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Defector Reads A Book

What A Lark! What A Plunge! To Read ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

Cover image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our January DRAB selection was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading.

Maitreyi Anantharaman: Ms. McKinney said she would start the blog herself. 

Kelsey McKinney: LMAO. Lately, I have had a really hard time focusing on reading books. Maybe it’s the swirling doom, but staring at the page, my eyes have been kind of zoning out and given any opportunity to stop reading and look at my phone instead, I will take it. I was a little worried when I started reading Mrs. Dalloway that because I had read it before, this problem would be exacerbated, but there is never a natural point to stop in this book. Not to use the most overused word in book reviewing, but it really is propulsive. What did y’all think of this?

MA: I’m glad you said that, because I have also had the same issue with reading lately. Lots of zoning out, lots of “reading” a few pages only to realize I have not actually read any of it. To get myself to read Mrs. Dalloway—a book I’d also read before—I ended up going the vaguely sicko route of listening to a sped-up audiobook while I read. It worked as a concentration technique (I read and internalized every line!) but also I think it was kind of the perfect way to read Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s sentences are so—allow me a Stesichoros-ism here—chewy? Just filled with all these wonderful pauses and twists and interjections. It was great, and made the sicko-ness totally worth it. 

KM: What the hell???????

Giri Nathan: That is absolutely perverted. This is Luis-level brain compartmentalization. Though I guess the end goal is increased focus on one thing, as opposed to focus distributed out to several different MMORPGs and USA Network dramas, so it’s better in that sense. It would not work for me because I cannot remember anything aurally; I have to see it on a page. I will agree with you that Woolf has bars and bars. I waded in these sentences. I was swallowed up by them. I came up for air! I enjoyed it hugely. It was also my second time around, and as someone who is generally not big on re-reading, it seems like a book that rewards multiple readings. I found myself nostalgic for the first time reading it—lying in a park in a city I don’t live in anymore—which felt kind of appropriate for a book that is itself 97 percent nostalgia.

KM: You know, I read something recently about the novel Milkman, and how people who listened to it rated it much more highly than people who read it without listening. I wonder if some of that is due to how many fucking commas she uses. Now that this book is in the public domain, I can tell you that there are 6,100 commas in this book lol. And a comma is supposed to be a natural pause, right, but I’m not sure it always works that way for me as a reader? Maitreyi, who read the audiobook?

MA: Ha, Kelsey, I used this technique for Milkman, too. I have no idea who read the Mrs. Dalloway audiobook, which I found on YouTube. A British lady. Giri, I agree about it being a book that rewards re-reading. I picked up a new version with a foreword by Jenny Offill, where she makes exactly that argument and uses a line of Woolf’s literary criticism to do it: “At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season.” 

GN: The truly wild thing to me about these sentences, including that one to some extent, is how she can pull off these meditations on extremely abstract themes with extremely concrete imagery. She could be talking about something stuck to someone’s shoe and then she’s talking about some value that transcends all human experience. And she’s just zooming in and out spastically, like she’s messing around with a camera’s focus, and you have like three different levels of abstraction in the same sentence about the same subject, and it all … works.

KM: Giri, yes!! I actually underlined in my copy her first description of Septimus where she writes that he is “ages about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” This description honestly fucks me up! Her ability to go from straight description, to how others interact with that description, to a truism without it feeling cliche or overwrought, as if it is following a channel we each might carve in our brain as we saw this stranger over and over again in our neighborhood. 

MA: You could call that aspect of her writing almost cinematic? In that early scene with the airplane, it’s so lovely how she uses a common object to move through individuals and among crowds and in and out of different characters. Or the one with the mystery car, too. I definitely imagined them in terms of a tracking shot or bird’s-eye angle you’d see in a film. 

GN: This is the dumbest possible image to keep entering my head as I read, but whenever the narration would hop from character to character, I saw Mr. Smith in The Matrix bubbling into a new person’s consciousness. She could just get in anyone’s head, jumping from person to person in a crowd.

MA: See? Cinema!

KM: Yes! I really recommend Nicole Kidman’s reading of To the Lighthouse. I love that book, but it wasn’t until I listened to Kidman read it that I realized that even the vocabulary Woolf will use shifts as she gets closer to each character. There are minute changes, but she’s so tightly focused. I love both of these analogies, because they seem right, but also because they show that this is something specific to the form of the novel, almost. It is hard to be inside a head on the screen, but here on the page, Woolf can be in and out quickly and with ease. 

MA: That’s something the characters experience too; there’s lots of fleeting connection and anxious peeping across social divisions. Elizabeth Dalloway walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood “like someone penetrating on tiptoe,” or Clarissa staring at the woman in the window opposite her house. This whole aura of curiosity and surveillance. 

GN: There’s an essay Woolf wrote called “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” that I really like where she describes (and defends) her approach to character building. It starts with her observing this old lady on a train. She can’t figure out what this lady is doing there—she’s with an angry younger guy from a different class, and they’re having a very strained conversation. And Woolf can’t help but try and populate Mrs. Brown’s head with thoughts of her own making: “I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite.” Surveillance seemed like the basis of her creativity. She couldn’t resist the everyday temptation to inhabit someone else’s head.

