Without Virginia Woolf, we might not have Jack Bauer. And where would we be without Kiefer Sutherland running around besting terrorists? When Virginia Woolf published Mrs Dalloway in 1925, literature was undergoing some radical changes. Along with James Joyce (whose Ulysses is, well, good luck with that one), Woolf revolutionized the novel form by writing a story which takes place all in one day (get the 24 reference now?). This brilliant woman was a vital part of the Modernist literature movement, and after her, books would never be the same.
(By the way, "Modernist Literature" is a hefty phrase that basically refers to literature written between 1899 and 1945, and involving experimentation with the traditional novel format. Modernist literature plays all sorts of games with time and order, perspective, and point of view. There was a lot of play with form, so a fragmented plot became more common than, say, having a clear beginning, middle, and end. Many critics say these radical experiments were a response to the violence of the World Wars. Lesson over: now you're totally going to get bonus points for knowing what modernist literature is. You can thank us later.)
Mrs Dalloway was daring not only in form, but also in content. Virginia Woolf brought to light an ugly truth that people didn’t really talk about much at the time: the war really messed people up psychologically. The brutal trench warfare hadn’t made men more masculine or turned them all into heroes; more often, it drove them mad. Woolf helped people see that post-traumatic stress disorder was a serious condition that haunted many survivors of the war. Based on two short stories entitled "Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street" and the unfinished "The Prime Minister," Mrs Dalloway not only tells us that Septimus is damaged, but it also shows us what the world looks like through his eyes. We also get to see in depth how our main protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, suffers from her own form of psychological damage: the more subtle, everyday oppression of English society.
That's all pretty depressing, so onto the good stuff. In 2005, Time magazine named Mrs Dalloway one of the best English language novels from 1923 to the present. It’s widely considered to be one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century and has even been reinterpreted by Michael Cunningham as the book The Hours (Woolf’s original title for Mrs Dalloway). And the best sign of its popularity? Mrs Dalloway and The Hours have both been made into (awesome) movies.
Daring content and awards aside, Mrs Dalloway is meaningful because it was very personal to Virginia Woolf. Woolf suffered from constant headaches and mental breakdowns throughout her life; some have diagnosed her as having bipolar disorder or being manic depressive. Whatever her diagnosis was, Woolf struggled with her own illness even as she worked hard to describe the suffering of Septimus and Mrs Dalloway. And, of course, it’s hard to read the book without thinking about her suicide in 1941. Yet as the ending indicates, Virginia Woolf never completely abandons hope or the idea that life always has beauty.
With her up-to-the-minute, this-just-in approach to storytelling, Virginia Woolf was a writer who anticipated our modern interest in small human details and everyday life. Think about it: as we follow the novel’s two main characters (Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith) around London, we get their every thought. We’re pretty sure if Woolf had lived today, she would have been a master of the social networking scene: a blog, Facebook, Twitter, you name it.
Woolf’s ability to find extraordinary meaning in tiny everyday detail totally jives with our current fascination with normal life.
Woolf makes it clear, right from the beginning, that everyday life, as lived by normal people, can be pretty captivating. When Clarissa says, in the opening line, that she’ll go get the flowers herself, this seems like kind of a plain declaration. (Why do we need to know what this woman is doing this very minute?) But we find out as the story unfolds that this small detail has huge implications in terms of class, society, and individual identity. (Are your Facebook statuses that loaded?)
If Clarissa lived today, she would be at the mall (after all, she loves window shopping), tweeting her every little move. But, as Woolf suggests, the small things, like looking at a book in a shop window or running into a friend, are the very moments that make life meaningful. If you can get past the grim aspects – the suicide and the talking head in the plant – you can see that Mrs Dalloway is confirming that life is super interesting and that even the most "normal" person has something worthwhile to say. Not a bad reminder.