Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Mrs. Dalloway

So I lied. I'm not actually reading Malcolm Lowry. I meant to, but then I finished Mrs. Dalloway and found myself starting it all over again. It's odd how a book that you don't understand can compel you, or perhaps that's what makes it compelling.

Take, for example, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus. They're obviously meant to be juxtaposed or compared or paralleled in some way. But how? He hates outside stimulae and dwells in his own created reality, while Clarissa thrives on superficial pleasures - a party, a walk in the park.
She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment (78).
So who here is really the coward? Septimus, for fleeing from reality, or Clarissa, for fleeing from the truth?

But it's not even that. Because all through the book Clarissa is criticized, by Peter and by the original Sally, for her vanities and petty pleasures. What's odd is the wistful undertone that their criticism often carries. This quote is from Peter's POV -
Beneath, she was very shrewd - a far better judge of character than Sally, for instance... [She had] that extraordinary gift, that woman's gift, of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be. (75-76)
So while they (Peter and Sally) clearly condescend on people like Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread, who are shallow and silly, their attitude towards Clarissa is more ambiguous. Perhaps it's because Clarissa herself is more ambiguous - clearly, she is capable of ascending to a more meaningful level; she simply chooses not to. Again from Peter's POV:
Oddly enough, she was one of the most thorough-going sceptics he had ever met... possibly she said to herself, as we are doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favorite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can.
Is this to be admired or frowned upon? If it's a bad thing, is it worse than Richard/Hugh's unknowing shallowness?

But then to add a further layer, there is the hypocrisy of Peter and Sally, Clarissa's best friends/harshest detractors. We find the sophisticated Peter returned from India in a sorry state, getting ready to marry an already-married woman that he's not in love with, prepared to ask Richard for a government job. Sally has married a rich man, a Lord Rosseter. She lives in a mansion, and at the party, she brags about her main accomplishment: "I have five enormous boys. (171)" Oh how the mighty have fallen; how the people of depth have have ended up floating to the surface, too shamefaced to acknowledge their shamefacedness. For all their lofty ideals, they've both ended up becoming (or in Peter's case, on the brink of becoming) the very people they grew up criticizing. Maybe this is what makes Clarissa the heroine of the story - Hugh and Richard never knew anything else, and Peter and Sally were dragged there, but Clarissa is the only one who chose her lifestyle, empty and bland though it may be.

w/r/t Septimus (spoiler?): Perhaps he is the other extreme; he's rejected life entirely. In a way, this is what Sally and Peter originally strived for. Where they ended up, as well as Septimus's demise, seem to suggest what Ms. Woolf thinks of their idealism - pretty, but otiose.

Unrelated: There's something revealing about this book's statistically improbable phrase: "solitary traveller."