Home Art & Culture Michael Cunningham on Virginia Woolf’s Literary Revolution

Michael Cunningham on Virginia Woolf’s Literary Revolution

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Along with its most prominent characters, “Mrs. Dalloway” is almost as densely populated as a novel by Charles Dickens. In “Mrs. Dalloway”’s London, consciousness passes from one character to another in more or less the way a baton is passed among members of a relay race. If, for instance, a young Scottish woman, newly arrived in London, wanders lost and disconsolate through Regent’s Park, we briefly enter her mind, feel her unhappiness (“the stone basins, the prim flowers … all seemed, after Edinburgh, so queer. … She had left her people; they had warned her what would happen”) until she is noticed by an older woman, at which moment we switch to the consciousness of the old woman, who, envying the first woman’s youth, mourns the loss of her own (“it’s been a hard life. … What hadn’t she given to it? Roses; figure; her feet too.”) until we are snapped back to Clarissa, as she returns home to learn she has not been invited to an exclusive, politically inspired luncheon.

Prominent among the novel’s wonders is Clarissa herself, a person more likely, in other novels, to appear as a trivial, foolish and peripheral character. Woolf’s Clarissa, however, although possessed of foolish and trivial aspects, is also capable of feeling this: “She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”

The world of “Mrs. Dalloway” is not in any way a simple, or simplified, world. If, as Henry James put it, a writer is someone “on whom nothing is lost,” one might presume to add, in Woolf’s name, that a writer is also someone on whom no one is lost. All the people who appear in “Mrs. Dalloway,” however peripherally, are visiting the book from unwritten novels of their own, the tales of their trials and triumphs, even though, in “Mrs. Dalloway,” they may occupy less than a paragraph, may appear only as a discouraged man who contemplates saying a prayer at St. Paul’s Cathedral, or as an impoverished Irishwoman who speculates, gleefully, over which exalted personage occupies the royal motor car as it rumbles past her on a crowded street.

The book encompasses, as well, almost infinite shades and degrees of happiness, loss, satisfaction, regret and tragedy. It invokes, over and over, the choices we make, those that are made for us by others, and their sometimes lifelong ramifications, many of which we could not possibly have imagined at the time.

Would Clarissa’s life have been more fulfilling had she married Peter, a mercurial romantic, instead of the more solid, if rather unexciting, Richard Dalloway?

It seems safe to say that Clarissa’s life would have been markedly different if she’d pursued Sally beyond a single, covert, girlhood kiss, but would life as a same-sex couple in the 1920s have been a better life?

Whatever might pass for regret or nostalgia is rescued by Woolf’s respect for the ambiguous and the unknowable. If a good-enough novel shows us where its characters went wrong, a great novel is more likely to eschew the very notion that anyone can be seen, with any degree of certainty, to have gone either “right” or “wrong.” Under “Mrs. Dalloway”’s brilliantly crafted surface is a chaos of decisions made and not made, of the consequences of both, and of the uncountable parallel lives lived silently, invisibly, alongside our own.

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