- "Still, Life Had a Way of Adding Day to Day":Revisiting Mrs. Dalloway in a Global Pandemic
Mrs. Dalloway stands as one of the first "anti-novels" written in the Modernist period of British literature. Devoid almost entirely of plot or action, Virginia Woolf instead draws in her reader's gaze through exploring the interior of the human mind—specifically, that of Clarissa Dalloway. We, as were readers of Woolf's time, are immediately put on guard at the novel's malleable prose. Time, location, and especially thoughts are not specific to one character or individual. Rather, we are thrown interchangeably into the minds of various mundane people: Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Smith, Peter Walsh, and Doris Kilman, among others. Their opinions are not unique to them, and Woolf's prose often relocates us between the characters in the middle of paragraphs and even sentences. This effect, and the streams of consciousness it provides, can be unsettling for Woolf's readers at times; we observe the bursts of manic joy the characters feel, the bitter anxieties, and even their occasional thoughts of suicide, all of which eventually lead to the novel's enigmatic ending where we witness the death of Septimus Smith and the success of Mrs. Dalloway's party. In each of these moments, Woolf tells us that life, even at its brightest and darkest moments, is nevertheless mundane and must still carry on.
In light of the COVID-19 global pandemic, my own personal interest in Mrs. Dalloway has been renewed as well. As I read through the novel's monologic narration and extraordinarily long sentences, I am reminded of day-to-day duties that I can no longer perform—duties that Woolf writes about with ecstatic joy and meaning. Clarissa Dalloway, for all her flaws and reputation as a trivial and snobbish socialite, embodies an uninhibited joy for life. She exclaims that she will "buy the flowers herself,"1 making a day of preparing for her party, and is overcome with melancholic pleasure as she encounters various people in her life throughout her London excursion. Woolf's prose is bristling with delight over these so-called trivial matters, but in our current year, as thousands of people across the planet are confined indoors, barred from society or civil interaction out of concern for each other's welfare, I (and perhaps other readers of the novel) cannot help but feel a nostalgic sense of grief [End Page 42] at our loss. I remember the irritation of needing to go out in public—to buy a necessary item or pick up something small—and the satisfaction it would bring to accomplish a task such as this. These thoughts and their accompanying emotional journey, regardless of how small or insignificant, have since become treasures of which I am reminded as I read Mrs. Dalloway venture into the city or Peter Walsh walk through a park in London.
The novel itself exists paradoxically in time, as its plot and stylistic tone are simultaneously both inseparable from the Modernist movement of early-twentieth-century Britain while also capable of transcending time to be made adaptable and relatable to future audiences. Mrs. Dalloway is intrinsically Woolfian in its portrayal of upper-class English life, equally snobbish and condescending as its titular heroine. Clarissa is fully aware of and admits to her own conceit, and that simply "she enjoyed imposing herself; liked to have famous people about her; great names; was simply a snob in short."2 The reader cannot help but feel the pomposity and pettiness in the daily struggles of a privileged woman born of wealth, yet we are forced to empathize with her through her feelings of jealousy towards Miss Kilman or her fears about her party turning into a disaster. Her foibles are relatable and endearing, whether she bristles with awkwardness while wearing a certain hat—"Not the right hat for the early morning, was that it?"3—or how desperate she is for people to like her, "that people should look pleased as she came in."4 Clarissa, as well as the entire cast of characters for what we know of them, are strikingly human...