Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

I have been reading Virginia Woolf in order to answer the obvious question of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but more specifically to discover what exactly there is to be so afraid of.

The book I have chosen is Mrs. Dalloway and right off the bat I would like it understood that when I say that I chose this book what I really mean is that I did not choose this book at all. I abdicated to the internet, as we do with so much of our decision making, and went with what is reported to be her most important work. I was doubly interested in that particular title when I was told that the book is the sum of two short stories having been sewn together by the needle of her intelligence.

I myself have written a few short stories and it gives me hope that someday I will cobble together some serviceable fiction with the mallet of my own indolent good intentions.

The story of Mrs. Dalloway goes something like this: Clarissa Dalloway is giving a party. It takes all day for her to get it together and she is having an existential crisis or would be but that term had not been coined yet. That said, I do think it is fair to say that Woolf is an important elucidator of the symptoms. As Clarissa crosses paths with other people the narrative is handed off to them and their crises and they in turn hand off to others and their internal monologues.

You can see how, even in a day, this can compound into a whole lot of hand wringing, psychotic chatter, imaginary intrigues and shallow musings depending on whose mind we are listening in on at the moment.

The book reminded me of Joyce’s Ulysses and Kerouac’s On the Road because those are two books I can recall reading that are stream of consciousness but given the publication date of 1925, Woolf must have been a pioneer working out on the frontiers of that style.

I would also like it understood that when I say that I read Ulysses what I really mean is that I did not actually read Ulysses cover to cover or anything like it but I have used that book to turn many a restless night into a deep coma sleep.

The really beautiful angle in all this is that Woolf was obviously educated and upper class and so her main character’s crises are primarily those of the upper classes and the tone of her writing and the content of her day and the formal language itself speaks from that of a late 19th early 20th century educated English woman with social status. And boy how it speaks. Even among stream of consciousness practitioners her run on sentences are impressive not only in length but in scope and clarity. I particularly like the following example because it is about a recurring character in the novel; Time

“Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counseled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one.”

Woolf is writing in the years just after the First World War and trauma is another main character. Victorian concerns linger, both in the narrative and most definitely in Woolf’s floral language but it’s all going to pieces in parallel with Clarissa’s self-confidence. The elements that held the Empire and hope itself together; certainty of purpose, one’s place in the larger scheme of things, reward through conformity, the guarantee of a better tomorrow, all have taken a sound thrashing. The past is a constant intruder on the present, casting doubt across the illusions of both.

Woolf’s main characters are also aware that they are getting older. They are looking back on life-long assumptions and finding their guiding principals have left them in exactly the situations they had tried hardest to avoid. All are left to acknowledge the losses and all are ill equipped to process their feelings. Age has not brought understanding it has yielded only confusion and paralyzing indecision. Time, the great thief, has robbed them of self-confidence while introducing that most modern of all emotions: Anxiety.

Almost everyone feels like they are on the verge of being discovered an imposter. Misunderstanding poisons every interaction. The mad and the sane are not found to be so very different; each spinning a tale to explain a self-obsessed reality. The sane are wracked with doubt; the mad are wracked with certainty and between the two lurk the pious, the complacent, the oblivious and the fools.

Within the story the loss of feeling or too much feeling; perspective, scale and proportion are all out of whack. The word Proportion itself bubbles up frequently enough that it is clear Woolf struggled with keeping her own emotions in check. Woolf speaks of Proportion almost as if it were a common sense little house pet, its manicured curls barely containing the fangs of a bone deep bloodlust.

I don’t know if it’s possible to give a spoiler alert to a 100 year old book but in the end the only one to make his escape is the madman but the suggestion is that everyone’s internal life is a madhouse differing only by degrees.

Woolf is not shy in her portrayal of her characters struggles and shortcomings. She moves easily across the interior monologues of women of elevated status as well as women of other social classes. Woolf also boldly and impressively dissects the inner workings of men including a war veteran suffering from what we would now call PTSD; a colonial functionary torn between worlds and a host of other lesser characters. Woolf takes on the complex and mundane issues of men through their interior monologues in as critical and delicate an approach as she brings to her women.

I try to be as ignorant as possible when reading books and for me that is an easily attainable goal. I like to know the publishing date but beyond that I don’t want to be overly influenced by the author’s biography but clearly Wolff was an intellectual woman of the Victorian/ Edwardian era whose world, the world of the British Empire was coming unraveled and a thinking woman’s place in that world was insufferably stifling. In fact all of the characters are holding on, as best they can in a world that has radically changed direction and in that way the story is as relevant today as it was when Woolf wrote it almost a century ago. Woolf deeply felt the pull of entropy and evidently took it as an omen of endless despair.

Woolf is a thorough modern yet she presents all in the pretensions of the soon to be left over language of her class and station. It is an odd fit that becomes the moment in which it was written; a world obsessed with the present, barreling towards tomorrow, the light of a greater conflagration just beyond the crest of a hill.

In the end it would seem that with her relentless and microscopic detailing of the often sad, sordid and ultimately pointless mess of life, the answer to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf should likely have been Virginia Woolf herself.