Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is “I Wanna Get Married,” written by Nellie McKay and included on her 2004 album Get Away From Me. If you like what you hear, you might also want to listen to McKay’s Tiny Desk Concert for National Public Radio.
What would Clarissa Dalloway look like if transported to the world of Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, and Danielle Steele? Would we find her expressing — if not out loud, at least inwardly — the longing for domestic certainty in a heterosexual marriage to which McKay, in her song, ironically gives voice? Is this how Clarrisa feels about her marriage to Richard Dalloway? Is the party that she gives in Woolf’s novel her version of baking a sugar cake?
Partly because Woolf gives us access to Clarissa’s consciousness, we can easily see that she’s much more complicated than such a comparison would suggest. She has doubts about her decision to marry Richard and memories of another kind of longing in her friendship with Sally Seton. And although others seem to think that there is something superficial about her parties, she herself has a view of them that is deeply connected to the novel’s serious exploration of loneliness and isolation as themes.
Still, perhaps McKay’s song points to something about Clarissa’s view of the world that chimes with our sense of why people comply with social norms that constrain and imprison them. They do so because they internalize these norms, experiencing externally imposed expectations and regulations as their own internal, self-generated desires. Of course, other, contrary desires that won’t be silenced — desires that violate the norms one has internalized — can produce painful and even disabling inner conflicts, with potentially disastrous results.
So it would be an interesting thought experiment to transport Clarissa to, say, mid-twentieth or late-twentieth or early twenty-first century England or America. Doing so might also feel consistent with the way Woolf treats time in Mrs. Dalloway — as a relentless stream of events carrying us forward, as a fluid medium in which consciousness can move in all directions at will, and also as a static order that we can stand outside, viewing all events in their simultaneous existence.
The writer Michael Cunningham actually performed this experiment in his novel The Hours (1998), a multi-layered narrative in which two of the principal characters are later reincarnations of Clarissa Dalloway and one is Virginia Woolf herself. The novel was later turned into a film (2002) directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. As instances of follow-on creativity that produce something new and original by re-mixing earlier imaginative work, both are very much worth your time.