KM: This is fascinating because I’ve found myself so intrigued by all familiar strangers in the last few months as we interact with so few other people, and very rarely with people we don’t know well. Like the people I walk by every day as we take our respective dogs but whom you never interact with. I noticed on this read that Clarissa and Septimus are this way in the book. In my memory of it they interact, but in reality they only surveil one another. 

MA: Kelsey, you bring up the time in which we’re reading this, and I have to say I found Mrs. Dalloway really appropriate to revisit right now. I missed this detail the first time around, but this is a post-pandemic novel. Mrs. Dalloway is an influenza survivor! She’s immunocompromised! It made so much sense to me now that she turned errand-running into a big, delightful adventure, and that she would take a particular pleasure in buying the flowers herself. 

KM: Wow, I do not think I realized this.

MA: You do sort of have to be looking for it! It’s thrown in right at the beginning: “For having lived in Westminster-how many years now? over twenty, — one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed.”

GN: Good eye! In terms of time-appropriate subject matter, the climax of this novel is … a massive party. A lot of people in a big house having a nice time. Even depictions of mundane apartment parties in TV shows leave me shook at this point. Woolf’s whirring, multi-perspective, snarky-to-the-point-of-cruelty depiction of this party was intoxicating. It’s not even so much that it sounded like a particularly fun or worthwhile party, and indeed she’s pointing us to its shallowness in so many respects. But I still wanted to go to a frickin’ party!

MA: Yes! Any party! Even if it means talking to Ellie Henderson. 

GN: I felt so bad for Ellie Henderson. I did not feel bad for most of the people the omniscient narrator was roasting. Just hilarious drive-bys on every party guest. It’s a testament to Woolf’s skill with character that she could sum up someone’s being in these three glancing sentences and then immediately move onto someone across the room. And I would be like, “Hey that is a recognizable Type Of Guy, still, a century later. And damn, you really got him.” Even a parenthetical could casually lay waste to him: “(a very bad poet).”

KM: Giri, yes! It is so easy to identify the exact types of people she is describing here. Like Richard, I too feel bad for Ellie Henderson and think she should be invited. But I love this little section that just drags her to hell where it reads, “Oh dear, it was going to be a failure; a complete failure […] Why, after all, did she do these things? Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire? Might it consume her anyhow! Burn her to cinders! Better anything, better brandish one’s torch and hurl it to earth than taper and dwindle away like some Ellie Henderson!” SOME ELLIE HENDERSON!!! I too miss parties so much, and I also miss these kinds of petty, undeserved grudges that your friend holds and you abide even though you don’t really understand them. 

MA: I’m admitting a past failure as a reader here, but my general impression of this book—and of Woolf—before this read was that it was concerned mostly with interiority and consciousness, and I was kind of struck by how, in fact, political it is. Septimus’s story, when I first read it, was this stirring portrait of madness. And it is that, but also, oh my god, it’s a huge indictment of the mental health system and the British state.  

KM: Not to cry sexism here, but I do think some of that is because a lot of Woolf’s work is considered “domestic.” But that’s really just a setting! A house is a setting! 

GN: I’m with you, Maitreyi. I didn’t realize it the first time around but you can kind of divide the novel into the beneficiaries of British empire and its victims. (Obviously we don’t see the millions of victims off-screen, far from London. But you can at least see Septimus as a human cost of actually fighting the wars that the other characters just like to think about.) All these socialites pulling the puppet strings, so far removed from the action—Lady Bruton most memorably, who is just straight-up an engine of empire, writing letters to The Times, checking in on all her little political gentlemen and making sure their wives don’t impinge on their careers, encouraging young people to get out of England and into its many holdings. You have Hugh, who is just a fancy barnacle on royalty who wears nice socks and knows exactly how to phrase those letters. Then you have Peter who has spent his life wasting away in the subcontinent among the Anglo-Indians and doesn’t have a particularly fond view of anyone there, whether colonized or colonizer, and is like, what are we even doing anyway?

KM: There is such a great one-liner about exactly this early in the book, Giri, where she writes that, “The War was over, except for someone like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin.” You’re both exactly right. It’s easy to read lines like that and even whole portions of this book as just descriptions of interiority, but that one sentence right there is a political argument! This could be just the lens I’m looking at the book through, but there does seem to be a lot of criticism of the kind of distance from reality that wealth can give you. 

MA: Of course, Woolf doesn’t make it that easy. There’s the character of Miss Kilman, who could very easily be some stand-in for working class righteousness, but is actually kind of miserable and bitter in this very off-putting way.  

KM: The politics of the book are kind of hard to parse because of what we were talking about earlier with the rapid zooming in and out. Like is the analysis of Miss Kilman being a huge party-pooper who thinks she’s better than everyone else and is fighting only for her own morality to be perceived, simply a close analysis of her from Clarissa or is it a more general statement? I genuinely don’t know, but I find it interesting that both readings are available to us. 

