Mrs. Dalloway: Secularism and Its Enchantments
Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway (1998) / Alamy 

Mrs. Dalloway: Secularism and Its Enchantments

Jared Marcel Pollen
Jared Marcel Pollen
12 min read

1922 is one of those spooky years in the history of literature, when several revolutionary things seemed to be taking place at once. At the time, Virginia Woolf was still a minor figure in the publishing scene, but she was in the beginnings of her literary chrysalis. She had recently emerged from one of her gloomy moods, which had dogged her throughout the winter, and was awaiting proofs for Jacob’s Room (to be published in the fall). She had also started work on a short story called “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”—the first chapter of what she hoped would be a new novel.

That summer, though, all the talk was of Ulysses. Joyce’s novel had been published earlier in the year and instantly established itself as the first great modernist masterpiece. It was a most sociable summer for the Woolfs. They hosted many guests, including T.S. Eliot, who one evening read aloud his new “new poem” in its entirety. That poem was The Waste Land (the second masterpiece), which would also be published in the fall. During these visits, Woolf spoke at length with Eliot about Ulysses and recorded their conversations in her diary. Eliot praised the novel, but Woolf disliked it intensely, calling it “an illiterate, underbred book.” They nonetheless agreed that it had “destroyed the whole of the 19th century.” Yes, Ulysses and The Waste Land were wrecking balls, demolishing traditional styles and leaving them irretrievable. But a third wrecking ball was already being raised, and a third masterpiece was about to appear.

An aesthetic consensus of modernism was the general ugliness of the age. Both Ulysses and The Waste Land portray their era as one of decay—morally boring, spiritually empty, full of lifeless technology and devoid of mythic weight. Wyndham Lewis called it “the moronic inferno” and its quintessential image appears in “The Fire Sermon” with the typist who takes a taxi home, combs her hair mechanically, “lights her stove, and lays out food in tins.” We find similar depictions in Joyce’s Dublin and Faulkner’s post-reconstructionist south. This was part and parcel of life in what Max Weber called the “disenchanted age,” one that was “robbed of gods.” The mytho-poetic ornaments of modernism were in many ways an attempt to re-enchant this world, by showing how archetypical struggles underlay the mundanity of daily life; but as in Ulysses or The Waste Land, their splendor is always denied.

Woolf flatly rejected this view. In her own “Letter to A Young Poet,” she wrote:

...there are a thousand voices prophesying despair. Science, they say, has made poetry impossible; there is no poetry in motor cars and wireless. And we have no religion … Therefore, so people say, there can be no relation between the poet and the present age. But surely that is nonsense.

Her response was to write a novel about happiness in a modern metropolis. Contra Joyce’s grey-day-in-the-life, Mrs. Dalloway is an anti-Ulysses in soul and form, inverting our vision of modernity’s taedium vitae and attempting to recover a sense of the numinous in a secular age. The novel is both elegantly simple and infinitely complex. It tells the story of a middle-aged woman who loves life, throws a party, and walks through London on an impossibly beautiful June day. Typewriters, telephones, and airplanes become objects of wonder, and something as simple as buying flowers or scribbling down a phone message seems to enclose an epiphany.

The novel is packed with such moments—headlong plunges into significance or some waiting revelation. When Clarissa Dalloway returns home to find a house full of servants buzzing around her:

The cook whistled in the kitchen. She heard the click of the typewriter. It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds on the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only).

At the time, this not only violated every literary instinct for the critique of everyday life, it defied what we think of as “the stuff” of fiction. Montherlant put it best when he said that “happiness writes white,” meaning that joy, as we experience it, simply doesn’t show up on the page. There are only a few novels that buck this, and Mrs. Dalloway is one of them. If it has an overriding anxiety, it is of the kind Nabokov described—anxiety over “the impossibility of assimilating, swallowing, all the beauty in the world.”

Unlike her previous books, Woolf approached Mrs. Dalloway deliberately, with great forethought (“I am laboriously dredging my mind for Mrs. Dalloway & bringing up light buckets,” she wrote). She wanted to understand the full scope of what she was writing. According to her diary, her schedule was disciplined, but often plagued by stops and starts, periods of rushing productivity followed by blockages during which nothing seemed to come. By the fall, however, the underlying theme of the novel had presented itself: “Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book;” she wrote in October, “…I adumbrate here a study of insanity & suicide: the world seen by the sane & the insane side by side—something like that.”

The sane and insane views of reality are provided by the novel’s two main characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, whose paths approach one another, but never intersect. The novel is full of these near-misses, near-meetings and near-meanings, when it seems as if a veil will drop and something profound will be revealed—only to be withheld. These moments of “meaning almost expressed” are referred to repeatedly as a “religious feeling.” When a dark motorcar passes, the agitated pedestrians feel “the pale light of the immortal presence” upon them, believing the concealed passenger to be a member of the royal family. Clarissa, too, senses that they have all “grazed something very profound” and that “the spirit of religion was abroad with her eyes bandaged tight and her lips gaping wide.”

