Sunday, September 19, 2010

Life is a Party (Mrs. Dalloway)

For whatever reason(s), I have always been under the impression that Mrs. Dalloway kills herself (and I thought she did this because her party was a failure).  I can’t recall now why I thought this was how the novel ends, though now that I’ve finished the novel, I must say that I was shocked that this does not happen. 

It seems a much more fitting “punishment” that Mrs. Dalloway ends up regretting her choices in life, though I do think much more of her at the end of the novel when I realized (through Peter Walsh’s observations) that she returns to the party, that she returns to the area where Peter is waiting. 

For up until that moment, I was expecting her to continue to push herself away from passion.  I suppose, seeing how she and Septimus Warren Smith are eerie doubles in a sense, that after hearing of his suicide, she would follow suit.  However, looking back across the day that the novel encompasses, I realize that Mrs. Dalloway has had her share of personal moments, moments in which we, as the readers, are able to catch a glimpse of her not as a high society wife aiming for success, but as a woman, a woman with desires (beyond the trivial), with a deep well of memories that spring forth, creating a well-rounded portrait of a life underneath the glitz of society.

I think the first moment I realized this about Mrs. Dalloway was when she ruminates upon her relationship with Sally Seton, confessing that her feelings toward Sally extended beyond Platonic (Woolf 31-35).  Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts come rushing up to us, almost violently—her thoughts of Sally are filled with a fervor that is not included when she thinks of Richard (though it can be said there is a residue of this vehemence when she thinks of Peter).  Mrs. Dalloway’s musings offer that “she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt.  Only for a moment; but it was enough” (Woolf 31).  However, Mrs. Dalloway’s married life contradicts these moments, and as her thoughts continue to circle, she begins to think of Richard, not with a eagerness, but with the dull thud of monotony, much like his routine walk up the stairs in his socks (Woolf 31). 

Yet this leads her to further consider the concept of love:  “But this question of love…this falling in love with women.  Take Sally Seton…Had not that, after all, been love” (Woolf 32).  Mrs. Dalloway plunges headlong into the past, musing on Sally’s wild ramblings, her vivacity, grace, and her power over her (Woolf 32-34).  And this musing reaches its pinnacle:  “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it.  Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips.  The whole world might have turned upside down” (Woolf 35).  However blissful, the moment is interrupted by Peter, and it is so terribly sad that she rejects his proposal, especially after we find out that Sally is irrevocably happily married (in the end) and Peter, as one would expect, is waiting diligently for Mrs. Dalloway to return just so he can speak with her.

I think it’s important that Mrs. Dalloway contains reflecting on the past.  For Mrs. Dalloway, I feel that her past recollections, her slipping easily between the past and the present, shows that she is a character who is life-like (real).  It also shows that she, deep down, knows that it is in her past that she is happy.  (She even admits that she is unhappy in her present.)  I also think that having various characters comment on how Peter has remained virtually unchanged is important.  To me, this demonstrates a redemptive quality in the novel, that after Mrs. Dalloway has her moment of epiphany after she hears of Septimus’s suicide, and she realizes that what truly matters is what we feel, what we are, our souls, that perhaps there is a salvation to be had, which is why she returns to the party, why she returns to Peter in the end.  Although the novel ends at this point, we are left to wonder, to muse ourselves over the characters’ pasts, to question whether or not Mrs. Dalloway has really come to terms with her life as she’s made it.  

I like thinking of the novel in this way:  that Woolf left the novel open-ended, so that we, as readers, adopt that same train of thought her characters have in the novel, and not only do we begin to think about our own lives, but we begin to ponder the past in terms of her characters, and we begin to draw up questions as to what happens now that the text has drawn to a close.  Now that I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway, it’s difficult for me to imagine that I’ll ever stop thinking about Mrs. Dalloway and her obedience to social codes, her personal wars, the ways in which she chose to set her life up as if it, too, were a party she could meticulously plan out.  Indeed, she has treated her life this way it seems to me, right down to her guest list, inviting only those who she wanted to attend (her refusal to go see Sally, her rejecting Peter, etc.).  

And now that Mrs. Dalloway has caused me to listen for the clock striking, to see the leaden circles dissolving in the air, I wonder why it is that even today, we adhere to these constructs (society) instead of following what matters most.  I suppose this kind of reaction only further denotes Woolf's timelessness (strange, for someone so concerned with time), and further renounces Bennett's claim that the Modernists had no ability to create true-to-life characters (see previous post for more information on Mr. Bennett/character).  

Woolf, Virginia.  Mrs. Dalloway.  Ed. Mark Hussey and 
Bonnie Kime Scott.  Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.  2005.  Print.

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