I assigned a “completion paper”to my students write immediately upon their finishing Mrs. Dalloway, that is, to write a stream-of-consciousness response to the novel. My directions were a bit more involved than that to help them get their feet wet, but that’s essentially it. And I did the same, even though this was not my first read. Here is my response.
And so, let me begin. Mrs. Dalloway. I still love this book. Why? There is a quietness to it and a profundity. It is life–1920s London life, yes, but still, that’s in the details. In the style and the philosophy, there is much that holds true. We are connected to each other by slender threads and odd instances of perchance. Like Sir William Bradshaw going to Clarissa’s party and bringing Septimus namelessly with him through his excuse for their tardiness. A perfectly reasonable occurrence. And Clarissa is deeply affected- first in anger and then in agitation, and finally in some sort of understanding. Yet, no one (other than the readers) will ever know that. Nor will they ever know that the death Sir Bradshaw so unknowingly facilitates and yet mourns as he brings it to Clarissa’s is the same one Peter hears the ambulance for which he heralds as a “one of the triumphs of civilization” (151)– which in this case is the opposite, isn’t it? Septimus’s death results from his experiences in war, the failure of civilization, and from the misguided efforts of Holmes and Bradshaw, another failure of civilization. As a reader, it is easy to dislike both Holmes and Bradshaw. Clarissa does not like Bradshaw, though she’s not sure why: Richard agrees with her, and Peter laughs about him and his wife with Sally, calling them “‘damnable humbugs’… looking at them casually” (193). Septimus obviously doesn’t like them; Rezia wants to trust them, but deep down I think she knows they are wrong. As a 21st century reader who has read/ seen much related to PTSD, it’s easy to see them as self important and dangerous. Their prescription for poor Septimus is all wrong. But, did you notice that when Sir Bradshaw and his wife enter the party, bringing death with them, he speaks to Richard about “the deferred effects of shell shock” (183)? Perhaps there’s a sliver of recognition under his pomposity? And, we must remember that we cannot label a character with a diagnosis that had not yet been invented–it’s too facile.
This is what I mean– or at least part of it. These characters are so real because the story is in their heads. We are intimately connected with them in ways they cannot even be connected with each other, but this ability to see the connections they don’t even know they have can, hopefully, help us understand that there is more to our relationships, even our most intimate ones, than we can ever know, and this understanding can help us, again hopefully, be more open and accepting of those around us and more alert to those slender threads. This is why I love Mrs. Dalloway. Or, at least it’s one reason, today’s reason.
This morning’s reason, before I had reached the end, had me musing on prejudice, racism, colonialism, and empire. Peter, having spent fifteen years in India, brings this to the forefront with his thoughts about England now that he has returned, though presumably not for good or is it?, and about India and what he has left behind. And then there are the other characters’ thoughts about him. Everyone seems to feel a little sorry for Peter, like he didn’t make the most of his talents and position–going to India is viewed as less than staying in England. And everyone seems to think–though they do not share it with each other–that he was essentially ruined by Clarissa’s rejection of him in favor of Richard Dalloway–an occurrence Peter himself has not gotten over, no matter how many times he tells himself that he does not love her anymore. Everyone, reader and character alike knows it, even Peter himself, for even though he claims to love Daisy, and in some way really does, he cannot forget Clarissa. However, it is the memory of her that he seems to love more than the actuality of Clarissa now.
I meant to write more about the racism, classism, and sexism exposed through Peter’s story and his love affair with Daisy, but Clarissa will not stay out of it any more than she can stay out of Peter’s thoughts. So, I invite you to join Clarissa as she heads off to buy her flowers and makes her way through her day. See what it is she stirs in you.