Mrs. Dalloway

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Mrs. Dalloway is so heartbreaking. Some of it is undoubtedly down to its manner of plumbing the depths of time, the way in which those strong moments of life, of violence and of youth, of youth’s violence, can so resolutely stand time’s test, can so indelibly inscribe one’s present, can last so long into age, can remain more real to us than our everyday existence; more familiar, sometimes, those faces from one’s youth, than the deepening lines in the mirror make us to ourselves. It conveys precisely how certain acquaintances can be cut for years, even decades, without their bonds on us weakening in the slightest. One might be forgiven for assuming, as I had, that this manner of recollection would come across as stream of consciousness. But the novel’s profound consciousness is not streamlike. As a cursory introspection into one’s own mind reveals, there is really nothing continuous about it at all, and it is its discontinuity, and, in sensitive and damaged individuals, its total susceptibility to environment, that is its defining characteristic. The superficial continuity hides an infinite well of stored impressions that might surface unbidden at any moment. A sudden bell, a sudden memory, a sudden recollection of enmity, can throw the most ordered thoughts into chaotic disarray, into unexpected joy or into paroxysms of regret. Or even both, at the same time. The recollection of one’s own ugliness can overwhelm one’s mind to the point that one resolves to concentrate it upon any other object, to affix it to anything just until the next pillar-box; and yet one’s thoughts fly on, masterless, bounding, and one only notices that they have gone once one has long since passed the pillar-box. It is this susceptibility to mental projections and physical environs, sensitivity to one’s thoughts and to the world, and above all a cataclysmic lack of concentration that characterises not only Clarissa and Peter, Septimus and Rezia, but modernity itself. Each character struggles against not only an ever-quickening torrent of sensory stimulus, but also against an uncontrollable inner monologue, a deluge not only of present bustle but, in times of stillness, an uncontrollable vacillation into the future, to death, and even more frequently back into the recesses of the past, into the knowledge that not taking roads never leaves them fully untaken, and into the ever-present spectre of the previous century, which often looms larger than the more recent war. The pitiability of available defences against this onslaught, like a Franco-Prussian battlement against a First World War howitzer, is of course most agonisingly illustrated in Septimus’ shell shock—six months’ rest at best, total denial of any problem at worst, but the recommendations are wholly incommensurate to the problem. It also evident in the pathetic fortifications erected by Miss Kilman’s religion against her own vicious and compulsive self-flagellation. Nor are the rich spared; at the party one can see the deleterious lack of mental reserve in Peter’s judgement and impatience, in Clarissa’s wild oscillations of mood, and in Sally’s painfully pertinent question, near the end, in the course of seemingly inconsequential gossip: “Are we not all prisoners?” The lack of useful tools in the face of modernity is as evident here, in 1925, as it would be half a century later, when Pink Floyd would write that “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” or as it is now, in any article about the pernicious effects of today’s distractions. The twentieth century had already stretched human nature to the breaking point, and in many cases past it, to say nothing of the present. And yet for all this, it is not a depressing book to read. Painful reserve, even, has its painful beauty, as when Richard, bringing flowers, finds himself wholly unable, in the most British scene imaginable, to tell his wife that he loves her. Painful openness too, when Clarissa, amidst the roar, realises that this “was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” Although it sometimes errs on the painful side of painfully beautiful, it is nonetheless beautiful. Read it with whatever guard you’ve erected down.

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