Analysis of a Passage in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Not many novels published in 1925 make the New York Times bestseller list in 2003, but Mrs. Dalloway has been on it for eight weeks, thanks to “The Hours,” the film suggested by the book.
The book itself is richly textured; what’s going on on the surface is not nearly as important as what’s happening underneath. The novel is purportedly a simple story of how Clarissa Dalloway spends her day getting read for the party she’s giving that night; but death is ever-present, and so is the horrible tragedy of World War I, which had only been over for six years when she wrote. She lets us see the inner lives of these characters, their thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams. All of this is far more important than what they actually do.
The scene under discussion beings “As, said St. Margaret’s,” (on page 49 of the Harcourt edition) and ends at the bottom of page 50, with the words, “The future lies in the hands of young men like that, he thought.”
The passage overall deals with the passage of time; specifically, Peter Walsh, who is in his early 50’s, is trying to convince himself that he still has enough time to make a success of his life. And yet he envisions Clarissa’s death, a stark reminder of his mortality, and the common fate of all men. The passage is told from his point of view.
It is structured as an interior monologue in which we hear his thoughts. But this is not the type of “stream of consciousness” writing we’re used to; that is, Woolf doesn’t have write something like, “Peter Walsh thought to himself, Where did it all go?” Instead, she lets us hear his thoughts the way most of us think, first as “I,” then in the third person. This is the way the human brain actually functions, skipping around from topic to topic, making connections between wildly disparate topics, sometimes thinking of “me” sometimes of “him.”
Stylistically, Woolf switches from first to third person within Walsh’s viewpoint. Again, this is because we think this way. For example, I might think of myself as either “me” or “her,” depending on the scene I’m envisioning: (“I wonder how I’ll look,” compared to “She swept into the room like a queen.”) Sometimes we see from inside, sometimes we stand outside ourselves and observe our appearance, behavior, etc. This is exactly what Walsh is doing, and Woolf depicts it clearly.
Syntax is sentence structure; the way the author puts words together to convey meaning. Perhaps the best way to examine this is to look at the sentence that ends the preceding passage, and how this one starts. The paragraph before ends: “Clarissa refused me.” This is clearly Peter Walsh thinking. The next passage begins, “Ah, said St. Margaret’s, like a hostess who comes into her drawing-room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already.” This is confusing, because there is no character in the novel named “St. Margaret” nor is there someone who attended a “St. Margaret’s school” or anything similar. The clue comes five sentences later, in the second clause: “… and the sound of St. Margaret’s glides into the recesses of the heart and buries itself in ring after ring of sound…” We finally understand that Woolf is talking about church bells. Her meaning has to be inferred indirectly, and her sentences are sometimes long, sometimes very short: “But what room? What moment?” These two and three word sentences serve to break up the longer thoughts and remind us, once again, of the way our mind skips from topic to topic. Her construction is masterful, because in building her sentences this way she conveys not only the meaning of the word, but the meaning of the structure.
Her diction is clear, direct and simple. She uses everyday words; there is nothing here that would send a reader scurrying for his dictionary. But her imagery is amazing. She starts with the church bells, which transform into the voice of the perfect hostess. The hostess, though, finds her guests already assembled; even though she’s not late (they’re early) she feels as though she is in the wrong, and she is reluctant to point out their faux pas to them (“reluctant to inflict its individuality). Then her voice becomes the bell once again, and the “ring of sound” becomes “something alive which wants to confide itself”—Clarissa.
From the auditory clue of the bell we now have moved to Peter’s consideration of the woman herself, Clarissa; but he still sees her in terms of the bell. The bell imagery is the most vivid (I nearly said “striking”) in the passage, because it reminds Peter of the passage of time. The bell rings, a clock chimes, and years pass. This is the point of the passage: that no matter how much we wish it, we cannot stop time, and at a certain point, we have to admit that we can no longer “do it all.” We are running out of time, and we must make choices. Peter, however, has left it too late, and that is what the last paragraph reveals to us.
He’s looking back at his life, and sees that he’s been a failure. He was sent down from Oxford; he “failed” as a Socialist, and he’s unemployed and will have to ask Richard Dalloway for help in finding a job. And yet he justifies this by saying that the type of young man he was is exactly the type that gets things done. The dreamers, the philosophers, the seekers, the “young men such as he was thirty years ago”; these are the men who mold civilization. (Here again we see Woolf’s bold use of syntax, when he thinks of himself not as “young me like me” but “young men like that.”)
Peter Walsh hasn’t succeeded in making his mark, and it’s now doubtful that he ever will. That is the heart of the matter: he needs to recognize this, but seems unable to do so. Or perhaps he still has time, and will be one of those rare people who blossoms late in life. Let’s hope so.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harvest Book—Harcourt, Inc., 1981.
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