Slow-Read Sunday: The Secret Garden (to the END)

We’ve previously discussed The Secret Garden to Chapter VII; to Chapter XIV; to Chapter XVII and to Chapter XXII.

Today, we’ll finish discussing the novel.

1. Colin’s transformation.

The second half of the book, and in particular the last part of the book, is Colin’s story. Mary is by his side, but we are all witnesses to his transformation and it’s his future we hear discussed most often. Do you think that’s fair to Mary? Did you expect the novel to end the way it did? What of Mary’s future?

2. When people always get their way they become ____________.

Colin has been pampered his entire life. Mary can recognize this and the impact it’s had on him. p. 234. What are some of the dangers of getting everything you want?

3. Nature as a cathedral.

Around p.241 The Garden becomes something like a cathedral. The descriptive phrases used in this section have the children sitting cross-legged in “sort of a temple.” The characters sing hymns and chant until they can sway. p. 242. You probably noticed numerous other allusions to religion. What is the author suggesting here? What do you think the relationship between God, Nature, and Religion are in the novel?

4. Exercise.

What role does exercise play in Colin’s recovery? Does the mental transformation precede the physical? Are they tied together? p. 257.

5. The first paragraph of Chapter XXVII. p. 281.

The first paragraph of Chapter XXVII is a bit like the author’s closing argument or summation, isn’t it? It is a celebration of growth through knowledge and discovery. It is a celebration of the power of the mind. It is also the expression of the author’s desire that we learn more about how our minds work in the coming centuries. Do you think the author would be pleased to see the results of the past centuries’ accomplishments? Have we made progress in this area that matches Colin’s and Mary’s progress in the novel? If society as a whole hasn’t lived up to this transformation have there been individuals that have? What will another hundred years bring?

6. How are we like Colin and Mary, even as adults? What can we do to transform our own lives?

Thanks to Amarie for suggesting our June read. It was my first time to read the book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Slow-Read Sunday has been an interesting experiment. I certainly find it enriching to participate in, but I always debate whether I’m using my time with the site in the most effective way. I’m engaged in some of that inner-debate now and I haven’t decided whether to keep going with Slow-Read Sunday. I have decided to take July to contemplate whether I’ll continue and, if so, whether the format will change. There will be no Slow-Read Sunday in July, but I’m sure something will hold its place until I decide its future. Thanks to each of that read and participated and I hope at least one of you has gotten something out it.

Slow-Read Sunday: The Secret Garden (to CH. XXII)

We’ve previously discussed The Secret Gardento Chapter VIIto Chapter XIV; and to Chapter XVII.

Today we’ll discuss The Secret Garden to Chapter XXII. Some of the most beautiful language in the novel appears in this chunk. At times, today, I’ll highlight some of that language by merely setting out the quote for reflection. I think some of that highlighted language answers the questions we’ve posed to this point in the novel.

1. What does Mary mean when she says what ails Colin is hysterics and temper?

Mary uses the word hysterics to describe Colin’s fits. Does she come up with that on her own or has she picked it up from someone?

2. “The boy is half insane with hysteria and self-indulgence.” p. 191

Dr. Craven comes to see Colin after he has his tantrum. His official diagnosis seems less concerned with medicine, more a mental assessment. Dr. Craven wants Colin to remember his illness and be mindful of its restrictions at all times. Colin would rather forget his illness and put it out of his mind completely. p. 194. What advice would you give Colin?

3. What is the source of Dickon’s magical powers?

Mary believes there’s a certain magic about Dickon. p. 207. If she’s right, where do the powers come from?

4. Mary introduces Colin to the garden.

Mary introduces Colin to the garden by walking him through and explaining how she first gained access. You can feel the excitement pouring off these pages. p. 213. By the time they enter the garden, Colin is convinced he will get well and”live forever and ever.” This language mirrors the way Dickon feels when he lies on the ground in the moor and breathes in the air. Have you ever felt that way? What were the circumstances? Can you recreate them at will?

5. “One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever.” p. 213.

6. Why do Mary, Dickon, and Colin all whisper in the garden?

Colin gets instructed “as to the law of whispers and low voices” before entering the garden. p. 217. Once in, he likes the “mysteriousness” of whispering. What do you make of the rule? There are other places where we must whisper at all times, like Churches and Libraries. Did either of them come to mind when you heard this rule?

