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The bearable heaviness of being: reflections on ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

Virginia Woolf is the author of "Mrs. Dalloway," first published in 1925 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Sometime around Week 7, like many Stanford students, I felt I had fallen into a rut. I needed to recenter myself with something both intellectually engaging and entirely self-motivated, something to break the constant inundation of ever-intensifying p-sets and papers. For me, an insightful book is often exactly what I need, and this time Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” was a godsend.

The rut set in on a Saturday where I slept too late, ate brunch with some friends and by 3 p.m. felt like it was already too late to glean anything productive out of the day. I put on my headphones and biked to run errands at CVS and Trader Joe’s. I half abhor and half relish such mundane tasks, which I need to do but still feel unproductive because of their mindless nature. But afterwards, I bravely (foolishly?) pushed my impending SLE reading to the back burner, sat down at a picnic table across from Lathrop, and cracked open “Mrs. Dalloway.”

In the first pages of this book, I found Clarissa Dalloway running errands in preparation for her dinner party in the evening, like the errands I was just doing. The book is written in stream-of-consciousness style, so while a narrative occurs with literal events, we viscerally experience the character’s interior mental states, where ideas, memories, and images take on more fluid associations. What seems externally mundane becomes a vivid trip through each character’s psyche.

For many books, their substance comes from the story they tell. But for some, like “Mrs. Dalloway,” what actually happens, which is not much, is not very important. Authors like Woolf depict the incredibly bizarre and complex nature of simply existing by creating their impression of what conscious experience is really like. “Mrs. Dalloway“ is about the extreme feat we accomplish each day just by existing — “she always had the feeling it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” There is all this inexplicable weight we encounter — existential revelations, ideas about God, the feeling of our impending death — that can strike us in the simplest and strangest moments, while we’re crossing a street, buying flowers or attending our own dinner party. “Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death.” But these realizations feel too strange, too cerebral, too unprovoked to be shared, so we, like Mrs. Dalloway, are forced to just stand there in an evening dress like nothing has occurred.

Yet within this crushing weight, there is simultaneously an incredible lightness and beauty to be found everywhere. The same ideas which are harrowing in one moment can comfort us in the next. Septimus Warren Smith, a deeply suicidal retired soldier, has moments of ecstasy lying on the couch where he sees that “first that the trees are alive, next that there is no crime, next love, universal love.” But it’s hard to know which revelations, be them depressing or ecstatic, are real and which are insanity.  What makes it so hard is how we perpetually feel isolated from one another, especially because of how painful, arduous and frankly embarrassing it can feel to attempt to render anything complex into words, like this article. As Mrs. Dalloway asks, “For what can one know even of the people one lives with every day?” But the beauty of the book is in how it flows seamlessly from one viewpoint to another, as if they are all connected, all one consciousness. Though the characters are unaware of it, we see how their train of thoughts keep intersecting despite their feelings of isolation within their experience.

The characters in Mrs. Dalloway can be deeply depressed in one moment and inexplicably joyful in the next, all depending on their kaleidoscopic, unpredictable perception of reality. But this tension, this unpredictability, is what creates an absorbing richness within life for Mrs. Dalloway, and from this richness springs her revelation that “what she liked, simply, was life.”

We all scramble around, Stanford students worse than anyone, like there is some grandiose purpose in life we must uncover and pursue. But perhaps, all we really need is something we already possess, “the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.”

“Mrs. Dalloway” offers us the illuminating view that perhaps experience is just meant to be experienced, examined, and appreciated in itself. Books like this remind us that despite our perception of isolation, our conscious experiences — our worries and our delights — are probably not too different from those who surround us, even those we least expect.  

As a SLE student, I’ve spent much of this quarter exploring ancient texts where gods speak directly to people and people live for 900 years. I saw “Mrs. Dalloway” as a grounded disruption in the rhythm of these fundamental grandiose texts, but at the same time I personally found that the book speaks to the nature of human existence as profoundly as SLE texts like the New Testament or “The Odyssey.” Sometimes when a book resonates with my situation in life so perfectly, I feel like Odysseus or Abraham might have felt when a god spoke to them directly.

“Mrs. Dalloway” is the ideal book if you, like me, are looking for a fresh perspective on your own day-to-day existence, working to overcome the extreme banality of adult life. With these reflections, doing my laundry or running errands feels a little less boring and burdensome. I can just breathe, less worried about what I’ve arbitrarily labeled as “productivity,” and just be more content with my being in the world itself.

 

Contact Carly Taylor at carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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