Here’s to you, Mrs. Dalloway!

Noah Knopf in Harvard Political Review:

It took me three tries to understand even a little of Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s famous 1925 modernist novel set on a single day in London. Even now, when I try to explain the book, I tend to sound like a stereotypical rambling undergraduate literary analyst, parroting lecture slides and pontificating on the meaning of life — if Good Will Hunting saw me at a bar, he’d take me outside. But confusing as it is, this is a book that makes me walk around differently. Here’s why:

“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages.”

Fear no more the heat of the sun ⎯ it’s a line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, from a funeral song about embracing death and escaping the torments of life. Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway’s title character, happens to catch a glimpse of the lyric through the glass of a shop window as she putters about London making arrangements for her party that night. Clarissa really wants this party to be good, but she is mocked, derided; everyone thinks it’s frivolous to care so much about throwing a party for society elites.

It takes the suicide of a man she has never met for Clarissa to understand that her doubters are dead wrong. The news arrives during the party, and, stunned, she retires upstairs. But after the shock melts away, Clarissa actually feels “glad that he had done it; thrown it away. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” Death is not to be feared, that’s true, and it’s a theme repeated enough that the concept likely doesn’t shock anyone. But the suicide helps Clarissa realize that life isn’t to be feared either: the energies, passions, and flames of human interaction are the best things we have in this world, particularly in the face of London’s constantly ticking clocks, which serve as a reminder of the thrilling knowledge that death might strike at any minute. Clarissa’s party is not frivolous. It’s actually the most important thing. Her guests await: “Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them.”

More here. (Note: The review from last year is a reminder to re-read Mrs. Dalloway yet again this summer. I just did. You should too. Magnificent.)

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