Book Review

#10 Book Review

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Mrs Dalloway

by Virginia Woolf

– “What does the brain matter compared with the heart?”-

 

Genre: Formalist, Feminist novel

 

This is one of the longest book review I have written so far, and it was a bit hard for me to choose just a few aspects of the novel to talk about, because this novel has lot of things that made me reflect.

The first time I read Mrs Dalloway I was 16, and at first it was hard for me to go on reading, because Virginia Woolf has a personal and unique style that it is not actually easy for people like me, who don’t speak English as their first language.

I read this book twice, and the second one, when I had more information about the author, her life and style the reading was very easy.

 

It has no storyline; apart from brief descriptions from a third-person narrator, events are seen through the points of view of the various characters.

The novel is not divided into chapters, though there are spaces between paragraphs at certain point in the book.

The striking of time, however, serves as a sort of framework, as does the setting.

A great element of the presence of time in the story is the Big Ben, a symbol of England and its might, sounds out the hour relentlessly, ensuring that the passage of time, and the awareness of eventual death, is always palpable. Clarissa-in particular-  and other characters are in the grip of time, and as they age they evaluate how they have spent their lives.

The  novel takes place in a single day (a Wednesday in mid-June 1923) and it interweaves two seemingly unconnected storylines during this day.

The first storyline opens with Clarissa Dalloway- the central character- ,a fiftyish upper-class housewife ,recently recovering from an illness.

She is going to give a party in the evening so she goes out to buy flowers: “Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence” .

Tree and flower images abound in Mrs. Dalloway.

The colour, variety, and beauty of flowers suggest feeling and emotion, and those characters who are comfortable with flowers, such as Clarissa, have distinctly different personalities than those characters who are not. While trees, with their extensive root systems, suggest the vast reach of the human soul.

Clarissa enjoys the moment to moment aspect of life and believes that a piece of her remains in every place she has visited.

She is a representative of an uppity English gentry class and yet, defies categorization because of her humanity and her relations.

Throughout the morning, Clarissa reflects on her past, including her decision to marry Richard Dalloway thirty years earlier, a Conservative member of Parliament.

He is presented like a cold man, who isn’t even able to express his feelings of love to his wife, because he thinks that only facts are significant; the only exception is his daughter , for which he would do anything.

 Richard is a simple, hardworking, sensible husband who loves Clarissa and their daughter, Elizabeth who is under the influence of Miss Kilman, her tutor whom Clarissa hates deeply for her religious fanaticism.

However, he will never share Clarissa’s desire to truly and fully communicate, and he cannot appreciate the beauty of life in the same way she can. At one point, Richard tries to overcome his habitual stiffness and shyness by planning to tell Clarissa that he loves her, but he is ultimately too repressed to say the words, in part because it has been so long since he last said them.

Richard considers tradition of prime importance, rather than passion or open communication. He champions the traditions England went to war to preserve and does not recognize their destructive power.

After the going out, Clarissa come back at  home and begins to remember a special friendship that she shared in her youth in Bourton with Sally Seton, a vivacious, slightly, Bohemian open-minded, scandalous young woman.

Their was a very deep friendship that happened to have a little sexual tension going for it.

Clarissa has been kissed in the garden by Sally and she feel in love with her also because Sally had qualities which Clarissa apriciated.

When they were teenagers, they had grand plans to change the world; the wanted to abolish private property, make revolutionary reforms, read William Morris and live freely.

They thought marriage was a catastrophe but Sally later becomes Lady Rosseter and has five sons.

But even as Lady Rosseter she does not hide her feeling; and the implications of the kiss between the two women can be seen as a rebellion against the repressions of Victorian period, a breaking away to traditional ideals.

The kiss represent the “new era” or perhaps a hope for it.

Clarissa, then, begins mending her green silk dress for the evening when she receives an unexpected visit from Peter Walsh, her former suitor who was in love with her and probably still is.

Peter is middle-aged and fears he has wasted his life, so his insecurity makes him severely critical of other characters.

He detests Clarissa’s bourgeois  lifestyle and he blames her husband for making her into the kind of woman she is.

When Peter and Clarissa were young, he decided to propose to her but he was brutally refused.

Then he left the United Kingdom for India, in search of fortune and the possibility of becoming rich.

The relation between Peter and India shows to us the political situation of the Empire who seemed invincible throughout the nineteenth century.

Peter also becomes frantic at the thought of death –as also Clarissa does-; thoughts of death lurk constantly beneath the surface of everyday life in the novel and it is very naturally in the characters thoughts and for that there is an atmosphere which seems to come from a funeral song that celebrates death as a comfort after a difficult life: “Death was defiance. 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.”

Meanwhile, the second storyline begins with Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of World War I .

He is a thirty years old man afflicted by shell shock, a serious mental disorderas a consequence of the war.

He lives in an internal world, wherein he sees and hears things that aren’t really there and he talks  and has hallucinations  of his dead friend Evan, who was his superior during his military service. Very shocked by the events of the war, he starts to feel a deep sense of guilt towards the world, that considers him a respectable person even as he despises himself for being made numb by the war, and towards his wife Lucrezia , that he married without loving her.  His doctor has ordered him to  notice things outside himself, but Septimus has removed himself from the physical world.

The world outside of Septimus is threatening, and the way Septimus sees that world offers little hope.

Oppression is a constant threat for Clarissa and Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, and it comes in many guises, including religion, science, or social convention a particular theme of the Victorian period.

Traditional English society itself is a kind of tide, pulling under those people not strong enough to stand on their own.

Everyone is in some way complicit in the oppression of others.

It is important to notice that the character of Septimus is not directly linked with Clarissa’s one but they both know Lord Bradshaw, one of the guest of the party.

So  on the surface, Septimus seems quite dissimilar to Clarissa, but he embodies many characteristics that Clarissa shares and thinks in much the same way she does. He could almost be her double in the novel.

Septimus and Clarissa both have beak-noses, love Shakespeare, and fear oppression. More important, as Clarissa’s double, Septimus offers a contrast between the conscious struggle of a working-class veteran and the blind opulence of the upper class.

Septimus chooses to escape his problems by killing himself, a dramatic and tragic gesture jumping from a balcony.

The great variety of character who act in the novel give to the reader a multifaceted version of the same event but through different perspectives.

In this way Virginia Woolf introduced a new technical innovation –the shift of the point of view-with the abolition of the traditional omniscient narrator.

We also can say that the two storylines create two levels of narration:

One of the external events arranged a chronological order (to prepare a party from morning to evening), and the other one is the flux of thoughts arranged according to the association of ideas (the characters stories).

 

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