For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Jane Delury—whose story “Someone Else” appears in our Winter 2022 issue—examines two passages from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
In 1920s London, Clarissa Dalloway, a wealthy, middle-aged woman, steps out of her house to buy flowers for a dinner party that evening. Over the course of the day, the narrator slips between Clarissa’s mind—“what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach”—and others’, including those of her onetime suitor, her husband, and a traumatized war veteran named Septimus. Into and out of the characters’ heads the reader goes, dipping into currents of thought and then returning to the external world of snarled traffic, a park with “slow-swimming happy ducks,” Westminster Abbey, a vase of roses. Of the many things that make this my favorite book—the elegant fluidity of the sentences, the subtle shifting between moment and era, the wisdom about death, aging, love, womanhood, mental illness—what sends me back to Mrs. Dalloway is how the narrator plunges the reader into the characters’ internal lives.
A case in point: Clarissa Dalloway is privileged and bourgeois and her hunt for flowers is an arguably frivolous quest. And yet, right at the start of the novel, she eludes easy categorization because the reader inhabits her rich, complicated, contradictory mind. We feel her joy over the “strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead”; we remember, along with her, a melancholy moment by an open window when she was eighteen; we recognize how “she felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged.” And because we understand Clarissa, we appreciate the importance of the dinner party. A bouquet of flowers becomes noble as a grail.
There’s another character in the novel who couldn’t be more different from Clarissa, but whom I also adore—Septimus, the war veteran. Here he is when the reader first meets him, one of a group of people startled by the sound of motor car:
Septimus Warren Smith, aged 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.
Like the other strangers on the sidewalk, the reader wants to cross the street. Only Woolf doesn’t let us. A few sentences later comes the plunge:
Every one looked at the motor car. Septimus looked. Boys on bicycles sprang off. Traffic accumulated. And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thought, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought. Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose?
Here, and throughout Mrs. Dalloway, the narrator grabs the reader by the collar. Come with me, she says. Breach the barrier of skin and speech, class, gender, circumstance, the choice of coat or hat. In life, we can meet a Clarissa or a Septimus only from our own square of sidewalk. In fiction, we can meet them from inside. Whenever I read Woolf’s novel, I remember that good magic.