MRS. DALLOWAY. Virginia Woolf. 1925. (190 pgs)
First Sentence: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Stream of Consciousness from a universal, but interior point of view that predominantly utilizes the third-person, some times in the present tense and some times in the past. Mrs. Dalloway is the center point of the thought stream. Where it goes from there can, sometimes, be challenging to follow.
Setting: A glorious London spring morning immediately after WWI.
What we learn in first paragraphs: Clarissa Dalloway is on the move. She’s out the door and moving toward the park. This is the action of the first few paragraphs. The bulk of the narrative follows her thoughts and memories, beginning with flowers and then, crossing into the park she veers into the memory of a love affair as a girl.
What we learn in first 10 pages: Clarissa Dalloway will buy the flowers herself, for she is throwing a party. The staff is busy. The weather is fantastic. Every view of the park reminds her of slender moments from life’s theatre: as a girl of eighteen, the aging woman in the house next door, a bitter scene with Peter in front of Hugh before she marries Richard, now Peter returning from India in the next few months, and now Hugh – creaky and aging – meeting on the street, promising to attend her party this evening. Events whirl from one imagined episode to the next – the past predominating – inspired by the constant stream of events in the world around her – the world of the present. Each of the first few paragraphs begins like a proclamation with several of the paragraphs beginning with “for” which could be considered a substitute for “whereas”.
Spreading over her are both feelings of joy and feelings of relief; the war (WWI) is finally over, the king and queen are attending parties; she is throwing a party herself. Peter is coming home. Hugh, whom she grew up with, will attend. She reminisces that she was better off not marrying Peter (that day is still living on in her head as if it was just yesterday) because the marriage of a man and a woman requires independence and separation, which she would not have gotten with him. By abstraction, we learn that her husband gives her plenty of space as he is often separated from her by affairs of state – she often doesn’t know what.
Plot & Expectations: This is tough for me to answer. Having read and seen The Hours I have a vague idea that Mrs. Dalloway throws a party and that in so doing comes to the reasonable conclusion that she is an excellent hostess, just as Peter accused of becoming one day. That day has come. I suspect there will be some new awareness and some pain because of it. The frequent use of paragraphs beginning with “For” implies that there is an ongoing sense of proclamation. Clarissa Dalloway (notice how “Dalloway” sounds a bit like “dilly-dally away”) is judging herself through the projected events from her memory. Clearly, like in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the plot and action are secondary to the character and her development.
Notes: These first ten pages wrap up perfectly from the first sentence to the end of the tenth page. The story beings with the proclamation saying that Mrs. Dalloway would buy the flowers herself and as these first ten pages end, after many circular diversions, we are in the flower shop in a seeming profusion of beautiful blooms. The reader has been shown three other merchants with skimpy offerings due to post-war rationing; a fish monger with a single salmon, a jewelry store that features only pearls, a glove shop where in the past one could have bought almost the perfect glove, and “one role of tweed in a shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years.” Compared to the neighboring shops, Mulberry’s, the florists, is fully equipped with every bloom Mrs. Dalloway can imagine. I have to wonder. Is it? Or is this her imagination – her steaming consciousness – working to create the perfect party on behalf of the perfect hostess. I can’t tell. I’ll have to read further.
Over the first ten pages, we probably spend only three of those pages in the present. Some paragraphs required multiple readings for me to understand the meaning. The narrative voice shifts, at times, with very little fanfare, and requires the reader to abruptly jump from one scenario to another. It helped me to read quickly so as not to over-think it. It more made sense without a lot of effort as long as I was not distracted by my own stream of consciousness.