My book club recently read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925 paired with The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which is based on both Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
Both of these were rereads for me–I read Mrs. Dalloway for a British Literature class and later took a class on Virginia Woolf in college where we read 8 of her books in 8 weeks. That being said, sometimes reading old notes in the margins can be painful. My naive, 21 year old English-major self seems amateurish. Rereading Mrs. Dalloway was a lesson in how reading experiences change with life experience–and how amazing rereading can be.
This time around, what stood out to me the most was the idea that misunderstanding often comes from drawing conclusions about someone without knowing their true inner life. The reader finds that each of the characters is unsatisfied with life and filled with a sense of both guilt for feeling that way and longing to create a different kind of life.
I read this book as a story of what we see in others and what they see in us–and the fact that most of the time–when we are living in our own heads and not honestly communicating, we get it all wrong. Whether people become ideas as we either project onto them what we want to see or we fall into the danger of considering what other people want to see in us, thus presenting a false self to the world. Obviously, relational chaos ensues.
For example, Peter, who depite all efforts, is still in love with Clarissa thinks: “And, after all, she had married Dalloway, and lived with him in perfect happiness all these years” (155) and yet she is haunted for much of the book that she made the wrong choice in marrying her husband. Her presentation of self is confusing because she flirts with Peter because she doesn’t know how not to, but spends her time remembering her mostly chaste relationship with her friend Sally and finds herself imagining what her life might have been if she chose differently.
Peter thinks he has it for a moment when of Clarissa he says: “So transparent in some ways, so inscrutable in others…” (77). His idea is correct, but he completely misinterprets what he sees as transparent. Clarissa says of Peter: “He made her see herself; exaggerate. It was idiotic,” (168). Clarissa is aware of this dance of self presentation and yet cannot step away. She says–and I think understands–that “there is a gulf between people that one must respect,” (120)–that one can never truly understand another. Peter understands it, too: “It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels…but he could not bring himself to say he loved her, not in so many words,” (116, 118).
The bottom line is that this book made me think so much about relationships and honesty–no one in this story really knew what the other was actually thinking–and no one wanted to tell anyone what they were truly thinking about, which creates an atmosphere of superficial conversation and relationships. Perhaps there is a certain safety in keeping such thoughts to oneself? I think the regret that the characters show reveal to the reader that it is better to live honestly in the present with themselves and others, but with exposure comes vulnerability. This is a trade off the characters weren’t willing to accept. It was more comfortable to live with the gulf than attempt to close it. I’m left thinking about the kinds of gulfs that exist, what causes them and which ones are worth crossing.
My ideas don’t fit into a single blog post.
All of this can lead to an existential downward spiral to a life in the what-might-have-been and filled with permanent discontent. Each of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway told themselves stories to cope with the lives they chose not to live–which is interestingly exactly what Cunningham picked up on and addressed in The Hours, thoughts forthcoming.