probably have answered in the negative. Not because I thought it was of less value than other books, but because I thought I might not like it. Could I have ever made a logical argument why I shouldn’t read it? No. One day, here, Joseph Dante submitted an article entitled The Gender Divide and Becoming More Aware of What We Read. What he said hit home. I wasn’t consciously trying to avoid women writers, but I was not exactly piling up female authors’ titles on my bookshelves either.

So far, with Slow-Read Sunday we’ve read Austen and Woolf and we’re about to take on Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It’s a start. So some of my closing thoughts are a thank you to Joseph for bringing this issue to my attention.

With so much to read and so little time, Mrs. Dalloway will probably get tucked away in the same kind of compartment that Clarissa tucks Peter and Sally in. It will be on my mind, but I doubt I will make the time to engage in much real conversation with it for a while. We’ll go our separate ways and live our separate lives and we will think of one another, but we will only rarely connect in the physical world. If that starts to sound like a bad thing, let me tell you why it’s not. It’s not a bad thing because the real impact this book will have is on my inner-self. I’ve read it closely enough that I’ll find myself referring to it, monthly, weekly, maybe even daily. Most times when I think of war veterans I’ll think, now, of Septimus Warren Smith. Most times when I think of suicide I’ll think of the conscious decision we all make every day to go on living. Most times when I hear a clock bell ring I’ll think about the idea of time. This is how books work on us long after we’ve set them aside.

I can relate to how Peter and Sally shaped Clarissa’s life because books shape our lives in similar ways. We make choices about who our favorites are and about how we’ll spend the majority of our time, but that doesn’t mean past relationships, with books or people, are impermanent. They influence and shape our lives, too.

Even if I never pick this book up again, I am changed because it passed through my life. People, ideas, stories, told from all walks of life, from all perspectives, enrich us. We become more layered, more complete human beings by seeking experiences outside the sphere of our ordinary experience.  Joseph’s right. We’ve got to do a better job of being conscious where we devote our attention and our time because we become the things we let into our lives.

Now, for June we have a date with The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. For our first chunk, let’s read to Chapter VII, The Key to the Garden or about p. 22 of  Dover Children’s Thrift Classics edition.

Slow-Read Sunday: Mrs. Dalloway (to End)

We’ve broken up our reading of Mrs. Dalloway into three parts: (1) questions about Mrs. Dalloway to p. 275 of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader; (2) questions about Mrs. Dalloway to p. 331 of the Mrs. Dalloway Reader; (3) our final discussion follows and carries us to the end of the novel.

Septimus is dead, Big Ben continues to strike with expected regularity, and Mrs. Dalloway must host her party to the satisfaction of her guests. There are more important questions to ask of the novel, though.

1. Is being bookish manly?

On p. 335 the text poses the question through the character of Peter Walsh: Is his bookish nature altogether manly? There’s some mention of this making him more attractive to the opposite sex, the fact that he is “not altogether manly.” Do you associate reading with one sex or the other?

2. Are the characters capable of honest self-analysis?

On p. 342 we see a glimpse that Peter Walsh is capable of being honest with himself, at times. He comes to a universal conclusion that he has gotten older and so can do what he likes to do, but in the next sentence recognizes that he does still care enough to attend a party he has no interest in attending, except to satisfy others. This kind of self-analysis is often difficult to engage in, though. Do the characters in the novel consistently engage in this kind of honest self analysis, or, do they sometimes deceive even themselves?

3. Stop and smell the roses.

There are several lines in the novel that could stand alone as poems. Some of my favorite lines of the novel are found on  p. 343, “The brain must wake now. The body must contract now…the soul must brave itself to endure.” That’s it, just pointing to some language. You have to do that sometimes with this novel, because it would be a shame to miss it.

