by Virginia Woolf
published in 1925
I recently reread this masterpiece by Virginia Woolf. My first encounter with this book was while studying at Rutgers. A class with professor David Kurnick. The things I remember are that Kurnick thought it was an act of profound compassion to write from the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, an aging upper-class woman who is throwing a party. I remember pondering the leaden circles dissolved in the air. This line is a refrain in the book, it describes the tolling of Big Ben’s bell on the hours. When the bell tolls the narrative moves from the mind of one character, to the mind of another. The circles in the air create a temporary shared atmosphere, poetry of weight & weightlessness, time & eternity. The book is written in Free Indirect Discourse, which describes the way the narrative is simultaneously in third-person and occupying the perspective of one character’s mind and then another. Movement and transmission from one mind to another is one of the central themes of this book, and happens on many levels.
What I don’t remember ever talking about, or realizing the first time I read this book, is that Clarissa Dalloway is psychic. While the boundaries of all minds are porous in the novel, Clarissa and Peter Walsh more actively go in and out of each other’s minds. Septimus, who goes in and out of madness, sometimes has access to seeing Rezia’s mind as a bird. Later, at the end of the novel Clarissa Dalloway is able to see images in her mind that she should have no access to in regard to the death of Septimus Warren Smith. She says that first she feels it in her body and then the images occur in her mind. Perhaps the name Clarissa is a hint at the word Clairvoyant. After reading the novel and considering the world of it, it feels like Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus are in a shared psychic atmosphere, uniquely influenced by one another through space and time.
While reading this text, I had many moments of feeling as if there was a psychic communication taking place between the book and my consciousness. I felt as if Virginia Woolf’s art was the externalization of an awareness that goes on working as an object capable of recognitions. The book at times seemed to open into a world where there was life and death. At times my mind felt like it was entering the world of the words, and at times it felt like the world of the words was entering my mind. A feedback loop started during good reading sessions.
Another thing I appreciated is the maturity of the vision of life contained in the overarching tone of the novel. All characters are considered dynamically, each presence has the ability to say something unique, important, revealing. It feels written by someone who has lived.
From a wide scope, through imagining a world full of flows and bodies, ideas and visions, Woolf allows us to see how life can be present and how death can be present as both metaphysical entities and focused in people, places, things. I saw a new perspective on Septimus’ suicide; how it was created by the doctors. Septimus thinks of Dr. Holmes as Human Nature, he is climbing the stairs, taking Septimus’ choices away. I feel more equipped for recognizing both life and death in the world after reading this work.
To follow are a few excerpts, the style of Woolf’s language is very beautiful. Engaging in a flow of language is a way to look at something other than the words; something that disappears as soon as one tries to see it directly. While writing this book Virginia Woolf tells us she “plunged into the richest strata of my mind. I can write & write & write now: the happiest feeling in the world.”
“Heaven was divinely merciful, infinitely benignant. It spared him, pardoned his weakness. But what was the scientific explanation (for one must be scientific above all things)? Why could he see through bodies, see into the future, when dogs will become men? It was the heat wave presumably, operating upon a brain made sensitive by eons of evolution. Scientifically speaking, the flesh was melted off the world. His body was macerated until only the nerve fibres were left. It was spread like a veil upon a rock.” (pg. 68)
“It was precisely twelve o’clock; twelve by Big Ben; whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London; blent with that of other clocks, mixed in a thin ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke, and died up there among the seagulls — twelve o’clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed, and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street. Twelve was the hour of their appointment. Probably, Rezia thought, that was Sir William Bradshaw’s house with the grey motor car in front of it. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.” (pg. 94)
“She held her hands to her head, waiting for him to say did he like the hat or not, and as she sat there, waiting, looking down, he could feel her mind, like a bird, falling from branch to branch, and always alighting, quite rightly; he could follow her mind, as she sat there in one of those loose lax poses that came to her naturally and, if he should say anything, at once she smiled, like a bird alighting with all its claws firm upon the bough.” (pg. 147)