In 1925 Virginia Woolf’s modernist classic Mrs. Dalloway was published in London, after which the field of literature, and the understanding of modern subjecthood, would never be the same. At its core the novel is a study of life after the First World War and what it meant to live on after such an influx of not only physical destruction, taking the shape of lives and property lost in the war, but also the death of the past and its traditions. It is a work that occurs in the liminal space between a past of drawing rooms and privately organized society and an uncertain future of inscrutable technological and cultural innovation. It is an unprecedented interrogation of modern selfhood and a series of answers to this enigmatic question with ramifications that reach our contemporary selves.
In the opening of the novel Woolf’s principal character Clarissa, whom many have argued could very well be a foil for Mrs. Woolf herself, cries to the audience, “What a plunge!” expressing the feeling of transitioning from her settled, predictable London home into the wild and wavering streets of London. And a plunge it is indeed for Clarissa who, over the course of the book, which takes place merely in one day, traverses the streets of London experiencing innumerable psychological twists, turns, doubts, and revelations. The world of Mrs. Dalloway is constantly in flux, not only the facts and reality per se, but space and time too. Any moments of possible relief are spent in an attempt to integrate the complex ephemera, and so for all of the characters, even for those who spend a significant portion of their day lunching, there is no rest for the weary. In many ways, this exhaustive attempt at arranging and organizing one’s life mirrors the fragmented world we inhabit today. Nowadays, this splintering has traveled from major cities to even small counties, towns, and villages, a force especially driven by the smartphones most of us carry irrespective of our positioning in space and time. In early 20th century America, Woolf was deeply attuned to the direction in which this sociocultural phenomenon was heading, and her Mrs. Dalloway was equal parts an artistic rendering as well as her personal solution to the problem of modernity.
Clarissa Dalloway is a high society woman who spends much of the novel both organizing and musing over the elaborate party she is throwing that evening; She is Wolf’s heroine in a modern novel about endurance. For Clarissa, faced with the chaos of ordinary life (as we are all today): the man she almost married surprising her after years in India with news of an engagement to a younger woman, her husband being invited to an exciting lunch that she was not, motherhood, and all of this in the midst of a historical transition that is moving more swiftly than she is, and yet she persists in her own way to construct her party: her world as she knows it. She reminds those whom she has invited to her dinner throughout the day, “Remember the party! Remember the party!”
London was undergoing a period of rapid urbanization at the time Woolf was writing Mrs. Dalloway, and Woolf, with her penchant for experimentation, decided to perform no small stylistic feat. Having versed herself with Einstein’s theories of special and general relativities, Woolf had acquired over time a vast knowledge of physics that considerably shaped her writing, especially in Mrs. Dalloway. Her use of time in the novel is not only influenced by classical schema, but also scientific perceptions of it. In the years following the war, the English were coerced into understanding reality through an increasingly rationalist model that was at odds with a divinely revealed order or even a romanticist tradition, and the characters in the novel vie with this tension. The novel departed from the previous Victorian approach to a static framing of space and time and transformed into a literary realm where space, time, and character performed an interactive dance. Time passes quicker while Clarissa or Peter Walsh or Rezia and Septimus are walking through London- with more people, and buildings, and means of transport, time slows at the bend of space, with more obstacles to travel through and around. This is just one of the myriad ways Woolf draws out a narrative that helps readers to see how it is they feel what they do in a postmodern-post industrialized world; It is a classic that gives us all a chance at graduating from the limits of our subconscious to the potential of our human consciousness. And it even serves, nearly a century later, to articulate why, after quarantining in this global pandemic, the recurrent question many of us ask one another at the grocery store is, “Where has the time gone?”