Friday, April 5, 2024

Mrs Dalloway


Clarissa Dalloway goes for her early morning walk as she contemplates how her day will unfold. The wife of a politician, she is accustomed to hosting parties attended by the who’s who of London society. The beautiful yet mundane morning prompts her to reflect about the choices she has made in life, in particular her marriage to Richard instead of her childhood friend Peter Walsh, an Anglo-Indian who has proposed to her back then who is now on the verge of divorcing his wife to marry another woman he met in India. His unannounced visit in the afternoon comes as a shock to Clarissa, disturbing her party preparation and repair of her dress. Meanwhile, WWI veteran Septimus Warren Smith is suffering from PTSD after his harrowing experience in the war. His Italian wife Lucrezia gets the brunt of his husband’s hallucinations and misses home, wondering whether she made the right decision to marry him.

I was curious about all the raves regarding the author’s gratuitous use of the stream of consciousness technique so I had to see it for myself. True enough, Auntie Virginia does go to great lengths to give us a glimpse of what’s going on in all of her characters’ minds. The result is a short novel that feels like a tug o'war of internal monologue with you, as the reader, serving as the rope. What you get is almost 200 pages of being spaghettified by contrasting blackholes of incoherent thoughts. At times it feels fun because it fuels the inner gossipmonger in you, but most of the time it just feels borderline voyeuristic, like, TMI.

In any case, anyone wanting to master such literary technique should read this book and learn from the best. However, I would be lying if I said that the reading experience hasn’t been tedious. Mrs Dalloway is a character-driven novel where you just enjoy listening to the characters’ inner thoughts and marvel at the contrasts of opinion coming from different points of view. The plot is not that interesting and unfolds in just a single day of preparing and hosting a party. Nothing much happens. Somehow the experience comes across as being hostaged by a bunch of people and listening to them complain about their first world problems.

But that is putting it unfairly. After all, some of the characters’ woes are timely and universal enough to be relatable. Septimus, for example, survived the war but is haunted by its ghosts forever which eventually leads to his tragic demise. Clarissa herself is, perhaps, a bit of an autobiographical take. While circumstances then and now differ, the dilemma of reconciling life purpose as well as familial and societal duty with femininity and its repercussions to mental health is still quite the enigma for women in today’s world. 1920’s London might be a century ago, but you will always find something or someone to relate to.

In my case, the blur of stream of consciousness that I inexplicably enjoyed the most was Miss Kilman’s jaded worldview. Along with Septimus’ PTSD, it was during Kilman’s turn to share her inner thoughts that I really sat down and got engrossed in the book. Maybe this is the case because we just both happen to have the same stance on society’s crème-de-la-crème ranting about their “miserable” existence. Oh no, another party to prepare for! Woe is me, I hate my life. But then again, everyone is entitled to their own problems in life, we are just dealt a different set of cards most of the time.

The funny thing about it is how Mrs. Kilman and I both seem to believe that we are exempted from that, when we actually are not. This is where Mrs Dalloway succeeds, in my opinion, by focusing the spotlight on the human condition. We just end up with an anchor that belongs in a sector of society different from ours. Anyway, just to reiterate, there are parts of the book where the frequent change in perspective becomes a tedious read and sometimes you just get lost in that free-for-all blur of stray thoughts that there are instances when you even forget who you are following.

In the end, I did not enjoy Mrs Dalloway as much as I thought I would. Some readers online with the same experience do mention that they ended up liking Woolf’s other novel, Orlando, more. I will give that a shot, but perhaps not too soon. I need a break from Auntie Virginia for now. I guess that this is that kind of novel that will hit differently when reread at a different point of one’s life. As such, we will meet again down the line, Mrs. Dalloway. But not today.

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