4. What does it mean when we compartmentalize our friends?

On p. 358 we see Peter and Sally off on their own. Clarissa checks in on them and then leaves. At no point in the novel is it more clear than this, Peter and Sally are part of a different life than the one Clarissa now lives. They are, in many ways, more alive in her memory than they are in her real, present life. I think we’re all guilty of this kind of compartmentalizing. We know Peter’s done it because he chooses who to mention his Indian mistress to. We know Sally does it because her husband didn’t come to the party. Is there anything wrong with this kind of behavior? Is Clarissa living a dishonest life if she behaves one way with a certain set of friends and another way with a different set?

5. Septimus is at the party.

Septimus appears at the party, almost like a ghost. He is talked about, and his presence is felt, even if he is not physically present. His visit impacts Clarissa’s mood. Is this another attempt to show us how the internal world is every bit as real as the external world?

6. What is the book’s major idea?

I have two suggestions and they are lines directly from the novel: (1) p. 361, “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.” (2) p. 369 “…for what can one know even of the people one lives with every day? Are we not all prisoners?” What do you think is the novel’s main idea? Is the main idea every explicitly stated in the novel?

7. The novel’s conclusion.

At the conclusion of the novel (p. 371) we see Clarissa has returned to Peter. Peter is filled with excitement, terror, ecstasy, he can’t even really define it himself. But, what does he verbalize to Clarissa? All he says is “It is Clarissa.” Of course, that answers the question of what has caused this rush of internal excitement, but it does not clue Clarissa in to what he is really thinking. The final scene of the novel drives home the idea that we’re not very good at communicating our internal state. Some of that is because we can’t even understand what’s going on ourselves, in the moment. Sometimes it takes time and hindsight and in the case of a writer it might take a whole novel’s worth of writing before we can understand what’s going on inside.

So far, Amarie is the only one to suggest a book for June. She’s recommended we lighten things up a bit and read The Secret Garden. Assuming I’ve linked to the right book, there appears to be a free Kindle version. I’m game. I’ll try to get a copy and figure out what we should read for the first week in June. I may have some additional thoughts on Mrs. Dalloway next week, but in the meantime get your copies ready for June. If you had a suggestion for June and didn’t get it in in time, I’ll open things up again for suggestions in July, so don’t despair.

Slow-Read Sunday: Mrs. Dalloway (to p. 331 OF THE MRS. DALLOWAY READER)

Last week I asked some questions about Mrs. Dalloway to p. 275 of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader. This week we continue reading the Woolf novel.

In this section we see the troubles of Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway set by side in this study of the two characters. We alternate between consciousnesses to see what these characters are thinking. I can’t help but think that we’re also getting a glimpse into the mind of our author, Virginia Woolf. She must have poured herself into both Septimus and Clarissa in many ways. Look for examples as you read. Are there times when the novel has a line so true that you feel it must have been lived and felt? Who’s narrating when we get that line?

1. What stands in the way of Clarissa Dalloway’s happiness?

Clarissa has wealth, she wants for nothing,  she could pursue any interest, she has hours of leisure time, no one denies her right to choose how to spend her time. What is the one thing that stands in the way of her happiness? I’d argue it’s her “self.” But, does Clarissa get anywhere by having that pointed out to her? Does that kind of self-awareness, ironically, make it even harder for her to find happiness?

2. Since everyone is talking about Gatsby this week…

As a fun aside if you’ve also read The Great Gatsby it’s worth remembering that it was set in the summer of 1922. The novels cover the same periods of time, yet the settings are different. Compare the parties. Compare the love affairs. Compare the effects of the war. Compare the wealth. Compare the excess. Compare the narrative styles. Compare the settings. Compare the British novel to the American novel.

3. Does the use of metaphor and simile take away or add to the novel?

I think you could make an argument either way, either that the language helps convey the meaning Woolf intends, or that Woolf refused to edit the novel to focus on plot and instead edited the novel to focus on the language. Think about how Woolf uses this language to remind us that not all moments in time are the same. Some are sublime, like the moments when we read or write beautiful metaphor and simile. Some moments are mundane, like when we talk of luncheons and post-luncheon naps. Which do you prefer, or do you find they work to compliment one another? Does the mixture of sublime and realistic language mimic the way we experience the world?

