“People come and go so quickly here!”

The first time I heard of Mrs. Dalloway was in my postcolonial literature class last semester when its title was briefly mentioned during a class discussion regarding modernism. I was immediately intrigued by the concept of the story occurring over a single day, and I quickly added it to my lengthy list of “Things I Would Eventually Like To Read”. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it on our reading list for English 340, and I am happy to say that it far exceeded my expectations. Oddly enough, I was most surprised by the amount of detail throughout the novel, as I originally assumed that the plot would revolve around simple observations. However, I enjoyed being guided through the story as it maintained a balance between simplistic events and characters that were both minor and complex.

The particular section that I found most interesting was between pages 2166 and 2171, because of the quick and brief introductions of many different characters in such a short time.

In a single paragraph, the second paragraph on page 2166, we are introduced to three characters: Sarah Bletchley, the mother whose voice resembles that of a “sleepwalker” (2166), Emily Coates, who seems to completely forget about her child who is “lying stiff and white in her arms” (2166) while she watches the plane soar across the sky, and “little Mr. Bowley” (2166), who is equally as engaged with the flying object.

Continuing onwards to page 2169, I was surprised to find even more characters being introduced so quickly: Maisie Johnson, the young girl “visiting London for the first time” (2169), Mrs. Dempster, the older women observing and wishing she could “whisper a word to Maisie Johnson” (2170), and Mr. Bentley, an inquisitve man focused on the aeroplane as “a symbol…of man’s soul” (2171).

I found myself having to read this section over and over until I could figure out exactly what Woolf’s intentions were when including these minor characters in such close proximity, and although I am not sure of the exact reason, I will explain the significance it had for my reading experience.

Recently, I have been thinking about interactions with people and the shared experiences we all have, maybe without ever realizing it. I have been considering how everyone who is at the same place at the same time has the potential to have similar experiences, even though we all take something different away from that particular place and time. It is odd that this book has come to me at this time, and I see it as a sort of fate because of its similarities to my life right now.

Virginia Woolf including these minor details is a characteristic that is simply reflective of real life and its complexities; specific details being designated to such minor characters is representative of our everyday lives. We share experiences with people, much like the characters in this section (all observing the plane and each other), but will we ever see these people again? This is something I constantly think about, and I think it is the point Woolf is trying to make: when we are reading the novel, will we remember these characters later on? As English majors, I think we tend to try to remember characters and all of their attributes because we believe that they may become important later in the story. However, life is not always like that; people often come into our lives and leave just as quickly as they came, our interactions soon forgotten.

Much like this novel, our lives are filled with small details that may or may not be significant later on. Although I will most likely not remember these six characters in the future, nor the name of the friendly women with whom I had a conversation with on the train the other day, all were significant at their respective moments in time, and that is what makes our lives, and literature, meaningful and significant.


Work Cited

Woolf, Virginia. “Mrs. Dalloway”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2012. 2155-2264. Print.

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8 Responses to “People come and go so quickly here!”

  1. Athena G. Csuti says:

    Good post, I definitely agree. It seems like it was important to Woolf to show the small connections people have even if they do not understand or appreciate them. I’d also like to add that I think Woolf wanted to show the importance of each individual life. Give everyone an identity and show that they have their own story, even if not a major part of this one. Woolf growing up in England at the end of the 1800s most likely would have been highly aware of the class struggles experienced in England during that century (with the Industrial Revolution affecting politics, the social atmosphere, and consequently the way people viewed one another). Like Wordsworth at the beginning of the 19th century, who tried to write in plain language and show the beauty of the ordinary and the natural, perhaps Woolf is trying to show that people other than just the star of the novel (or wealthy, upper class people worthy of note) have identities and therefore matter too. Perhaps some of Woolf’s motivation was political and social. The 19th century brought more awareness than ever about the individual life and its value (even those of lower classes), and having an intellectual background I am sure Woolf was aware of that. By showing both the individual lives and their unknowing connections she creates a whole picture of the importance of people an their daily lives.

    • stephaniestahl says:

      I definitely agree with that! It’s really great that she emphasizes all of the different people and their personal lives. They are so diverse, and it’s a positive experience for the readers to be consciously presented with different people.

    • Murtaza says:

      It was very interesting reading your reply because I was thinking of the overall insignificance rather than the importance of these ‘smaller’ characters in a broader sense. At the moment of reading, we train ourselves to be hypersensitive to details and particularly repetition as mentioned in the original post, but what made this so unique was the fact that sometimes what may be appear important in one instance is really not in a broader scheme. I didn’t look at it from your perspective Athena until you mentioned it.
      Looking back, I definitely see this as avoidance of the ‘static’ character form in fictional writing, and it exemplifies how much more complicated a simple scenario becomes. By adding depth to every character, I felt more inclined to keep track of everyone more closely. However, in a more plot-rich novel it can become cumbersome to approach each character with so much detail. In this way, I felt that the two styles have equal give and take: on one hand, there is Woolf’s style, which is extremely real to life even to the extent of harnessing our focus where it is not needed. On the other hand, the common static character seems very flat, but does not distract from the main characters.
      In this case the plot was not what many would consider substantial, so Woolf’s style was a refreshing take. However, I found myself a bit let down when I was expecting more from a character.

