You may not like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf when I ask you to read it. I was thoroughly confused after getting through the first few pages. There are no chapters or subheadings. Most sentences are extensive run-ons. The narrative is almost entirely a stream of consciousness from dozens of characters’ internal dialogue (many of whom you never meet again). Understanding whose mind you are in is, at many times, difficult to ascertain.
But this is actually why you should persevere through Woolf’s dense prose. The language and design of this literature reflects the chaos, beauty, confusion, interruptions, and fluidity that we all experience inside our minds. In this way, Woolf subtly places each reader inside her story, and we can relate to the struggle to make sense, find meaning, and observe the beauty in even the most menial of life’s experiences. The individual’s endeavor to discern purpose and struggle to resolve “hevel” is a shared human experience (though particularly poignant post WWI).
And this is a second particularity in Woolf’s writing: she illustrates that a person is an ocean of thoughts, experiences, and memories all bound together by hopes, fears, and other emotions that churn in our the internal currents of our minds, which can ebb and flow in a matter of a few hours or even minutes. Even in our closest relationships – friends, family, lovers – we reveal a mere surface of the abyss that remains unexplored by most. Woolf claims to know a person, whether it is the self or another,
“One must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoke to, some women in the street, some man behind a counter – even trees, or barns.”
Like waves colliding and eroding sandy banks, our minds are constantly absorbing and therefore molded by the people, ideas, and places that we encounter.
Based on this observation, Woolf posits that shared experiences become dependent on the person who experiences them. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Woolf’s writing was her ability to explore this through situational juxtaposition: for one character an ambulance is the mark of human progress while to another, it is the literal vehicle of death. A dinner party could be a chance to see old acquaintances for some, or an offering on the ‘alter of life’ to prove one’s life still has purpose to others. Thoughtful reading of these situations will force you to grapple with the relativism of life’s ‘buds on the tree of life’ as she contends.
Are all of life’s experiences relative? Do they all have a finite cosmic importance? Or is there middle ground between them? How do we discern meaning in the momentous and the minute?
Woolf contends a Shakespearean answer: to thy self be true. For Woolf, human nature is at its core self-centered, which is not all together a bad thing. Her heroes are those who are able to preserve the self – to protect themselves from conformity to society’s norms that suppress emotions deemed negative by some relative, cultural standard. The heroine and novel’s namesake does so by literally removing herself from situations to process her private thoughts and inner most feelings before moving back into the world with her opinions formed. Her male counterpoint, unable to move forward, but unwilling to conform to society commits suicide, another juxtaposed moment where society would see tragedy but Woolf hails as triumph.
In contrast, the antagonists are deeply religious or controlled by romantic passions that project their own thoughts, beliefs, and desires onto others (therefore, they never truly care about those that they ‘love’). Woolf’s warning becomes that we must prioritize processing our own thoughts and feelings apart from others. The individual becomes the holy relic in the alter of life, a modern idea that still reverberates through Western culture one hundred years later.
And here is where I found Woolf’s message, through masterfully crafted, turn tragic. While the heroine reflects on the two men in her life, she considers, “For in marriage a little license, a little independence there must be…where was [her husband] this morning for instance? Some committee, she never asked what. But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable.”
In her dozens of characters, Woolf appears to not know a concept of love that could be shared, and mutually sacrificial. While she acknowledges love changes us, she does not seem to understand the longing and presence of a love that enhances the self, rather than destroys it. Because she believes we cannot be truly known by anyone but the self, we cannot be loved by anyone but ourselves: “To love makes one solitary.”
Woolf was right in her premise, but I believe flawed in her conclusion.
Perhaps this belief is an emotional scar from someone who struggled to feel loved her whole life. Sadly, her writing, life, and death demonstrate the deepest longing of the soul: to know such a love that sees even the brokenness and yet offer restoration. This should be the warning to Woolf’s readers. A human stripped of love will struggle to see self-fulfillment in self-centeredness, hope in isolation, and life in death. Such realization should lead us to strive to hope, know, and return offer a pure love to others. Indeed our greatest need is to be completely known, completely loved, and freely offer grace, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, mercy, gentleness, and love to others. And in so, we fulfill the love of Jesus.
Perhaps you too will disagree with some of Woolf’s ideas, but they remain a strong iron worthy to sharpen your mind, philosophy, and theology on.