Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Mini-Review: "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

When I first saw the film, "The Hours," I knew that I would someday have to read the book that inspired the film makers, Virginia Woolf's landmark novel, "Mrs. Dalloway." There were a number of reasons behind my reaching that conclusion. First, and most simply, the movie intrigued me, and I was curious to learn how much of the film arose directly from the novel and how much was the result of the film maker's artistic license. There was also an element of my feeling as if there were an unchecked box in my list of literary accomplishments. Harking back to the days of the received Western Canon of Great Literature, there is a consensus group of books and authors that one must have read to be truly considered literate and classically educated - including Joyce, Proust, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chaucer. I had been able to check off most of the boxes with the exception of Woolf, so she haunted me as someone whose work I needed to explore.

My conclusion is that the writings of Virginia Woolf must be an acquired taste. Like Proust, although more sparse and efficient in the use of language, she spends many of the pages of the novel and many of the hours of the day in question examining interior thoughts, musings, motivations, fears, longings, doubts. The tone of the novel reminded me a great deal of one of Woody Allen's lesser known films, "Interiors." The "action," in the story often occurs within the mind of one of the characters or in stylized conversations between two of the actors whose day is being chronicled and the hours tolled by Big Ben and lesser time keeping devices in London on an ordinary day following World War I.

I came upon an excerpt from the musing of Peter Walsh, a war veteran who had wooed and lost the hand of Clarissa, the novel's protagonist, to Mr. Dalloway. Walsh's thoughts seem to describe precisely what Virginia Woolf was attempting to do in crafting this novel: "The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent's Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained - at last! - the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, - the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light." (Page 79)

Turning around the mundane and hour-by-hour actions, thoughts, conversations, chores and rememberings of a typical day in the life and showing them in the changing light of that inexorably advancing day is what Virginia Woolf does in this novel. In doing so she is sending the reader the message that a life need not be dramatic or "exciting" in order to be worthy of examination.



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