They say you stumble upon inspiration exactly when you’re not looking for it, and how right they are. Life has not been the same ever since my unexpected encounter of two hundred pages of absolute brilliance with Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh and of course, the essential Richard Dalloway.
Until I read Mrs. Dalloway, I was capable of imparting only a very practical and literary opinion on most books. Books were either trash or not trash. They could either interest you in their well worded pages, or distress you with their poorly framed sentences. But a walk across London in the shoes of, and with Clarissa Dalloway completely blew me away. Sometimes you connect with a book to unimaginable extents. You are able to invest yourself in it, emotionally and mentally. You see yourself in its splendidly crafted characters, and not superficially, but intrinsically. The resemblance is so uncanny that you sometimes think you’ve changed, after having read the book, to fit into the identity of Clarissa Dalloway. That’s the kind of book that you call powerful and overwhelming. You cannot simply gather every strand of emotion it has managed to bring to the surface, and collectively stuff it inside the label of ‘not trash’. This book is not merely the complement of trash. It is a separate space altogether. This book defines you, or maybe, you have finally allowed a book to define you.
Virginia Woolf starts with a sentence so simple and unassuming that you will make nothing of it the first, or even the second time you read it. But when you have obsessively pored over her sentences a number of times, you will see them in a new light. Perhaps in the light she wanted you to see them, perhaps not. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Yes, she did, because this is exactly what Mrs. Dalloway would say. This is not Clarissa. Mrs. Dalloway is the person you are afraid you will become one day. You like her, because you can telepathically identify with her – you empathize with her reason and unreason. You can magically understand the significance of introducing Peter Walsh in the second paragraph of the book. You would have done the same, had you possessed the genius of Virginia Woolf. You smile with wisdom at the sheer beauty of the lines, ‘…and he could be intolerable; he could be impossible; but adorable to walk with on a morning like this.’ Because you know someone exactly like Peter Walsh; you know what it feels like to walk alongside someone like him, someone whose presence is comforting and suffocating, all at the same time. You know why Clarissa had to let go of Peter, ‘…she had to break with him, or they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced.’ You also know how she couldn’t, even after all these years.
Clarissa represents a side of you that has been overshadowed or maybe even forgotten. She lacks the consistency you do, and she has made the compromise she tries to justify every waking minute of the day, the compromise you sometimes fear you will settle for someday. In a class that had literarily examined Mrs. Dalloway, of which you were a part, everyone had come to the conclusion that Clarissa possessed a fear of intimacy. But not all of them knew why, which you did. Perhaps you have to meet a Peter Walsh, to understand why. You can almost cringe as much as she did at the word ‘hostess’, because although you don’t throw lavish parties yourself, you understand her need to, most perfectly. So when Woolf writes, ‘Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with someone, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred’, you get the spooky idea that she is writing about you. Haven’t you filled pages and pages about people? Don’t you indulge yourself in them? As a matter of fact, you do. It follows logically then that this book is about you. So much so that you can even understand the unavoidable need for Richard Dalloway.
Clarissa is not easy to understand, but her actions and reactions have some strange kind of natural appeal to you. You identify with her insecurities. You can feel her hatred for Mrs. Kilman in your own veins, because you know it stems out of her sense of ownership, a sentiment you recognize so well. Her idea of happiness perfectly resonates with your own, for you know that yours was contained in its one, isolated, defining moment, too. ‘And she felt she had been given a present, wrapped up and told just to keep it, not to look at it – a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!’ You too have worshipped that matchless, precious moment repeatedly, and it has come to give you the kind of hope only love, for lack of a better word, can impart. Then of course, you smile wryly at the lines, ‘Had not that, after all, been love?’
You cannot ignore the understated, yet powerful character of Richard Dalloway. Because you know him too, or maybe you know him like Clarissa does. You need him like Clarissa does. For in some twisted moral framework, Richard Dalloway happens to validate the existence of Peter Walsh in Clarissa’s routine of twenty four hours. All of her life shall fall apart, without Richard. He needs to exist in her vicinity, simply to prove his presence; enough to justify why not marrying Peter Walsh was the right decision. Richard signifies a relationship she can fathom and live with, a relationship you can live with.
If Septimus Smith has not received a mention until now, it is because he is far removed from where Clarissa is, and yet exactly who Clarissa is. Just like you relate to Clarissa, you know Septimus. You can’t imagine his insanity, but everything else you can. You know why he writes those little notes, and why he burns them away before he jumps off the window. You can understand his sense of privacy, just like Clarissa can. You know why he jumped, and like Clarissa, you too hope he ‘plunged holding his treasure.’ By knowing Septimus, you have further blurred the line between sanity and insanity, which brings us to the eternal question of whether there is a line at all. Of course there is, you would say. But have you not repeatedly crossed the line? Have you not felt like an emotional wreck every now and then? Have you not felt incapable of feeling, at some point? Where then, is the line? Virginia Woolf has not raised these questions for nothing. You know she has written with a mind that can see the blur, the smudgy edges; a mind that can easily see the grey areas. And isn’t all of life about struggling to find yourself in the midst of innumerable grey areas?
Every time I pick up the book, which acts as comfort food for my soul, I unravel another layer, decode another level. Maybe we find meaning when and where we want to. A book makes a lasting impact only when you can find yourself inside its pages. There are many ways of reading this book, and you shall find your very own. Maybe you won’t like it as much as I did. This speaks nothing of you or the book. You both just don’t intersect. I, on the other hand, am contained in the space of Mrs. Dalloway. If you happen to get through all of its pages, and read the last line, you shall know what I mean.