Friday, January 13, 2012

Reading Mrs. Dalloway -- A Wandering Commentary

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
You read the first sentence, and you’re in. In the midst of things; in medias res. A classic, and classical, element of literature. Recall The Iliad, which begins so famously in medias res: “Sing, O Muse, the wrath of Achilles.” And you are thrown onto the battlefield, the Greeks and Trojans weary, heartbroken, nearing the fate that will send Odysseus on his arduous journey and Agamemnon home to horror and doom. How different from the opening lines of that other ancient book, “At the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste…” which declares forthrightly that it will start you “here” and take you on a journey to “there.” The origin and the endpoint, causality and teleology are paramount for religion and science; the messiness and unpredictability of daily living, the “middle part” between beginning and end, and what we humans do with it, belong to philosophy and literature. Medieval classical literature’s meta-example of in medias res, the opening lines that will bring us back to modern Mrs. Dalloway, are from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”
Clarissa Dalloway has just begun her fifty-first year of life, although we don’t learn this until some time later in the day, that slow-motion day that begins, for her and for us, with her rapture as she sets forth into the town. Her story has a beginning, at the start of her day, but the first line tells us we are in the middle of something. A decision has been made—to buy the flowers herself—which decision has a precedent—she had previously, perhaps, told someone else to go buy them? And now she has changed her mind. There is a future intimated in that first line as well—why are the flowers being bought? One generally buys flowers for a person or an occasion, certainly in this case for something specific that has required this determining to do it one’s self. Finally, the sentence states, she “says” this—presumably aloud, possibly to someone, there are more people than just Mrs. Dalloway involved—and the matter is settled.
[Excerpt from forthcoming essay/book "Reading Mrs. Dalloway" by Mary F. Burns (c) 2012]