Monday, July 5, 2010

A Moving Spotlight

Mrs. DallowayI tend to forget plot lines and endings of most books I read.  What usually sticks with me is the style of writing: the use of adjectival phrases, the tone, the sentence structure.  Thus, I remember one of my favorite books, Mrs. Dalloway, not for the story, but for the literary devices employed by Virginia Woolf.  What makes Mrs. Dalloway so intriguing to me is the shift of narrative focus in stream of consciousness.  I will always remember this device employed by Woolf as something magical, something real.  Reading it again this week, brought back all the memories of this perfect device.  It is as though the reader is walking through London with the narrator, shining a spotlight on the various characters as he sees them, learning their inmost thoughts and journeying with them on one particular day.   As one character walks by, suddenly, the narrator spots them and the reader follows them in the same way.

But reading Mrs. Dalloway again, led to greater observations than my 17 year old self could have made.  These insights brought further depth to a novel I already loved.  Most notable among these was the presage of the future.  Woolf wrote of the prevailing philosophies of the day.  These, naturally, were indicators of the future.  Her character Sir William (a doctor), a progressive thinker obsessed with the twin goddesses of proportion and conversion, is a somber warning of the horrors of eugenics and power-hungry rulers:
Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion.

Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace.  At Hyde Park Corner on a tub she stand preaching; shrouds herself in white and walks penitentially disguised as brotherly love through factories and parliaments; offers help, but desires power, smite out of her way roughly the dissentient, or dissatisfied; bestows her blessings on those, who looking upward, catch submissively from her eyes, the light of their own.  This lady too had her dwelling in Sir William's heart, though concealed, as she mostly is, under some plausible disguise; some venerable name; love, duty, self sacrifice.  But conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will. 

All the characters of this novel can be sorted out by their adherence to these goddesses.  Their willingness to bow their hearts to proportion and conversion is the test of the will of each character.  Some have chosen to submit for ease, some refuse and suffer the consequences.  It seems the whole of Mrs. Dalloway could not stand without this small portion of writing centered on a minor character.  This is the key to unlocking the secrets of Mrs. Dalloway

Thus this is a novel about choices.  Choices made.  Choices regretted.  But always choices.  Many will say this is one of the first feminist novels, but I say it is a novel about self-determination.  It is about how you choose to live your life, suffering consequences or bearing them up.  The things of the past for some characters are events to get beyond; for others, they are something to live inside.  Some would say that women before the turn of the century did not have choices, but this novel would point out just the opposite.   Each character (especially Clarissa) had the right to choose.  One must remember there is a difference between not having a choice and regretting making the decision. 

Rating: 6 out of 7



  1. great review-I will be starting Mrs Dalloway very soon and your post will help me follow it

  2. Ugh, I lovelovelove Mrs. Dalloway. I really dislike people who lump Woolf under "feminist fiction" because it's really just human fiction.

  3. Wow, what a great review. I haven't read any of Virginia Woold but I have Orlando sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. I will look forward to reading Mrs Dalloway as well

  4. Just curious - what do you mean when you say human fiction? I have heard so many different takes on that phrase

  5. Thanks for the comments!
    melu: I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. One of my friends recently read it upon my recommendation, but she had a hard time with the stream of consciousness.

    JaneDoe: I remember reading Mrs. Dalloway and loving it, then years later hearing that some think of it as feminist...I just don't see it!

    Becky: I don't presume to speak for Jane Doe, but I would assume she means it is human in the sense of that it does not leave out anyone gender, creed, or culture. It is part of the human experience.

  6. Just that it's descriptive of the human experience, as opposed to being just about "the oppression of women" or how women experience the world. Like Leah says, each character in that book makes choices that shape their days. It's about regret, love, etc..which everyone feels. All those characters seem to struggle with their traditional gender roles, not just the main character- because everyone struggles with reconciling who they think they are with who society thinks they should be. It's not just the ladies.

    I don't know what anyone else means when they say it, though, so I could be makin' up stuff.