Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On reading Mrs. Dalloway

"Do you remember the lake?" she said, in an abrupt voice, under the pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her throat stiff and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said "lake." For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, "This is what I have made of it! This!" And what had she made of it?
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I don't think any writer has depicted the thoughts of a woman in midlife better than Virginia Woolf: the penchant for thinking many things at once; the nonlinear breathlessness of one's attention; the time-traveling between past and present; and the moods, ever-changing, like quicksilver.

One of the themes of Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway is that all the people you meet in life (and even those whom you never meet but only hear about) make you who you are; even a fleeting acquaintance leaves an impression. And once you reach the middle years of your life--or the middle pages, as I like to think of them--you have met and seen and known and loved and forgotten so many people that it becomes dizzying; their influence is indelibly etched upon you and with each year there are more versions of yourself, all these mirrors into which you have looked and seen yourself reflected and stories into which you are projected; and how does one make sense of it all?

The geography of my inner world is so different today than when I was younger. Rivers that once ran clear are muddied, cities have sprung up where villages once stood, dense thickets obscure the road ahead. It is so easy to lose one's way. That's why I find the quote above so arresting. Everything has meaning and weight. Even language is treacherous; you can be surprised around every corner. A seemingly innocuous word like "lake" can raise the specter of the past, cause bittersweet pain, evoke a tempest of emotion. Clarissa Dalloway's lake is more than a sentimental memory; it's a shimmering reflection of her fear that she has squandered her life.

7 comments:

padiwack said...

I wholeheartedly agree!

A lovely and bittersweet review, thank you.

Pete said...

I bet Puck is dealing with some of these same issues.

Tai said...

Thank you, Padiwack! Thanks for visiting.

Pete, Puck's issues tend to be more Byronic than Woolfian, as befits a troubled genius.

CJGallegos said...

Tai, I would give anything to have listened in to a conversation between you and Virginia Woolf. I'm going to re-read Mrs. Dalloway. It's been too long. Thanks for this.

AMGallegos said...

Thank God none of us will be approaching middle age for quite some time!

Tai said...

Oh, Aaron. You always know just what to say.

Coop, I would be tongue-tied in Virginia's presence. I'd probably spill my tea and knock the sugar bowl over too. And it just gets worse from there.

john tonic said...

There is always the hope that someone you helped will find you and remind you.