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The Work of Living Goes On: Rereading Mrs Dalloway During an Endless Pandemic

Colin Dickey Finds Deeper Dystopian Meaning in Virginia Woolf’s Classic

The pandemic is now over—except for those for whom it is not. Healthcare workers, stunned and traumatized by what they’ve seen, and still processing late breaking waves and public indifference. Restaurant workers who saw their colleagues decimated and now face entitled patrons who tip poorly. Those who lost jobs, lost homes, fell behind, fell out. Parents with kids under five. Those with compromised immune systems, for whom the vaccines don’t take. Longhaulers. People whose loved ones have died. People who have died. The pandemic is now over except for those who’ve lost something, which is every one of us.

And yet, the work of living goes on—doggedly, at times obscenely. We have not yet even begun to face the task of what we owe the dead, and we are nonetheless still faced with the question of what we owe the still living. There are birthday parties to plan, quarterly reports due, new books to read, new friends to make. Our faces are still turned toward the past, fixedly contemplating the single catastrophe of the past two years, wreckage upon wreckage, still wanting to wake the dead and make whole what’s been smashed, even as the storm called Progress propels us into the future.

Few books capture this moment like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, a novel obsessed with the question of how moving on can be possible. How can anyone have a party in the wake of the flood? It is a question the novel takes both rhetorically—how dare anyone have a party in such a time—and literally: how might it be possible to do such a thing? It is a novel about a broken, hobbled England, unable to face the wreckage of war and influenza and the death throes of its own empire, where nonetheless the work of the living persists, where, as the character Peter Walsh observes, “life had a way of adding day to day.”

For all our love of post-apocalyptic fiction, what Mrs Dalloway offers is a glimpse of a true “dystopian” reality, for Woolf understood that a dystopian future would not look like The Hunger Games or The Road so much as it would the everyday, banal world of Before, shot through now with the dead and their ghosts—where everything is the same but all is changed, changed utterly.

“The War was over,” Clarissa acknowledges to herself in the book’s opening pages, “except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven—over. It was June.” The war (as with the Spanish flu epidemic, which has affected Clarissa’s heart as it did Woolf’s own) is over but not over; it lives on in the wreckage of lives irreversibly changed—a fact that Clarissa herself seems openly derisive towards.

What saved me then was the beauty of Woolf’s prose, the elegant structure of her sentences, her rhythms that take whole paragraphs to reveal themselves.

Clarissa, like much of her circle, is not a likable or noble figure, and she is often blind to her privilege. When I first tried to read Mrs Dalloway in college, I hated her and I hated the novel, deciding it a celebration of a trite and callously superficial busybody, a middle-class affirmation of trivialities. I came back to Woolf six years later in grad school, through Orlando and The Waves first, attempting Dalloway again only with trepidation.

What saved me then was the beauty of Woolf’s prose, the elegant structure of her sentences, her rhythms that take whole paragraphs to reveal themselves. Her mode is rarely aphoristic; instead it unfolds from an observation or idea, sometimes blossoming out slowly, sometimes zigzagging abruptly, revising and undercutting itself. I was old enough by then to understand Woolf’s satirical edge towards Clarissa, and came to the conclusion that despite the novel’s title, it was Septimus Smith’s book—equally if not more so than Clarissa’s.

Reading it again in the fall of 2021, the writing felt as vibrant as ever—but having now gone through a world-changing event myself, I was stuck once again on these characters, their faults and failures. After a crisis in which so much economic disparity was bared plain and deadly, the novel’s iconic opening line felt coarse—who among us now could ever even conceive of being able to pay servants to buy our flowers, such that buying them ourselves could be seen as some magnanimous act or gesture of individuality?

Meanwhile, her old flame Peter Walsh is just back from India, a place that looms like an idle curiosity and distant concern through the minds of Woolf’s characters, belying a reality of brutal colonial oppression that was taking place at the time. Mrs Dalloway is a meditation on an empire at its end, a decadent and wasted culture that has destroyed its younger generations for the self-satisfied comfort of its old. There is a decadent callousness in the novel that runs through nearly all of the characters, one that makes it harder to feel much for any of them. Clarissa, at times both pitiable and detestable; Peter Walsh, a tool of colonialism whose life of privilege has inculcated a fatal indecisiveness; Septimus Smith, less heroic than deluded; and even his wife Rezia—perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel—used up, impatient with her husband’s mental health crisis.

