Top positive review
What it means to be human
Reviewed in the United States on December 9, 2018
For me this was less a story than an exploration of life and what it means to be human. And, by necessity, how to get the most out of the lives we live, which, as Woolf reminds us, go by in the blink of an eye.
Woolf is a superb writer; perhaps one of the greatest of all time. And this may well be her best work, made all the more impressive by the fact that she used the stream of consciousness technique that jettisons many of the rules most readers are familiar with. There are no chapters, for example, and many of the most important sentences are so short and simple, by design, as to be overlooked. I won’t say it’s difficult to read but you do have to get used to it.
The storyline has been well documented by other reviewers. Set in London following the First World War, we follow the day of Mrs. Dalloway, hostess extraordinaire to the “ruling class”, and the wife of an English bureaucrat in the upper crust of the British government but who will never quite grab the golden ring of appointment to the Cabinet. The achievement and the shortcoming both define him in equal measure.
There is a long list of characters, many of them quite minor, but to whom Woolf devotes considerable print. That, I believe, is quite by design, because each represents a different representation of the human reality that we each, at some level, accomplish something, but that none of us ever quite realize complete and utter fulfillment. We choose who we are but can never quite choose who we ultimately want to be. It is the duality of human existence and there are no exceptions.
Even Mrs. Dalloway, who has devoted her life to living in the present, faces the same existential dilemma. She is admired by some, tolerated by others, and quite disliked by a few. She is, in a word, human and, as a result, she is both defined and burdened by her duality.
One of the characters is Septimus Warren Smith, a young veteran of World War I who suffers from what we now call PTSD. He is, in terms of the storyline itself, a minor character, to the point that many have questioned his inclusion. To me, however, he is a central character and the book couldn’t exist without him. And even Woolf herself admitted, when challenged on this, that he was the double of Mrs. Dalloway.
Smith is central, it seems to me, because if Mrs. Dalloway hides the doubt and ambiguity of her life successfully, he loses himself to the same ambiguity quite obviously. They are quite like yin and yang, the complementary forces of light and dark, fire and ice, the masculine and the feminine. One cannot exist without the other.
In the end it would be difficult to describe this work as uplifting. It is life. And life, as Woolf reminds us, despite pockets and moments of glamour, is always a bit messy and dispiriting. Life is a duality. Tragedy occurs alongside grace. Doubt inevitably accompanies hope. Can there be the joy of success without the crush of failure?
All told I think this is a superb book and if you have any interest in exploring the duality of our existence there is a great deal here, in what is a relatively quick read.