  2. npelletier says:

    What a beautiful post. I completely agree that everyone comes into our lives for various reasons, whether or not they are significant in the future does not really matter. However the relevance that they hold in that one moment of interaction can be very important. I also believe that Woolf decided to include so many minor details like characters and street names that are only named once or twice is her way of trying to explore the significance of everyday human interactions and the significance they make in the lives they touch. I also believe she is looking at the way different people look at and take away from one common event, as you mentioned. Once again, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts because this post was more personal so it was very easy to establish a connection to what you were saying.

  3. hayleydunmire says:

    You did a wonderful job with this post!

    When Professor Ullyot introduced the book to us in class I was excited to read it, it sounded so interesting and I couldn’t wait to jump in it. Once I started reading the book I felt so bombarded and overwhelmed by all the characters and their thoughts that I was constantly getting into. It was confusing and I spent a lot of time re-reading to try and understand. I also started looking at people and wondered about their stories and lives that were secretly hidden away in their heads or how any small change could impact their future.

    Today I finished the book on the train and afterwards I felt a sense of incompleteness and absence. I was so used to getting into the minds of all the characters I felt cheated by the way it ended. I felt the book was building itself up to this moment and time where we see Peter and Clarissa together alone and we don’t know anything. It came at a bit of a shock to be able to get inside these characters heads for the book and the moment that I really wanted to get in their heads and see what was going to happen was ripped away. It felt very unfair and incomplete and I can’t help but wonder why Virginia Woolf did that. Why did she let us into the heads of these characters to understand and see all their perspectives and insight to take it away at that specific moment?

    The more I think about this the more I connect it to the novel “What We All Long For”. The first time I read it I was so mad at the ending because there wasn’t any closure, the book built itself up to this moment only to take it away from me. However, I realize that the book has to end but it isn’t the end of the characters story. By taking away this critical moment for the reader it makes the characters live on past the last words of the text. In a sense ripping this moment away from the reader gives life into the characters where they are able to go on. It makes them more real and powerful even to the minor characters where we see a small snippet of their lives. By giving the reader an insight to everything around us it opens ourselves up to what is out there and by taking it away from us at a critical moment I think it prevents the act of closure. It lets the characters live on long after the words in the text are gone. This then reminded me of a quote from somewhere that stated something like “a happy life is made up of many small happy moments strung together and the big important stuff is forgotten”. I think this quote relates to your post in the simplicity of the small and obscure that nobody really notices but makes a difference. Your post connects to the simplicity of individuals as well as their story and lives that they live. I think you did a wonderful job stating what Woolf wanted us to see in this novel, which is the small and obscure are just as important as the big things in life.

    • stephaniestahl says:

      Thank you so much! And I agree with disappointing endings and how frustrating they are. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but it is so interesting to think that the characters just live on and continue their lives, as if they aren’t fictional. And not only in novels, but in some movies as well. It’s that empty feeling you get when things are left “unfinished”, but next time that happens I will be sure to think about how their stories are still going on, much like everyone around us! 🙂

  4. daynaaasen7 says:

    Hi Stephanie!

    After writing my Research Paper on Mrs. Dalloway, I found myself going back to everyone’s DQ responses to the story. Something about your post that really just jumped out at me was “We share experiences with people, much like the characters in this section (all observing the plane and each other), but will we ever see these people again? This is something I constantly think about, and I think it is the point Woolf is trying to make: when we are reading the novel, will we remember these characters later on?”. I think your comparison of remembering Woolf’s minor characters to remembering people in our own lives is brilliant! Fictional writing is often unrealistic for the sake of a plotline and entertainment value, but Woolf really brings something real through her “stream of consciousness” style of writing. Treating her characters like people we see every day in our own lives actually makes so much sense, and it’s true. I think of how many people I pass by every day and have no idea what their life story is or why they’ve just crossed paths with me at this very moment, and if they remember ever seeing me. People come and go like grains of sand on a beach being washed away and replaced by new ones. A line that stuck out to me from the novel was when Clarissa thinks about how she is a “part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best”. We leave the faintest traces of our presence in other peoples lives, whether it be in the background of a family photograph or waiting in line beside each other at the grocery store. When Clarissa was at the flower shop, she had a thought that “every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds”. That line brought me back to “being laid out like a mist”. We have a choice whether or not we want to “burn” brightly like the flowers, or if we want to remain a ghostly mist in the lives we directly or indirectly touch. I guess it is up to us whether we want to be remembered amongst the mist!

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