England’s self-mythologizing, Woolf saw, had destroyed itself. “Septimus was one of the first to volunteer,” the narrator tells us. “He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” Merve Emre, in her new The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway, quotes the critic Alex Zwerdling, who argues that “Woolf gives us a picture of class impervious to change in a society that desperately needs or demands it, a class that worships tradition and settled order but cannot accommodate the new and disturbing”—words that can apply equally to many upper-middle- and upperclass Americans of 2021, haranguing endlessly at the inconveniences wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic with little interest in the hundreds of thousands imperiled and killed, churned under a system that has plowed forward with little regard to how much has changed.

As such, Clarissa’s party feels at times distasteful, even obscene, happening, as it does, in the wake of so much suffering, and threaded through with Septimus Smith’s deterioration and death. Reading it now in the wake of our own disaster, Mrs Dalloway at times seemed to me to affirm Septimus Smith’s hopelessness, and affirm Clarissa’s and Peter’s regret—people who’ve wasted their lives with nothing to show for it. Clarissa’s rapturous declaration of life in the wake of Septimus’s suicide (“The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on.”) felt now to me hopelessly selfish.

If anything, she reminds me now of Prince Prospero in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” a character focused on a foolhardy and doomed attempt to sequester his class away from rampant suffering. Like Prospero’s party, Clarissa’s affair feels now to me a grotesquerie of privilege in the wake of a horrible calamity, in which the privileged seem to think they can insulate themselves from death and despair with their finery. And in both cases, the results are nearly the same: Death arrives anyway. “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party?,” Clarissa exclaims to herself in outraged wonder upon hearing news of Septimus Smith’s death.

But Woolf’s mode is not the same as Poe’s grim irony; Emre cites an early diary entry in which Woolf explains: “I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & show it at work, at its most intense.” In an era when “likability” has become the default requirement of a novel’s protagonist, reading Dalloway is unusual and refreshing—of course Clarissa is unlikable, of course she is open to critique. But nor does Woolf stop there; what elevates Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway from the obnoxious busybody she was in Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out is in Woolf’s ability to plumb the depths of memory and draw out an entire person, faults and all. The novel’s genius is that it starts with such a character, one who is difficult to respect or care about, and to plunge relentlessly into her inner life nonetheless.

What emerges in her inner life is a love for surfaces, for the tactile and sensory pleasures of the world. Clarissa, like the other characters in the novel, is alive to the world of things, luminous and resonant in a world after war and pandemic. Those flowers from the novel’s opening line emerge as a litany of sensory associations and memory triggers, as Clarissa’s mind moves back and forward in time as her eyes move across the display of cut flowers, the novel’s sentences themselves a cascade of images and memories that can’t be broken up or summarized:

There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilacs; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises. Ah yes—so she breathed in the earthly garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh, like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wick trays, the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white pale—as if it were evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac—glows, white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!

Having been through it all, it is the simple, superficial world, the easy, tactile pleasures, that draw us back to the world of the living. As Peter Walsh realizes, it is just not “the crude beauty of the eye,” but also “windows lit up, a piano, a gramophone sounding; a sense of pleasure-making hidden, but now and again emerging when, through the uncurtained window, the window left open, one saw parties sitting over tables, young people slowly circling, conversations between men and women, maids idly looking out (a strange comment theirs, when work was done), stockings drying on top ledges, a parrot, a few plants. Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.”

The temptation is to stay too long down there, in the wounds and in the depths, but we are not just our wounds, not just our trauma.

Alive to this new world, Peter and Clarissa move through the day towards the evening and the party, itself part of this world of bright and brittle surfaces—for what else is a party but the shine of luminous things, and the embrace of sensory pleasure? And it is in such moments, Woolf suggests, that we might glean something new, some sense of the possible future.