4. One of the thing we’re always aware of is that we will die.

Time reminds us of death, others’ deaths remind us of death, the war reminds us of death, Septimus reminds us of death. Mrs. Dalloway must make the decision, daily, to go on living. In some ways, then, this book is a meditation on a unique aspect of humanity. We are unique in knowing that we will one day die and we contemplate it every day. Can you read Mrs. Dalloway as a meditation on what it means to know you will, one day, die? Will even Mrs. Dalloway’s party be invaded by death? Do you get the sense that Woolf is making a commentary on the dying days of innocent parties like the one Clarissa is putting together?

5. What is depression?

The word “depression” appears on p. 282 and the idea is one explored throughout the book. What did the word mean, though, in 1923-1925 when Woolf was working on Mrs. Dalloway? Is Woolf exploring the idea of depression in the novel? Freud had explored the subject in 1917 with his work on Melancholia. Was psychology changing around the time Clarissa was writing the novel? If so, do you see her ideas on the front edge leading us to understand depression, or, in the background, looking to identify the problem and draw attention to it?

On p. 276 the idea is expressed that our health is largely under our control. Therefore, it would seem that doctors generally viewed illness as some sort of failure. Is that fair to Septimus? Does that attitude make it even harder on the depressed individual?

What do you think Virginia Woolf would say about where we are, today, with depression treatments? Have we made progress? Are we still in need of authors that give voices to the silent depressed masses?

6. Proportion v. Conversion

On  p. 284 conversion is introduced as a sister to proportion. What are these two ideas? How are they different? How do they compete with one another? Why are they important to the novel?

7. One world is spoken and one world is thought and the two rarely meet.

On p. 302 we find evidence of the spoken world v. the unspoken world and the very large gap between the two. Clarissa thinks so many things about Peter and about Richard, but doesn’t share those thoughts with either. Our true thoughts are very rarely revealed to others. Is this one of the reasons we need literature? Without it we would never truly know human nature aside from our own? This idea of the spoken v. the unspoken contemplates the idea that the best literature serves as a guided meditation whereby we arrive at our own true thoughts. Through literature, like Mrs. Dalloway, we’re dared to face that unspoken world.

8. In what way are the parties “offerings?”

On p. 304  we explore the idea of parties as an offering. Are they a ritual offering like the ancients used to make to the gods (sacrifices)? Are they an offering to the people of you community (blessings and well wishes)? Who are they offered to (Gods, Men, Others)? Why would one feel the need to make such an offering?

9. Is Mrs. Dalloway the jealous type?

Explore what options are available to Elizabeth v. Clarissa. on p. 317.  Elizabeth is told that every profession is open to women of her generation. Is that true? Does Clarissa have some jealous resentment of people with all their options open? Why do you think that Mrs. Kilman and Clarissa Dalloway are at odds? Can we trust Mrs. Dalloway to give us an honest explanation?  Do you think there are aspects of this relationship that Mrs. Dalloway will not even admit to herself?

For next time we’ll read to p. 371 of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, the conclusion of the novel. Also, if you’d like to suggest what book we read in June, I’m open to that. Just leave your thoughts in the comments.

Update/Bonus: If you suggest a book, and I end up picking it for June, I’ll buy you a copy or send you an amazon gift card of equal value if you already own it. Suggest something good.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Karen_O’D.

Slow-Read Sunday: Mrs. Dalloway (to p. 275 of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader)

In this section we’ll cover the first chunk of Mrs. Dalloway from the beginning of the novel (p. 195 of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader) to p. 275 “At tea Rezia told him…”

There are a few things worth pointing out about the novel before getting into the contents specific:

1. Woolf uses analepses, or, flashbacks where earlier parts of the narrative are related to others that have already been narrated. Lookout for these as you read and consider how Woolf may be using these to explore the construct of “time.”

