written by modernist author Virginia Woolf
and published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway is an experiment of the new avant-garde
schools in literature that uses both stream of consciousness
as well as various innovative narrative techniques to convey a fascinating array of meanings to readers.
The work takes place over the course of just one day and centers around two characters who never meet during the course of the novel. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway is a practical, middle aged socialite who married into money in order to secure a position for herself among the upper class of London. Throughout the book, she muses romantically on choices she has made in life. When she was young, she rejected a proposal of marriage from the charming, if possessive, Peter Walsh. She wonders if she made the right decision in turning him away. Also, she remembers a deep love that she experienced for a woman named Sally Seton. It is perhaps the most complete sort of appreciation for another human being that Clarissa had ever experienced, yet it was barely touched on in the book. So Woolf narrates:
"But all that evening she could not take her eyes off Sally. It was an extraordinary beauty of the kind she most admired, dark, large-eyed ... There they sat, hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world ... Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked up a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down!" (Woolf 33, 35)
Leaving aside any potential for romantic love, Clarissa Dalloway does not so fully connect with any character in the book so fully as she does here. Most of her interactions with others are superficial and brief; she prefers to lose herself in her own thoughts rather than grow close to most people. Such intense experiences are rare in her life, and in fact she seems to continually draw away from them, preferring the safety of her trivial, everyday affairs.
The other central character in the novel is Septimus Warren Smith, a war-torn veteran who is struggling hard to adjust to being back at home with his wife, Lucrezia. He is suffering from extreme shell-shock and throughout the novel is completely disconnected from reality. Around the time that Woolf wrote this novel, the English War Office Committee submitted a report to the British Parliament on the effect of what would be known as "shell-shock," the condition that Septimus is described as suffering from. The report was published in newspapers and undoubtedly Woolf was aware of it. Though it was a naive understanding of the condition, the War Office Committee described shell-shock as arising from a severe mental conflict between the soldier's desire for self-preservation and their perceived duty as a member of an army fighting a war. Woolf accurately depicts this, and the real onset of this condition isn't fully felt until Septimus is away from battle and back at home. While away at war, the soldier often dreams of being back at home, creating a perfect, idealized picture of home life that is likely far from the truth of such a life. Upon their actual return, they are confronted with the reality of life at home, and they can't cope with it as easily as others.
Instead of connecting to reality, Septimus' mind wanders, his awareness breaking and shifting constantly. Indeed, his consciousness is often drifting, reaching, floating to connect with an idealized, living image of his surroundings. He describes his world as a vivid and ever-shifting palette of colors and textures that enthrall him. In one of the most beautiful narrative sections of the work, Septimus observes:
"... the trees dragged their leaves like nets through the depths of the air; the sound of water was in the room and through the waves came the voices of birds singing. Every power poured its treasures on his head, and his hand lay there on the back of the sofa, as he had seen his hand lie when he was bathing, floating, on the top of the waves ... Fear no more, says the heart in his body; fear no more." (Woolf 139)
Lucrezia thinks that he may be ill, for whenever they are out together he scarcely listens to her and will often scare easily at sudden noises. She calls in a doctor for him, who attempts to tell him that nothing is wrong with him, taking a "shape up" sort of attitude with him which is largely inappropriate for a man who has lived through such horrors.
In the end, Septimus' abstract world pulls him too far away from reality, and he throws himself out of a window, thinking just before his death that people were the only blemish upon his existence. Mrs. Dalloway hears of Septimus' death; to her he is only a random soldier but she still thinks about it in a fascinating manner.
"Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!" (Woolf 184)
Upon reading this passage, the transitions that define Mrs. Dalloway's mind are blatantly revealed; her imagination conjures up a vivid picture of his death, and the shocking nature of the accuracy and horror of her vision makes her transition back to her social surroundings all the more sudden and unceremonious. Instantly, she places her own musings to the side in favor of what others were doing and thinking. Clarissa Dalloway lives on. There is a simple reason for this; she surfaces from the depths of her dreaming long enough and frequently enough to connect with her empirical reality. As she muses further on the death of Septimus, she thinks:
"she did not pity him; with the clock striking one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on ... She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him - the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air ... But she must go back. She must assemble." (Woolf 186)
This final statement is the perfect summation to Mrs. Dalloway's cognitive existence; she will always notice the striking of the clock. Such spatio-temporal distinctions will always balance with the visions of her elaborate daydreams. This is her world, splintered, fragmented into units of past and present, social and personal, but this is the world that keeps her alive, despite her longing to compare herself to the soldier of idealism and imagination.
Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. Copyright © 1925, Copyright © renewed 1953 by Leonard Woolf, Reprint © 1981.
Mrs. Dalloway is also a movie based on the book by the same name and released in 1997. Directed by Marleen Gorris and written for the screen by Eileen Atkins, the film remains tied closely to the original story of the novel. Perhaps this is best represented by the decision to cast both younger and older versions of the central characters in order to make the flashback scenes more realistic. I had problems with following some of the flashback scenes, however; the casting choices were made well but I don't think that it flowed as well as it could have.
Vanessa Redgrave did a nice job as Mrs. Dalloway but I think that the best aspect of the film was the portrayal of the veteran's life by Rupert Graves. It really was the best part of the movie.
The billed cast is as follows:
I think that any adaptation of a period story such as this one is going to be difficult to translate onto the screen (see the adaptation of The House of Mirth starring Gillian Anderson), but this particular example was fairly good.