For this is Clarissa’s genius. Despite all her faults, what everyone seems to agree on is Clarissa’s ability to bring a party to life: “Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with some one, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred.” Woolf loathed the domestic life expected of her, the Victorian ideal of the “Angel in the House” that she set out to “kill” in her life and work. And yet, she came to see the subtle art in those women who did embrace such roles, using her own mother as the model for Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, who, like Clarissa Dalloway, has a singular talent in bringing people together and making a dinner party a success.

What Woolf wanted to do was to show not just the inner lives of her characters but how the surface world—the seemingly inconsequential, even the banal—could mirror and reflect those depths: “Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background; it was possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper.” The same profundity, then, could be found as easily in a speech in Parliament or a Tennyson poem as in this silly-seeming woman throwing a party.

As Peter Walsh also realizes, “this is the truth about our soul… who fish-like inhabits deep seas and plies among obscurities threading her way between the boles of giant weeds, over sun-flickered spaces and on and on into gloom, cold, deep, inscrutable; suddenly she shoots to the surface and spots on the wind-wrinkled waves; that is, has a positive need to brush, scrape, kindle herself, gossiping.” Mrs Dalloway offers up experience as a Moebius strip, wherein interior experience and the external world are not just two sides but in fact the same.

We’ve been through so much, seen too much, suffered too much, are still too raw and wounded. The temptation is to stay too long down there, in the wounds and in the depths, but we are not just our wounds, not just our trauma. We are also our longing and aspirations and our regrets, and we assume the shapes we do because we hope in whatever meager way to hold the future and realize it. In each and every exchange, each and every seemingly superficial interaction, lies the potential for the whole of the world, the whole of a life.

One does not read Woolf’s novel as a guide on how to live. One reads Mrs Dalloway because it asks questions it cannot fully answer.

And death as well. Does Clarissa’s reaction to news of the suicide suggest compassion or indifference? Emre’s notes to Annotated Mrs Dalloway, suggest how critics have been able to see both. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur is among those who see in her response empathy and vindication: “Septimus’s death, understood and in some way shared, gives to the instinctive love that Clarissa holds for life a tone of defiance and of resolution”; Woolf scholar Julia Briggs instead sees callous indifference: Clarissa accepts, she argues, “his death as the sacrifice that enables the party to go on—as if the millions of war deaths have served only to guarantee the continuance of her way of life.” Myself, having read Mrs Dalloway some dozen times, each at a different moment in my life, I’ve found room for both readings; times when I only see Clarissa as the superficial society lady, and times when I see a Clarissa whose belief in the vitality of life redeems Septimus Smith’s death.

When I was younger, perhaps, it was easy enough to decide on a single reading. Now, I’m less sure. What I find now, in this world newly and utterly changed, is that when Woolf asks the question, How does one throw a party after the end of the world?, she asks it neither literally nor rhetorically, but with both inflections at once. It is impossible to do such things without seeming callous and indifferent—and yet, we must find a way to do them anyway. To exist after a tragedy is to bear survivor’s guilt and to be unable to shake the ghosts of those we’ve lost and also to nonetheless dream of—and demand—some kind of future for ourselves.

In Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, Clarissa Dalloway tells Rachel Vinrace, “I always think it’s living, not dying, that counts.” What counts most, it seems to me, is both, the living and the dying in equal measure, and in keeping the memory of the dead alive even as we go on living, and in finding life in its most unexpected places.

One does not read Mrs Dalloway because Clarissa is a likable protagonist. One does not read Woolf’s novel as a guide on how to live. One reads Mrs Dalloway because it asks questions it cannot fully answer, questions that are all the more urgent because they will never have simple or easy answers. That—and also to be reminded that even in the bright and banal surfaces of the world—the bustle of the city, a stand of flowers, a society party—there are clues to the secret pulse of the world, thrumming beneath us and all around us, drawing us ever forward to whatever may come next.

Colin Dickey
Colin Dickey
Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained, and Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.





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