GN: There was something about Miss Kilman being sympathetic to Germany for some reason, too. She was an interesting anti-war voice who resisted easy categorization. I mostly read her as a cautionary tale about what piousness and poverty can do, condensing a person into something hard, bitter, and small. The mental sparring matches—never actually spoken aloud—between her and Clarissa were very revealing of both people’s flaws.

KM: I LOVED the scene where Elizabeth is like “Oh my god, they are going to kill each other, better run away and get my gloves, bye,” and then they both just tear each other apart in their minds.

GN: Yeah! That ruled. There are so many battles played out in hypotheticals, in this book.

MA: I liked that, as a veteran of many imagined wars myself. Could we zoom over to Peter Walsh? I think he might be the only person who didn’t really change between last read and this one for me. Kind of a world-class crybaby. 

GN: He was a real sadboy. That age-old archetype. His heartbreak was compelling, extremely compelling, and I think he and Sally and Clarissa make up the book’s emotional core, but he is sort of repellent as a guy. By anyone’s telling, a thwarted genius who just goes around falling in love all the time and tripping over himself and never really gets anywhere. But he is rendered in hi-def by Woolf and I feel like I fully understand what he’s about. The knife tic was hard for me to visualize, though. It sounds kind of threatening.

MA: Especially threatening when he’s doing his knife tricks as he follows a woman down the street and imagines some relationship between them!

GN: That was weird.

KM: Doesn’t it say he holds it like all the way out from his body? Terrifying.

GN: Moving over to Sally—I loved her arc. She was by far the coolest cat at Bourton. But sometimes the people you expect big, dramatic, mystical things from in youth can just settle into total normalcy over time. It’s nice and comfortable to be rich in the country. 

MA: And to have five sons!

GN: “Five enormous sons”! The proto-”large adult son” meme, possibly.

MA: An OG boymom.

KM:  I loved the allusion to them potentially having some kind of sexual attraction in their youth and the emphasis on this one kiss (the “most exquisite moment of her whole life”; the reminder that Sally loves Clarissa more than her 12 million sons) this kind of memory of Sally as a firebomb that might destroy any party with her wild ways, when in reality she has calmed down. Like you said Giri, there’s a kind of satisfaction in her arrival in the book and her whole deal being that she thinks it’s important to say what you feel.

GN: Which is really painful for Peter in particular to hear, because his whole life is these unrealized, unspoken things. This huge looming silence between him and Clarissa.

KM: Yes, and also I have to imagine that Sally is not making it much of a secret that she loves Clarissa! 

GN: What do we make of Clarissa’s life, at the end of the book—her husband, her daughter, the path she chose—as we’re observing her from the seat of Peter and Sally, who last knew her right before she made that choice?

MA: The time we spend with Peter and Sally at the end is very sweet, I thought. There’s some sense of longing or repression in everyone, but again, Woolf doesn’t make it that easy. Is the parallel, unlived life better? Who knows? The characters are all still tangled in their pasts and reckoning with their pasts, but I never felt the sense that they were all looking back purely with regret. It’s much more complicated and ambiguous than that.

KM: It’s so funny, the first time I read this book in college I thought of Clarissa as infinitely old, but on this read, I realized she is only 52. Some doors have closed behind her, but theoretically there are still doors in front of her she could decide to open. I don’t know what to make of her decisions at all, to be honest. I don’t know if they were right or wrong, or if that distinction even exists. The clearer Woolf’s description of her situation and surroundings become, the muddier every path not taken seems to me. 

GN: One of the challenges of the book, which I enjoyed, is figuring out what there is to like about Clarissa, the nature of her charm, which isn’t always obvious. Over the book a picture of Clarissa emerges like a mosaic, with (literally) every passing person’s impressions of her tiled next to the rest, so it can be kind of dizzying to take in in full. But Peter gets closest to it, I think. She knows how to set a scene, and how to enjoy one, and how to help others enjoy it. And so throwing huge parties is a pretty good place for her to be at. And Richard might not have been the most interesting husband one could choose, but he allows for the encounters with all these interesting people, and ensures her a place in this social world she wants to remain in. Peter and Sally call her a snob. But she is this highly attuned snob, with a mostly decent heart, who is interested in how people fit together.

MA: Woolf is pretty open-minded, especially when it comes to different kinds of love. Richard, funny enough, really grew on me in this read. I loved that little scene of him buying flowers for his wife, in his own clumsy and affectionate way.

GN: Yeah that was cute. Also what he says to his daughter at the end, that was sweet.

MA: Yes, I cried! Very sweet. 

GN: Elizabeth is an endearing figure. The one part of the book where I laughed out loud: Elizabeth has spent like four meaty paragraphs setting out grand visions for her life, becoming an industrious doctor or farmer, someone who worked and thought hard. Then I turn the page and boom: “But she was, of course, rather lazy.”

KM: Oh my god I had the exact same page layout in my copy and I guffawed on my little couch. I mean, who among us? Elizabeth is also extremely relatable because she just loves her dog. 

MA: I thought it’d make a good Twitter bio.

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! February is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick tomorrow.