7. “I’ve seen the spring now and I’m going to see the summer. I’m going to see everything grow here. I’m going to grow here myself.” p. 221.

Next time we’ll finish discussing the novel.

Slow-Read Sunday: The Secret Garden (to Chapter XVII)

Thus far, we’e discussed The Secret Garden to Chapter VII and then to Chapter XIV.

Today, we’ll carry on to Chapter XVII of The Secret Garden.

1. What is Magic? 

The idea of Magic with a capital “M” is raised at p. 139. What does Mary mean when she asks about Magic? Why do you think the author chooses to capitalize “Magic?”

2. Does the story start to turn into Colin’s story?

Mary’s always involved, but we start to learn more about Colin in this part of the book. Whose story is this? Is it a story about Mary? About Colin? About The Garden?

3. If you learn something about how to repair yourself you should teach others.

Mary finds that being in the garden works for her. She then decides it might help Colin. p. 141. Do we have an obligation, once we’ve learned something, to share it with others if it’ll help them, too?

4. Mind over matter?

Dickon talks about having Colin go out in the garden because there “he wouldn’t be watchin’ for lumps to grow on his back; he’d be watchin’ for buds to break on th’ rose-bushes, an’ he’d likely be healthier.” p. 162. There are two ideas at play here: (1) the idea that not thinking about being sick makes you less likely to be sick and (2) there are forces in nature that make us healthy. Is there any truth to these two ideas?

5. Misery loves company?

Mary has a perspective shift when she sees Colin acting ill-tempered. p. 167. Before, she had always wanted people around her to be miserable if she was miserable. Now, she sees Colin engaging in that behavior and thinks he’s wrong. What precipitated this perspective shift?

6. Is Colin jealous of Dickon?

Colin is mad at Dickon because he “keeps [Mary] playing in the dirt when he knows I am all by myself.” p. 168. Does that jealousy fuel bad or good behavior in Colin?

Next week, we’ll read on to Chapter XXII.

Slow-Read Sunday: The Secret Garden (to Ch. XIV)

If you missed our discussion of the first part of The Secret Garden you can always catch up.

Today I’ll ask some questions about the second part, to Chapter XIV.

1. How does Mary think of herself?

It’s a hard question to answer for an adolescent. At what age do we begin to develop our self-image? Mary starts to ask that question about herself on p. 62. We see some of the keener psychological moments in the book when we see Mary start to look at things in new ways. Before she can understand what it means to help someone else she has to come to understand who she is. Mary is going through that process. Try to gauge whether Mary’s opinion of herself changes throughout the book.

2. Symbolism and gardens.

Are our lives like gardens? Are our relationships like gardens? Is the way we should treat ourselves the same as the way we should treat a garden?

3. Gradual progress and improvement.

Mary takes on skipping rope on p. 72. In the beginning she’s poor, but with practice she’ll improve if she practices everyday. The idea of steady gradual improvement is particularly hard to teach young people (all people?). Do you think Burnett is trying to convey this idea to her younger readers?

Or, do you think Burnett is more worried about emotional health and the idea that if we take things one day at a time we can avoid overwhelm?

4. Gardening as empathy.

Mary comes to gardening with very little understanding of the concept of how to garden, but she figures it out quickly using her intuition. Do you think we’re born with the knowledge of how to care for other living things? If not, where do we learn this? Where did Mary learn empathy for her garden?

5. Mary is excited to have a place of her own.

Mary’s excitement about the garden is partially because it’s her own place. As Colin enters the novel try to recognize whether that changes and when it changes. Would Mary behave differently toward Colin had she met him before she had the garden?

For next time let’s read to Chapter XVII, “A Tantrum.”

Slow-Read Sunday, The Secret Garden (to Chapter VII)

Public Service Announcement: Today we start our discussion of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Be careful of grabbing an abridged version of the book, unless you’re looking to read an abridged version. There are many abridged versions in print, but it seems the free Kindle version is complete.

If a book is it’s own self-contained universe then it’s not necessary to research the historical setting of a novel, but we don’t always do things as a result of necessity. Sometimes, we do things because we want to know a little more. I’ll start the discussion there and then start to delve into some of the book’s major ideas.

