On the Potential of Limitations

Whether an author structures his or her work in a traditional manner or diverts from an established format to experiment with its boundaries, a novel must begin in some way. Seeing as I can't even decide how to begin a post, I imagine that deciding on an opening sentence must be one of the most difficult, and intimidating, parts of writing a novel.

Woolf begins Mrs. Dalloway in a striking way: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." This opening sentence is short, crisp and assertive; there is an action and a specification that "the" flowers will be bought. It's also a very powerful way of introducing the actual body of a novel entitled Mrs. Dalloway and its title character. However, the magnitude of the declaration seems to shrink when the reader realizes that Mrs. Dalloway just declared that she would buy flowers, which seem rather trivial and easy to acquire. There is a discourse in the opening sentence that makes the reader linger; the content of the opening doesn't reflect the potential for achievement that is portrayed through the assertive tone of the declaration.

This opening immediately reminded me of the first sentence of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which begins with the assertion, "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." Perhaps this is a strange parallel since it's negative, but, seeing that Woolf was heavily influenced by the female writers of Victorian Literature, a sense of similarity exists. The opening of Jane Eyre seems to allude to the weather, but, upon closer examination of Jane's situation, the short sentence becomes remarkably dense; rather than simply not going for a walk that day, Eyre doesn't even have the possibility of going outside. This limitation upon possibility reflects Jane's lack of mobility in Victorian England due to her low position in the social hierarchy as an orphan and a woman. Bronte's choice of opening her feminist novel is effective because the extent of Jane Eyre's immobility is introduced in the initial sentence as a theme that will challenge Jane Eyre throughout the novel.

Mrs. Dalloway seems indebted to the Victorian tradition of female authors, such as Bronte and Austen, who have their heroines assert themselves within the social limitations of their society. However, Woolf seems to challenge her title character further than Bronte since the novel is entitled with the social salutation for Clarissa as a married woman. Her limitations seem to exist in relation to the bounds of marriage and the act of losing one's maiden identity when a woman accepts her husband's social label.

However, something is achieved through Mrs. Dalloway's declaration that she will buy THE flowers HERSELF. This initial line declares a goal that the character will attempt to carry out throughout the novel. While Mrs. Dalloway completes her task of buying flowers well before noon, the larger task at hand, or her party, seems to be the goal symbolized by the flowers. Perhaps throwing a party is rather trivial, but its an action that Mrs. Dalloway carries through. Clarissa Dalloway seems strong because she acknowledges the limitations that British society places upon women, takes what she can, and becomes dedicated to stretching the potential of these limitations. The opening line emphasizes the active element of Mrs. Dalloway; while the other major characters of the novel are haunted by their past, Mrs. Dalloway actively prepares for her party.

Philosopher Robert Audi, who developed the Theory of Action, proposes that people actually utilize their choices more when they have fewer options to choose from. Perhaps this concept can be applied to a reading of Mrs. Dalloway, who, limited by her role in society, regards throwing a party as a way to assert herself within her time. While today's social mindset is that subdued women in past patriarchal societies should be pitied because of their lack of possibilities, perhaps Mrs. Dalloway encourages one to celebrate those women who took their limitations and found new potential within the boundaries.