|Virginia Woolf: Modernist icon|
Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
by Virigina Woolf
Fair to observe that the whole "1001 Books project" has been leading up to the great Modernist explosion of the 1920s. To be sure, James Joyce was first out of the gate with Ulysses- fully published in 1922, but Woolf had actual hits. She had a publishing imprint- one that published Joyce. She had a literary circle in Bloomsbury inside London. She killed herself in 1941.
Woolf wasn't just a writer, she was an economic actor, a market maker, and a "rock star" in terms of the development of her public image. All that said, I see Mrs. Dalloway as a triumph of narrative technique. Mrs. Dalloway combines a fully developed stream of consciousness- for multiple characters- with seamless transitions to a more traditional third-person narration. She also moves backwards and forwards in time. The central events all take place during a single day, where Mrs. Dalloway is having a party and getting ready to have a party- buying flowers. An old boyfriend of hers, freshly back from fucking up in India, is back in town.
Other characters include a shell-shocked World War I soldier, Septimus Smith, married to an unhappy Italian woman, Mrs. Dalloway's younger sister and her husband. It's hard not to compare Mrs. Dalloway to Ulysses- and I haven't even READ Ulysses. The full development of stream-of-consciousness narration was such a seminal event in 20th century art history that it took several authors the course of decades to really understand the power and limits of this novel narrative technique.
This is also the exact point where "high art" begins to distinguish itself from popular art by creating art with a limited or even no audience. The successful trailblazers created works that are read today, but for contemporary readers the experimental techniques of the early modernists relegate them to the margins of public consciousness.
It's possible that the high point for Mrs. Dalloway in terms of an Audience came only after The Hours film- based on Mrs. Dalloway, was released in 2002 and grossed more than 100 million world wide. It seems to me that no casual reader would get much out of the Mrs. Dalloway experience, whereas it essentially required reading for an undergraduate majoring in literature and maybe any undergraduate taking a survey course in 20th century literature. After all, unlike Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway is only 200 pages long. You know which title is going to get read as an example of narrative technique development in the 1920s.