1. What’s going on in England/India in 1911?

I’m no historian, but I do know that India was a British colony in 1911. Ghandi had not yet come back to India a hero after his work in South Africa. One of the most common occupations for an English citizen was as a servant. Something near a seventh of employed persons worked in some capacity as a servant. Can you read the book as a criticism of over-reliance on the servant? Look for instances where over-reliance is viewed negatively.

The word, Ayah, is a special native Indian servant employed by Europeans. From the use of this specific English word we can tell the servant culture had been imposed upon India as well.

Did this system result in absentee parents? Did this system result in lazy children?

2. What is cholera?

Cholera killed more than 800,000 people. It was a disease that stemmed from poor waste disposal and water treatment systems. At or around 1911 cholera had been classified as an epidemic. Does an epidemic like cholera have as much of an impact on a cities’ residents as war?

Consider a line from the book: “The cholera had broken out in its most fatal form and people were dying like flies.” loc 73. Does this seem too gruesome for a children’s book or is death something that children faced at an early age as a result of the cholera epidemic?

3. What is the literary significance of a forbidden or secret place?

Do you believe everyone needs a place they can call their own? Even a child? Why does this seem to be universally true? Is it more important at certain ages than others? Is it more important after certain life events than others?

4. What is a moor?

A moor is an open, rolling, infertile land that is usually boggy. Why does the author make a point to describe the moor in detail? We’re told Misselthwaite Manor is on “the edge of the moor.” loc 181. The moor is further described as “a dense darkness”( loc 235) and as “just miles and miles of wild land that nothing grows on but heather and gorse and broom, and nothing lives on but wild ponies and sheep.” loc 241. Is the moor a source of power? What literary purpose does the moor serve? How might the moor be important for developing the book’s “Nature” theme?

5. What role does nature play in our lives?

Burnett states it as an unequivocal fact “that the fresh wind from the moor had begun to blow the cobwebs out of her young brain and to waken her up a little.” loc 503. Do you believe this is true? Can a change of scenery from city life to country life have that kind of impact? Are there health benefits to being outdoors? I’ve read scientific studies that talk about the impact of nature and exercise on mental health. Is Burnett ahead of the curve or reacting to similar scientific findings she would have been privy to at the time she wrote the novel?

Of course, the robin Mary meets also plays a role in the book. Do you believe we can be guided by nature? What does Mary believe at the start of the novel? Try to track whether Mary’s attitudes toward Nature change during the course of the novel.

6. What does it mean to be sorry for some one?

We’re told at loc 526 that one of the things Mary learns is how to “be sorry for some one.” What does that mean? Is Mary growing up and losing the ego-dominance that marked her early years or is she being awakened by the place she’s in? Could it be both? Will Mary associate that awakening–this new empathy–with Misselthwaite Manor for the rest of her life? Do you have a similar place in your memory? Could you write a story about it–even a short one?

7. Whose story is this?

This seems to be a story about Mary, doesn’t it? Let’s try to pay attention to whether that idea holds throughout the novel.

8. What does the garden symbolize?

The garden plays a central role in the book. What does it mean to Mary? What do you feel when you hear about the garden?

For next time, let’s read to Chapter 14 (XIV), “The Young Rajah.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by gnomonic.

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.

Slow-Read Sunday: Pride and Prejudice (Final Thoughts)

Who or what organizes a society like that in Pride and Prejudice? By that I mean, who or what is control of the order of things? If the primary motivation for man is to find a wife and the primary motivation for woman is to find a husband, who benefits from that priority? Is it the rich men, the rich women, or just the rich? That question continues to nag me after finishing the book a week ago.

Is the book ironic, and, if it is, what does that mean? The book seems to be saying, Elizabeth is a free person–free from the constraints of society–which of course leaves her with complete freedom to marry the richest man she finds, so long as she can convince herself she loves him. That may be a bit harsh, but it’s not too far off base, is it?

Are Darcy’s acts truly heroic? I have this feeling that we still don’t know enough about Darcy to form an opinion. Even Darcy’s truly good deeds–like saving Elizabeth’s sister from a poor start to her life with Wickham–don’t seem too heroic when you consider they were made possible because Darcy is so wealthy. The money he throws at the Wickham problem–twice–is a temporary fix. And, we know that Darcy isn’t going to suffer in the least because he has enough money to be able to spare some for Wickham without it effecting his lifestyle at all. We know from the track record that Wickham will be back and will need money again and will likely go back to his old ways. And we’re to be thankful to Darcy for arranging this?