Before the anonymous motorcade even has a chance to pass, we start up again, as an airplane begins writing letters in the sky—like a message sent from God himself—which seem to spell out: K-E-Y. At which point, Septimus, the mentally-bruised war veteran, looks up at the cloud-shaped characters through a canopy of ringing trees:

But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; the white and blue, barred with black branches. Sounds made harmonies with premeditation; the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds. A child cried. Rightly far away a horn sounded. All taken together meant the birth of a new religion—

Here, the “religious feeling” belongs to the other half of our experience, to the “insane truth” that Woolf herself had glimpsed during her own mental breakdowns. Reflecting on her illnesses in a letter to E.M. Forster (just months before she would start work on Dalloway), Woolf wrote that she had “picked up something from [her] insanities” and that perhaps “they’ve done instead of religion.” Septimus’s moments of terrified exultation are instances of this divine madness, the total suspension of disbelief that Tertullian expressed in his maxim: Credo quia absurdum (“I believe because it is absurd.”)

Woolf didn’t need to believe anything, but she needed to show how this absurd truth could be captured. The religious feeling is also never gratified, and there is a constant struggle for sobriety in moments of stupefied joy. Septimus continuously reminds himself that “one must be scientific” even as he unspools in fits of insane splendor. And as Clarissa (whose capacity for awe is almost Augustinian) scribbles down the phone message, we are told:

…not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, taking up the pad, must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it—of the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling, for Mrs. Walker was Irish and whistled all day long—one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments.

We have every reason to believe that Woolf was not religious, in a conventional sense. In her diaries she refers to herself as an agnostic and describes religion as “emotional capital which I did not know how to invest.” It’s also clear that she had an aversion to the mystical. For example, she found fault in Forster’s A Passage to India for its cheap affinity for oriental mysticism. And in her diaries, she refers to her friend, playwright Charles Morgan, as “mystic” and “silly” and describes G.B. Shaw’s wife as a “very stupid” woman who has “rolled herself up in Indian mysticism, like a caterpillar in a cocoon...”

Woolf’s agnosticism was of a 20th century kind, grounded in an appreciation for the strange. The agnosticism that characterized the 19th century was something she patently rejected, part of her larger rebellion against the Victorian milieu in which she was raised. Much of this antagonism was based on the strained relationship she had with her father, Leslie Stephen, who was an archetype of 19th century rationalism and high-Victorian bien pensant. In his youth, Stephen had studied at Cambridge and was en route to becoming a minister. Like Thomas Huxley (who is credited with coining the term “agnostic”), his worldview was forcefully recalibrated when he read Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and like Huxley, Stephen spent the rest of his life bulldoggishly defending his unbelief, publishing essays like “An Agnostic’s Apology” and “The Religion of All Sensible Men.”

Much of what we know about Leslie Stephen comes from Woolf’s memoir, “A Sketch of the Past,” in which she portrays him as a didactic patriarch, quizzing the kids with math problems at dinner time and peering over their shoulders to snort at whatever they were reading (convinced they wouldn’t understand it). Stephen was a steely, Cambridge elite, an historian of ideas and the author of several books, including A History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century and Essays on Freethinking & Plain Speaking. He was very much a man of his age, what Woolf called “a Gibbon”—contemptuous of religion and inclined to see the arc of history as rationality’s triumph over superstition. In an essay Woolf wrote on Edward Gibbon, she describes him as “a little limited, a little superficial, a little earthy, a little too positively and imperturbably a man of the eighteenth century and not of our own.” This almost doubles for the description she gives of her father in her memoirs: “not a subtle mind; not an imaginative mind; not a suggestive mind … a conventional mind entirely accepting his own standard of what is honest."

Woolf’s relationship with her father was one in which “rage alternated with love.” Like so many children and their parents, their froideur was characterized by ongoing, subvocal arguments and accumulated grievances that would never be aired. Much of this would eventually get “rubbed out” when she fictionalized her father as Mr. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse, the brooding autocrat who futilely labors away at a kind of encyclopedic knowledge, memorizing the intellectual alphabet like notes on a piano. “Until I wrote it out,” she confessed, “I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him. How deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud.”

Woolf saw no imagination in her father, no wisdom in his desiccated worldview. He had “no feeling for pictures” she wrote, “no ear for music; no sense of the sound of words." To the young Woolf, growing up in such a household, to be an aesthete was thus the noblest mode of revolt. And if there was a genius in the family, it was her. By the standards of his time, there was nothing radical about Leslie Stephen; his iconoclasm was its own kind of conformity, but his daughter’s would be truly Promethean, the rebellion of a most original mind, like the fire that lights itself.

