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.


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