Virginia Woolf and One Woman’s Grief Illuminated

Guest blogger Professor Johanna Van Gendt discovers that Virginia Woolf’s insights about aging and loss clarified what losing her father has been all about. This post reminds all of us how literature can be a source of comfort and self-awareness as we face loss.

“This is no book report. Rather, it is a thank you to Virginia Woolf for sharing her glorious prism of a novel, Mrs. Dalloway, whose scenes, characters and quotes have reverberated throughout my mind and my life since I first read it as a twenty-year-old.

The narrative is bookended by party preparations and a death; the backdrop is both post-war fatigue and the intimate bustle of Clarissa’s city. Each of these magnify not only the preciousness of life, but also of each passing moment. The centerpiece of the novel, for me, is this one insight from Mrs. Dalloway’s former lover, Peter Walsh: “The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” (p. 79) For me, nothing has been clamoring louder ‘to be turned round in the light’ than my father’s life and his recent death.

On one trip to Albany to clean out my father’s house–my childhood home–a neighbor stopped by. She said “your relationship with the deceased continues to grow even after death.” I thought that was an amazing premise. It’s true that as we cleaned, we discovered new things about his life. Commonly, adolescents react in frustration to their parents’ limitations. As an adult, their shortcomings seem not only forgivable, but also completely understandable, as your perspective grows—their intentions can still change, can become better. The leap from how I understood my father as a teenager to an adult, is nothing compared to the leap in understanding him that I made after his death. Attempting to appreciate the entire scope of a parent’s life is a project no less daunting than grief itself. As we sorted through his papers, we found documentation that he sold his wedding rings—our mother predeceased him–to pay for my sister’s law school—really only one example of how solidly he placed his life force behind our happiness and educations.

When I first read this novel as a twenty year old, I knew that it would be one that I returned to over and over again. I was a term abroad student, studying at the University of Sussex, living not too far from Monk’s House–Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s retreat. The house seems like a beautiful manifestation of the inside of the writer’s brain; as brilliant and comforting as the best of her writing. When I saw it as a twenty year old, it appealed to me as the sort of home I’d like to create; vibrant colors everywhere. Over the summer, as I’ve been cleaning out my father’s house and my childhood home—it’s even more obvious to me how home is imbued with self. Every item we donated, saved or threw away was filled with his energy; imprinted with his memories and way of thinking.

Home is self and Virginia Woolf understands this. A party–the opening up of one’s home to others—is an act of love. Clarissa knows although Mr. Dalloway doesn’t understand. Or perhaps a party is an act of ego. For her social status, she would want everyone to know that she is a good hostess—although an insult when coming from Peter Walsh. As for me, I love the anticipatory joy of preparing food for people I love.

Woolf captures feeling through her darting sentence structure. So much joy; and nervousness, too! Conventional sentence structure cannot contain; thoughts slammed against one another; running exuberance slammed against semi-colons; which slow down; but do not contain; unfettered joy. Or is Woolf’s Clarissa caught up in the mania of London’s city streets; whose shops beckon with bounty; or whose apartments are bursting-at-the seams with so many lives, stories, and perspectives that no novel could ever contain them. No party would be spectacular enough to express and share them. All we can do is dash down the street; as we complete the errands; to cultivate and share and experience; the night of a party; with the people we love.”

–Professor Johanna Van Gendt teaches English as a Second Language at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, New Jersey.  This article is a reprint from that school’s  September 2015 Faculty Senate Perennial, a faculty magazine.

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