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Unmasking society and experimenting with past and present,
By A Customer
This review is from: Mrs Dalloway (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
Virginia Woolf's fourth novel (1925) can be regarded as her first real approach to maturity, since she experiments with time and mingles present experience and past memories in an artistic way. Apart from the formal innovations, Woolf does not avoid the thematic challenge either: "I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense", she notes in her diary.
Mrs. Dalloway is set on a single day in the middle of June in 1923, and we follow Clarissa Dalloway, the elegant wife of a Member of Parliament and perfect London hostess, through the course of this day which is going to culminate in the party she is going to give in the evening.
But there is much more to the novel than the superficial level of social activities: interwoven with the public world of post-war Britain is the female protagonist's inner life and her ambivalence about her other self - she wishes both to escape the social life and to enter it more fully; she feels both sheltered and anonymous, useful and trivial, committed and deluded.
Clarissa is looking for meaning in her life, primarily in her past, and we learn, among many other things, that she has chosen the safety of marriage to the rather ponderous Richard as opposed to the unpredictability of a life with Peter Walsh or the scandal of a relationship with a woman in order to preserve her own private self.
Virginia Woolf is interested in human personality and convicted of the right of the individual to possess and to cultivate their identity. Clarissa is thrown into a field of polar tensions in which on the one hand she strives for individuality and tries to distance herself from her environment; but in which on the other hand she also feels that she has to step out of her seclusion in order to take part in society.
And she proves herself capable of asserting herself in the life of society with courage and instinct. She is permanently ready to serve, to help and to support, seeing her role in society in terms of a personal task: through her parties she attempts to save people from their solitude, to establish relationships between them and make them feel the beauties of life.
Virginia Woolf has a gift to see behind people's social masks and to reveal in a very beautiful way how people live, how they love and hate, fear and long, and cope with the pleasures as well as the difficulties of everyday existence.