Stephen’s stable, 19th century mind would have been ill-equipped to digest the world in 1922, when it seemed as if rationalism was collapsing. The catastrophe of the First World War showed the insanity of the European powers, and faith in liberal democracy was foundering as fascism and communism amassed followers. Elsewhere, similar demolitions were underway. The weird science of Einstein had shown the irrationality of the universe, Freudian psychology had estranged us from our own minds, and Wittgenstein had reduced all philosophy to a language of “patent nonsense.” By 1922, the world had indeed become disenchanted, but it had gained in strangeness, and the world in which Mrs. Dalloway takes place is one that toggles between the rational and the “strange” (a word that appears over 20 times in the text).

Woolf’s search for the strange was part of her larger ambition to find a narrative voice that could “enclose everything, everything.” She felt that she hadn’t quite succeeded in doing this with Jacob’s Room, which her husband Leonard said had “no philosophy of life.” He wasn’t being cruel. What he meant was that the book didn’t look inward; it had none of the interiority for which Woolf would become famous. Nevertheless, Woolf felt the novel had been “a necessary step, for me, in working free.” There is plenty of Woolf’s immaculate imagery, but the novel is a heap of broken pieces, lacking a connective tissue; it misses that elusive thing that would bring Dalloway together and make the whole narrative work in a splendid modus vivendi. That thing, the thing that could “enclose everything” turned out to be the most immediate, and strangest thing of all: consciousness.

With the obvious exception of Faulkner, modernism paid less attention to consciousness than we are inclined to think. For all its innovations, Ulysses was severely lacking in it. Eliot told Woolf as much, saying that the novel failed to give “a new insight into human nature.” Jung agreed, writing that Joyce’s novel “turns neither toward the mind nor toward the world” and that “behind a thousand veils nothing lies hidden.” In Dalloway, everything seems to lie hidden, even in the most banal and quotidian moments of being; it is as if a veil is thrown over everything, and something as simple as sitting on a park bench or watching sunlight pass through perfume bottles is an impossibly peculiar experience, and it is through consciousness that the strangeness of these experiences is recorded. Woolf referred to it as “the slipperiness of the soul”—those fleeting moments of gnosis that pass like so much water through our hands.

It was Woolf’s own precarious psychology, balanced on the threshold of the sound and unsound mind, that gave her a unique vantage point from which consciousness could be unpacked and unraveled. Her upbringing had shown her how the rational mind sees the world—coldly and empirically, as her father had—but her illnesses allowed her to visit the provinces of derangement. When she fell ill after her father’s death in 1904, she reported lying in bed and hearing birds outside her window chirping in Greek (an experience she would save and give to Septimus). Woolf would scoop out equal measures of her own “sane and unsane truth” and assign them to her two protagonists, whose minds at times seem to bleed into one another.

Woolf was so good at this that it is often easy to forget whose point-of-view we are inhabiting. In her notes, she described this as her “tunneling process,” burrowing into her character’s minds and then expanding outward to show their points of connection. This interpenetration of subjectivities reaches its peak in the airplane scene, when the point of view changes four times in the course of two pages, and all the voices seem to be chattering at once, and all seem to be internalized in Septimus’s own chattering brain.

Woolf’s depiction of these inner rhythms would be refined in the novels that followed—To the Lighthouse and The Waves—but Dalloway was the true birth of this form. Jacob’s Room, which fragmented the world but left the mind alone in the same way Ulysses did, failed to capture the full scope of modern experience. “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged” Woolf wrote in “Modern Fiction”—“life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” It is this halo that encloses Mrs. Dalloway, the thing that allows it to turn towards the mind and the world simultaneously and melt the boundaries between them. If it is a spiritual novel, it is in the sense that it diagrams the psyche in a way that is true to its etymology (spirit, soul).

Fiction is an undulating dialectic, moving back-and-forth between conscious and unconscious perception, between the rational and the irrational mind. All novelists have to do this, and the novelists who also write criticism, as Woolf did, must use both. Criticism demands the sobriety of the rational faculties, but fiction engages our irrational impulses. It encourages us to look at sunlight playing in the trees or the warped reflection of a city on a taxicab’s window and see in them some essential mystery—to see that conscious experience is itself profoundly mysterious. In all of Woolf’s novels, but especially in Mrs. Dalloway, modernity doesn’t need God, because the world is enchanted enough already.

Accepting the mystery is critical. “The imagination of the novelist must often fail,” Woolf wrote. This ability to let go, to not want to possess everything, is what Keats called “negative capability,” which is an appreciation of our failing. In that sense, the poetic impulse and the “religious feeling” share the same origins. They are both failures at understanding. But whereas the religious instinct inverts our incredulity by suddenly declaring, “I believe because it is absurd”—in fiction, we can only exclaim, as Clarissa Dalloway does: “How Strange!”

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Jared Marcel Pollen

Jared Marcel Pollen is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness. His work has appeared in LARB, Tablet, Liberties, and 3:AM. His debut novel, Venus&Document, will be published in spring 2022.