Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An Essay on Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway"

Here is a rather informal essay I wrote while reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

Mrs. Dalloway

It is very difficult for me to characterized Woolf’s style, especially in terms of masculine or feminine. I think that part of my problem is the context that I am reading the novel in, that is, the context of the other things I am reading at the same time. One of the other classes I’m taking is basically just reading, talking, and writing about Tolstoy’s War and Peace. My third class is “The Scope of Literary History”. So far in that class I’ve read some Virgil, some Dante, and some Shakespeare. We also touched on some essays by Mink, Kuhn, and MacIntyre (these last three were way over my head). What I’m trying to say is that Mrs. Dalloway is so different from any of these in its point of view and the sense of the movement of time that I really don’t know how to classify its stylistic characteristics.

The viewpoint is interesting. It seems to flow from one person to another without any particular announcement of a change. Sometimes it even seems to be coming from two directions at once, as in the scene when Peter Walsh pays Clarissa an unexpected visit. Other times it seems to be unattached to any particular person, but comes from some kind of omniscient voice. It is tempting to use the term “stream of consciousness,” but it is not really that. What it seems to be doing is what we talked about in the first few class sessions. Namely, looking at what is going on from many different angles.

In comparison to the other works we’ve looked at, I’d have to say that Mrs. Dalloway comes closest to The Dead in style. The subject matter, at least up to the point I’ve read, is similar. Also the fluidity of the mental and emotional states of the characters is similar. What is different is that in The Dead, things seem to be happening in a linear sequence, all according to how Gabriel perceives it. One thing proceeds from another and so on. In Mrs. Dalloway, things seem to slide together from different times and from different peoples’ perspectives.

The masculine versus feminine question is difficult for me to address. While it is more that obvious that the respective situations of men and women have been and are at great variance, I think that any argument that places any group of people completely in one pigeon-hole has to have some fatal flaw in it somewhere. I do agree with the points made in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but I don’t think that what she says means that one way of writing is reserved to one or the other sex, but rather that each writer must find his or her own words rather than trying to copy the arrangement of someone else’s. I have a feeling that a lot of my view comes from the fact that I am a product of my own time period, and to the fact I’ve been lucky enough to read a lot of really good books by a lot of different kinds of writers in the last few years (mostly due to all the community college lit. classes I attended). All this aside, I can see a lot of the features that we ascribed in class to female writers in Woolf’s writing. For example: non-linearity, digression (what the heck was that sky-writing part about, anyway?), association, and I guess explorativization (exploratoriness?). The problem is that I’m not sure that these characteristics are really an accurate description of “Feminine Literature.” I’m not sure I know what feminine literature is. Is it women’s literature (and here we run into Woolf’s problem in Room when she tries to define “women and fiction”), or is it a certain style of literature that more often than not is written by women, but that could be written by a man. I don’t know.

I do enjoy the book, I just wish I had more time for a second reading so that I could really get a handle on what is going on. As one of the philosophers I read in “The Scope of Literary History” said in his essay (I’m not sure which one), there is a difference between following a narrative and having followed a narrative that adds a greater depth to one’s understanding of that narrative. I’m sure that if I had the chance (a fat one, at this time) to read this text again, I would have a better grasp on it. And, of course, I still have about two thirds of the novel to go to get my bearings.

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