And, the ending. I’m haunted–like in an existential way–by the idea that our “happy ending” that has Darcy marry Elizabeth is still a rush to judgment. It’s too soon to say they’ll live happily ever after because we don’t know who Darcy is, except to say he’s wealthy and tied to Pemberley, which, by the way, just sounds like a super-swell place to raise some children who will fall right into line with what Pemberley can make of them.

I went back and tried to find out when Pemberley was first introduced in the novel with the idea that maybe I could put together an argument that the true hero of the novel was Pemberley. I was thinking, maybe, I could argue that Pemberley is really the thing that has set up the order of the society Austen writes about in Pride and Prejudice, and I was thinking I could probably, pretty-easily argue that Pemberley is the true victor in the Darcy-Elizabeth union because, if I can say anything about the novel, I can say that the estate is set up to be well-managed, tastefully arranged, and just an all-round pleasant place to visit friends and family. In other words, Pemberley is the suburbs before they got so over-crowded and cookie-cutter.

What did I find? Well, Pemberley is first mentioned on p. 19 of the edition I’ve been reading, or at the second to last paragraph of Volume I, Chapter VI. There’s a joke between Darcy and Miss Bingley about how Darcy and Elizabeth will live happily ever-after at Pemberley with his new charming mother-in-law, Elizbabeth’s mother, who Darcy isn’t too fond of at the start of the novel. So, does that support my idea? I think I could probably argue it does, because the first time we’re introduced to Pemberley there’s talk of a new generation moving in with the old and we can just imagine Darcy reading by the fire in the comfortable confines of the manor while lovely conversation is had in another room, far far away from where Darcy is reading (if Darcy has his way). So, this is a friendly introduction, along side a tasteful jab at Darcy’s “future mother-in-law.” Ha Ha! Mother-in-laws…we all guffaw.

But, our next interaction with Pemberley is much different. After that scene, we see Pemberley shrink back from it’s sigh of relief and we hear that–just like everything else–Pemberley’s future is uncertain because it can always be sold away. p. 26, Volume I, Chapter VIII.

The other thing that worries me, is that Pemberley is as much associated with Wickham as it is Darcy. Remember, Wickham was raised at Pemberley because his dad managed the Pemberley estates. p. 132, Volume II, Chapter XII. So, that’s an unlikely start for a hero, isn’t it? Although, the Bible seems to be full of heroes that have at least one bad son, right? (For one example see the Book of Genesis where Adam and Eve give birth to Abel, but also Cain).

The thing that I keep coming back to, a week after putting the book down, is that the turning point of the novel is when Elizabeth visits Pemberley. If Pemberley had one spell left to cast, if it had the ability to kind of pull forth from the earth some last drop of mana, it did it. So, Pemberley ends up like Darcy’s spider web, then? And, Elizabeth can’t overcome the societal cycle set up to Pemberley’s/Darcy’s advantage?

One last question, who gets what they want in the novel by its end? Darcy? He gets Elizabeth, so check. Elizabeth? Well, if what she wants is an estate and a husband then, yes–check. Pemberley? We don’t actually have a clear answer to this because we don’t know if it gets a male heir out of the relationship, but let’s assume that happens, even though the novel doesn’t give us room to assume that will happen. Look at poor old Mr. Bennet who did not get a son and so has to deal with that nasty business of the entail. But, assuming Darcy and Elizabeth have a MALE heir then it gets what it wants. So, maybe the answer is that men and estates have conspired together to get what they both want and need to assure their continued happiness and even Elizabeth is not powerful enough to overcome what Pemberley and Darcy can do together. Remember the first line of the novel? “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And, for the rest of the novel, off go that good fortune (Pemberley) and that man (Darcy) in search of a wife (Elizabeth).

So, there’s my case. It’s all laid out before you. Our true hero in the novel is Pemberley. And if you’ve followed my case and maybe even nodded your head up and down a couple of times, there’s just one thing left to say: Austen is a master ironist. Which means, what she says isn’t what she really means and that the real meaning is the implied meaning, not the literal meaning. Which means, your thoughts either way are as good as mine as long as they’re supported by the text, literally or implicatively.

Our discussion of Pride and Prejudice has been broken into multiple parts. You can find the prior discussion here: Volume IVolume IIVolume III to Chapter X, Volume III Chapter X to END.