This New Years, my roommates and I decided to host a party. It was our first party since graduating college and moving to Chicago together. Friends came in—from Houston, New York, Detroit—and on the day of the party, I couldn’t stop thinking about Clarissa Dalloway getting ready for her own party. I hadn’t seen most of the people coming since graduation, and much like Virginia Woolf’s eponymous character in Mrs. Dalloway, I became overwhelmed with both nostalgia and uncertainty, revisiting and reconstructing my memories of the various people re-entering my life. Woolf uses such specific emotions and situations to uncover more universal feelings. After all, on paper, I have very little in common with Clarissa Dalloway. And yet, I couldn’t get her out of my mind as I bought cheap champagne she would never stoop to buy herself. Mrs. Dalloway, which deals most penetratingly with the madness and chaos of everyday life, builds to a single party—a party of mostly upper-class, 20th-century Londoners. But its themes contain truths you can even find resonating between the thumps of a Spotify playlist at a small house party in Chicago in 2015.
Mrs. Dalloway takes place entirely on one day in the lives of its characters: the day of Clarissa Dalloway’s party. By the time we get to the party, all the pieces have been arranged, the relationships defined, so that we walk in almost as a guest ourselves, knowing these people as wholly as people can be known. The party, much like my own New Years party, is an ordinary one. Old friends reconnect; new friends meet. But just under the surface, the psychological underpinnings of all of these characters churn. Delving into each of their minds for pages at a time, Woolf lets us know exactly who they are, showing us not only what they do on this one day in their lives but why.
Mrs. Dalloway feels like an intricate collage, with Woolf splicing up temporal and spatial relations and mixing them around. In this way, she reconfigures the concept of self. Her characters are made up not only of their own experiences and feelings but the experiences and feelings of others.
Woolf switches the narrative control over and over, as the perspective bounces between Clarissa and Peter and Septimus and Elizabeth and Richard and Lucrezia and so on as they all go about their days. Even with all the perspective switching and memory pops, Woolf never really loses control of with the story. It’s coherent chaos. There’s a rhythm to it all. Even as the characters jump back in time in their minds, in the present, Big Ben announces every passing hour, interrupting their thoughts and words with its persistence. There’s a rhythm to the way Peter opens and closes his knife while speaking with Clarissa, to the way he repeats “remember my party, remember my party” to himself as he walks down the street. These repetitions give order to the stream of consciousness.
Mrs. Dalloway feels like an intricate collage, with Woolf splicing up temporal and spatial relations and mixing them around. In this way, she reconfigures the concept of self. Her characters are made up not only of their own experiences and feelings but the experiences and feelings of others. Woolf suggests people have parts of others in them; we’re collages, too. When Richard Dalloway, Hugh Whitbread, and Millicent Bruton lunch together, they’re connected by an invisible thread that becomes thinner and thinner as they move physically farther away from each other. Woolf repeatedly uses the delicate imagery of a spider’s web to draw real connections between her characters.
Clarissa and Septimus, despite never actually meeting in the course of the novel, are bound by that same invisible thread. They live parallel lives, bound by the forbidden nature of their queer desires. The way Woolf folds in queer narratives in Mrs. Dalloway is smart; there’s a directness to it so that it doesn’t just get lost as subtext, but it’s also subtle, evoking the illicit nature of same-sex love at the time. Septimus’s desire eats at him in more obvious ways. He suffers from shellshock, but he’s also haunted by the loss of his friend Evans, killed in the war. The romantic friendship between Septimus and Evans parallels Clarissa’s romantic friendship with Sally Seton, a revolutionary depiction of the confusing, unspoken queerness of young female friendships.
Then there are the more direct connections, like the threads between Peter, Sally, and Clarissa. Though they never really dated in the way we define dating today, Peter and Sally are both, functionally, Clarissa’s exes. And here is where Woolf packs in a lot of her most relatable frustrations with human interaction and behavior. Through Clarissa’s interactions with Peter, Woolf touches on the limits of language that come with breaking up with someone. Who are they to you now? How do you speak cordially to someone you once loved?
Woolf suggests we can never fully erase people from our lives. Memories make us who we are as much as our actions in the present do.
Peter shows up as a surprise, and Woolf doesn’t paint his reconnection with Clarissa in broad strokes. To Woolf, nostalgia isn’t some sweeping state of being. It’s specific. It’s Clarissa getting annoyed by Peter playing with his knife. It’s Clarissa seeing him and suddenly forgetting why she had made up her mind not to marry him years before. Woolf uses specificity as her tool for crafting such an immersive world. Though she deals with the grander ideas of how even disparate people are inextricably connected, she does so with small, specific details.
And when it comes time for the party, Sally and Peter both feel out of place, unwanted even. I was reminded almost instantly of a verse from Drake’s “Furthest Thing”: “Girl, don’t treat me like a stranger/Girl, you know I seen you naked.” If there’s anyone who understands the existential dread that comes with interacting with exes, it’s Drake. Here, he nails the frustration that comes with not knowing how to act or be around someone who once knew you so intimately. Clarissa’s interactions with Peter and Sally definitely capture this same sort of disconnect.
For most of my New Years party, I spent my time avoiding an ex who I hadn’t seen since our breakup. I knew any attempt at small talk would feel forced and unfamiliar. I ignored him, much like Clarissa ignores Peter and Sally at the party, busying herself with the other guests. Just like the roses she buys for the party—“first bunched together; now of their own accord starting apart”—Clarissa, Peter, and Sally are all bound to and separate from each other all at once. They talk of their glistening days at Bourton in the same way my college friends and I talk about Ann Arbor. We’re too young to be romantically nostalgic, but our relationships are bending in new ways, defined and redefined by the new cities we live in, the new people we’ve met. Woolf suggests we can never fully erase people from our lives. Memories make us who we are as much as our actions in the present do. At the end of the day, yes it’s just a party. But we don’t leave our insecurities, fears, regrets, or past at the door with our shoes.