2. Woolf uses a narrative style called stream consciousness and employs “free indirect discourse” as the point of view. This makes the novel a bit different in terms of its narrative style. It can, at times, be difficult to distinguish between the narrator’s thoughts and a character’s thoughts or between dialogue and narration.

3. World War I began in July of 1914 and lasted until November 1918.  Mrs. Dalloway was first published in 1925, but it is set in 1923–post-World War I London. You can not read Mrs. Dalloway without feeling the backdrop of the first World War.

4.  I read Mrs. Dalloway as an existential novel. By that I mean that the novel focuses on the idea that individuals are responsible for giving life meaning. The idea behind the novel, being a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway, is tool by which Woolf tries to show how very difficult that struggle can be. Existentialism became well-known after World War II, but World War I planted the existential seed of thought in many’s mind even if the term was not widely used until after World War II. I’m not qualified to compare the ideas of philosophers like Heidegger to Mrs. Dalloway, but I will try to point out certain passages which “feel existential.” When I do that I’ll try to point out what “feels existential” about those passages. For a more scientific approach to this idea you can read an article entitled,  Readers’ Engagement with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: From Knowing about Death to the Experience of Finitude.

5. As you read, think of the idea of the self and whether certain characters play one role with one set of people and another role with another set. Also, try to consider whether there are any characters that have a firm handle on understanding their own “self.” Are some better than others at understanding other people? Are some better than others at understanding their own “self?”

6. With all this talk about themes and ideas it’s easy to skip over the beautiful language Woolf uses, but if you catch yourself doing that, stop. It’s worth highlighting a few beautiful passages in the book and considering their poetic qualities.

Onto the text itself:

7. Is what someone says more or less important than what one thinks?

In the first two sentences of the novel we see the narrative style Woolf will use throughout the novel. The things characters say are not distinguished from the things characters think by ordinary punctuation. Is this writing style realistic? Is this writing style more like the way we experience the world? p. 195.

8. What purpose does Big Ben serve in the novel?

Big Ben, the giant London clock, is a fixture in the novel. It gives us our setting, London. It’s also a constant reminder of the passage of time. Does it do more, though, than just provide structure to the novel? Think about the concept of time. What is it? Is it artificial? Does it exist even without humans around to mark it?

9. The War.

The War is first mentioned on the second page of the novel (p. 196) and it’ll hang around throughout. What effect has the War had on the citizens of London? Has it effected the rich different than the poor? Has it changed the way the characters think about the world? Has it had an effect on the mental health of England? Consider each characters’ proximity to the war and its effect on their mental health.

10. “…it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” p. 200.

Is there a difference between anxiety and existential angst? If so, what is the difference? Try to think about which the characters are experiencing.  Do you agree that it is “dangerous to live even one day?” Why do you feel this way? What are some of the things you do to cope with this feeling?

11. Do you do things in life just because of the effect those actions will have on other peoples’ impression of you?

Woolf explores the idea that we sometimes do things, not because they’re good things to do, or because those things give us enjoyment or happiness, but because of the effect those things will have on other people. We see this idea expressed on p. 201 near the end of the page where Mrs. Dalloway says she does things for other reasons than “themselves.” Do you find you behave similarly? Why?

12. What is a woman’s role in English society in 1923? What is a human’s role in society?

Mrs. Dalloway explores the idea that once you’re past child-bearing age you won’t be marrying, you won’t be having children, but you’re still very much alive. Mrs. Dalloway seems to struggle with what her role should be in this time of her life. p. 202. We could ask the same question of our own lives and should ask that question at every age. These are the kinds of questions that define our very existence, hence the existential nature of the novel.

