Lessons from Virginia Woolf: ‘Mrs Dalloway’ (1925), An Ode to Life

The poetic blending of vibrant impressions envelops us within the chaos of the city; the plunge into Mrs Dalloway’s mind reveals how “Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning in the season; its flags flying; its shops.” The splendour of urban diversity unfolds before our eyes, as the textual snapshots of the minutiae enables the reader to grasp London’s charming idiosyncrasies. By juxtaposing nature with machinery, Woolf invites us to view how modernity places us at the edge of alienation; a great attention is drawn to the manner in which “the throb of the motor engines [sound] like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body.” The incongruous image of machines and bodies enmeshed together signals a movement towards an unfamiliar way of existence. It is a strange, exquisite beauty that can only be experienced within the confines of the metropolis.

The swirling web of experiences that a city-dweller is caught up in, welcomes a fruitful navigation of the social landscape. Woolf’s skilful sketches of London’s diverse behavioural codes are left to be deciphered by the reader. With an acerbic wit and a dash of humour, a slideshow of the characters that one encounters in the city are dissected. With grandeur, Mrs Dalloway is presented as the pillar of the Establishment, as “her social instinct” enables her to form ornate gatherings of the aristo-political set.  She is “the perfect hostess” who draws disparate people together into the prism of her own design. The precise exertion of control allows Mrs Dalloway to propagate the hierarchy upon which the elite social set thrives upon. Alongside the glamour of the Establishment’s dinner parties, Woolf humorously depicts the “alternative intellectual” in the form of the Socialist Peter Walsh. He believes that men “with [a] love of abstract principles [who] [get] books sent out to them all the way from London to a peak in the Himalayas” would certainly enrich the dreary livelihoods of the unenlightened sort. Yet, among the self-indulgence of the well-moneyed, we are reminded of the Everyman figure; the old, female beggar, whose “voice bubbl[es] up without direction… with an absence of all human meaning”, transcends the banal chit-chat of bourgeois concerns. The flowing motion through different characters emphasises London’s porous nature; it is a malleable site, wherein the plurality of thoughts and lifestyles are embraced.

Amongst the flurry of London’s novelties, a moment of reflection is required to reassemble the fragments of our minds. Woolf’s celebration of “moments of being” serves as an encouragement to capture all the salient aspects of living. The continual self-fashioning of our external form, as to adapt to the demands of urban life is draining. It is Mrs Dalloway’s yearning to attain the “privacy of the soul” which greatly resonates, as the city’s pounding rhythms steadily erode away our sense of peace. London is at once wondrous and daunting—it invites us all to re-examine our relationship to the world at large, whilst enlivening our internal realm.

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