When I read in USA Weekend that community college English 101 students had tattooed “Fear no more” on their bodies as a reminder of Virginia Woolf’s Shakespearean quote in Mrs. Dalloway, I decided it was time to reread that classic. Novelist Maureen Howard cites the quote “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline as a symbol of endurance in her foreword of Woolf’s novel; English Professor Katherine Boultry notes her students’ interpretation of the line as encouragement, as they face an unknown future.
Through one day with Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf reveals a lifetime that has a different connection for each reader. Set in London after World War I, the story famously follows one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares to give a party. The cast of supporting characters include her distant but loving husband, Richard; her daughter, Elizabeth; her old beau, Peter Walsh; Septimus, a suicidal soldier returned from the war; Miss Kilman, her daughter’s irritating teacher.
Mrs. Dalloway must be read slowly to catch the familiar notes as Clarissa goes through her day; the simplest distractions – that calm feeling of repetitive motion that comes with sewing – leads to a sharp note commenting on her life:
“…the green dress…someone had trod on the skirt…she would mend it…she would take her silks, her scissors, her – what was it? – her thimble, of course, down into the drawing room, for she must also write, and see that things generally were more or less in order…Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause…and the whole world seemed to be saying ‘that is all’…
Virginia Woolf can be heavy reading, with jolts of realism and introspection, and as I slowly meander through Mrs. Dalloway’s life once again, Woolf’s clear observations of the turmoil that hides under our public faces resonates with me and I understand Maureen Howard’s citation of Samuel Beckett’s line from Happy Days:
“That’s what I find so wonderful, a part remains, of one’s classics, to help one through the day.”
If you are looking for a break from the bestsellers, try a classic – but forego the tattoo.