13. Depression and mental illness.

Pay attention to the descriptions of mental illness and depression. There’s a great poetic description of depression at p. 204, top–“her illness, had power to make her feel scrapped, hurt in her spine; gave her physical pain….” Why is it valuable for Woolf to discuss mental illness openly? Are depression and mental illness talked about much in English society around this time? How is mental illness viewed in the novel? How are the doctors that treat mental illness portrayed?

14. Do we experience the world through the filter of the self?

Dr. Holmes gives Spetimus the advice that he should “take an interest in things outside himself.” p. 212. That advice is almost comical, because how can Septimus experience anything except through the filter of his self, the filter of his own experience, the filter of his current mental state?

15.  “Away and away the aeroplane shot….”

At p. 218 the paragraph begins with “Away and away the aeroplane shot….” This is one of those examples of poetic language in the novel. Read the paragraph a couple of times. Also, consider that World War I was the first war which involved the widespread use of airplanes for warfare. How is the plane viewed in England in 1923–five years after the war ended? On the next page we see a different set of people experiencing the plane. These shared experiences are important, but in what way? We can hardly know that others are experiencing the same things we experience, yet, if we take time to reflect we know it must be the case. Our experiences connect us even if we can’t feel the connectedness at the time of the experience. Part of what a novelist can do is show us how our lives are connected.

Think again about Big Ben. When it chimes, everyone experiences the chime at the same time. Is the clock, then, a kind of manufactured connectedness? Manufactured or not, is it still a valuable thing to recognize that connectedness?

16. Peter Walsh thinks women ” live much more in the past than we do.”

Is Peter Walsh being a bit sexist and hypocritical when he makes that statement? p. 243. After all, much of the novel  involves his remembering his time with Clarissa at Bourton. Does Clarissa truly know who Peter is? Do you think she would be more or less fond of him if she knew some of his inner thoughts? You could ask the same question about many of the other characters’ relationships.

17. “Nothing exists outside us except a state of mind, he thinks; a desire for solace, for relief, for something outside these miserable pigmies, these feeble, these ugly, these craven men and women.” p. 244-45.

The novel is exploring the idea of what it means to exist, isn’t it?

18. “…to be the figure of the mother whose sons have been killed in the battles of the world.” p. 246.

Remembering one war causes us to remember all wars. Memory is, therefore, a very powerful thing when it comes to finding a way to exist. Are we in complete control of our memory? Are we in complete control over the way our memories impact our present thoughts? How does the past effect the present? Is the past a valuable tool to give meaning to our present lives?

19. Wickham. p. 249.

Since we just finished reading Pride and Prejudice I have to mention the reference to Wickham. Is Woolf having a dialogue with Pride and Prejudice in this novel? What does it mean when Clarissa calls Dalloway, her future husband, Wickham?

20. “…twenty minutes of perfect happiness.” p. 250.

Consider the range of emotions the characters experience in just one day. It’s almost as though a whole life is lived in one day. It is a strange thing to say, then, that you’re “happy,” isn’t it? Because you could be happy in one moment and then not in another. What does it mean when you say you’re happy? That you’ve been continually happy for 24 hours? That you’re happy in the one moment when you’re asked the question?

21. Peter Walsh considers the effects of the War in the five years since its end. p. 258.

Even in the moment, in 1923, Walsh has the feeling that the five years since the War ended have been “very important.” He can sense that the way people think has changed. He can sense that the people have changed permanently during this time. This is a running theme in the novel. Woolf is very much concerned with the effect of the War on society.

22. …”she thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.” p. 264.

References to atheism appear often in the novel. Is Woolf exploring what the world will look like when there are no Gods? Is Woolf exploring the idea that there needs to be some idea, other than religion, that will give meaning to our lives? If so, is that existentialism?

For next time, let’s read to p. 331 (“One of the triumphs of civilisation…). As always, I’d love to hear anything you have to say about the novel. This is my first time reading Mrs. Dalloway so I could use your help to expand my own reading, if you have the time to share.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Karen_O’D.