Making the Mundane Exceptional: Reading Virginia Woolf

Michael Cunningham understands Mrs. Dalloway as one of the great novels of World War I. “Woolf always intended it to be set in London just after the war,” he wrote in a 2021 introduction to the novel, and “I’ve always found it illuminating to remember that on the streets on which Clarissa walked, on which she greeted acquaintances and considered gloves in a shop window, there would have been men missing limbs, men with melted faces, making their way among those who’d gone out to shop or to promenade.” The contrast between Mrs. Dalloway’s staid, upper-class life and the tortured existence of the veteran Septimus Warren Smith is one of the main generative tensions of the novel. Yet if we zoom out, we see that the impact of World War I on Woolf’s work (and on literature more broadly) goes far beyond Mrs. Dalloway and the shell-shocked Septimus.

World War I was a truly catastrophic event. By the time the war ended on November 11, 1918, some 20 million soldiers and volunteer civilians, largely male, were dead, another 20 million had been injured, and many more bore emotional and psychological scars from the conflict. For artists and intellectuals, World War I represented a profound betrayal by and of society at large. They responded by rejecting the conventions—social, artistic, and otherwise—of the pre-war age. The aesthetic style of the post-World-War-I era is known as modernism, and in literary terms, modernism meant renouncing the patterns of plot, chronology, and character to focus instead on experimental forms and genres.

For Woolf, a new approach to fiction required stepping beyond the mundane recitation of human activities, and instead entering the mind to explore the complex patterns of human thought. Using techniques such as stream of consciousness (where a character’s thoughts and feelings are depicted in a continuous flow) and interior monologue (narrative passages that show a character’s innermost thoughts), Woolf portrays her characters’ private thoughts and subjective experiences. Shifting perspective repeatedly, Wolf uses these mental portraits to explore shared circumstances, whether by representing six characters in one voice (as in The Waves), fragmenting one individual into disparate identities (as in Orlando: A Biography), or leaping from character to character (as in Mrs. Dalloway). These techniques mingle with authorial interjections that serve as narrative signposts and parenthetical digressions that describe actions and events (like stage directions in a drama).

Woolf was also fascinated by how humans experienced the passage of time. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.” Indeed, this malleability of time is present throughout Woolf’s work: In To the Lighthouse (1927), she distills the passage of 10 years into roughly 20 pages; in “The Death of the Moth,” she composes an entire essay about a moth trapped behind a pane of glass as its life is slowly extinguished.

Both interests—the structure of human thought and the passage of time—figure prominently in Mrs. Dalloway. In the simplest terms, it is a novel about one woman spending one day preparing for a party. Yet as Clarissa Dalloway crosses the paths of other people in London, the narrative jumps between these different characters’ perspectives. The result is like a psychological mosaic, with each fragmentary thought another tessera making up the narrative whole. As readers “collect” these fragments, a remarkable intimacy develops between the reader and the characters on the page. And as mundane experiences are filtered through different characters’ perceptions,
readers are challenged to recognize how an individual’s sense of self may differ from the way they are perceived by others or how an individual’s experience of an event may diverge from the way the event is understood by society.

Yet even as Woolf plays with the malleability of time in individual human perceptions (characters observe the present, think back on their pasts, imagine their futures), Woolf uses the clocks of London, which mark each hour on the hour, to move the story inexorably forward. Woolf’s work thus reveals the importance of observation, using characters’ memories, dreams, and impressions to shape the story. Her characters are dynamic and complex figures, changing (or changing their way of thinking) as they experience daily life and as the narrative progresses. By focusing on characters’ inner lives, Woolf suggests that we must know ourselves in order to truly know others. “I am made and remade continually,” Woolf wrote in The Waves. “Different people draw different words from me,” and it is with these words that she can communicate the essence of human thought in her prose.