On Sunday, literary types the world over donned blazers, sported colored glasses, and drank pints of Guinness for Bloomsday, a celebration of James Joyce’s allusion-laden epic Ulysses. At once utterly canonical and a sort of cult classic, Ulysses—despite its missing punctuation, combined words, formal shifts, and other seeming difficulties—is read aloud at independent bookstores, in velvet-seated theatres, and on the streets of Dublin each and every June 16.
This year, a handful of literary folk in London celebrated another modernist masterpiece, Virginia Woolf’s slender Mrs. Dalloway—which also takes place on a single day in June—by taking a walk around London. They walked “in the spirit of Bloomsday,” and it is cheering to see Woolf’s novel celebrated in this way. But it seems unlikely to catch on.
Why is that, exactly? Such efforts are hamstrung in part quite reasonably by the fact that Woolf never specified the date on which Mrs. Dalloway gets the flowers herself, holds a party at her home, and so on. (The plot is not flagrantly dramatic—but neither is the plot of Ulysses, for that matter.) If only Woolf had marked our calendars with a date that Mrs. Dalloway fans could fetishize, perhaps we’d be reading it aloud in tea rooms and at libraries (if not at Irish pubs).
But I doubt it. The difference between the reputations of these two books—both brilliant, both widely, if unequally, celebrated—is much larger than that. And the disparity in the ways they’re celebrated highlights how a fairly narrow notion of “ambition” colors our responses to great books.
Woolf claimed to hate Ulysses in her private diaries, but she attended carefully to the book and emulated it in Mrs. Dalloway. So why didn’t she write Mrs. Dalloway as an epic that could earn a day of its own? Ultimately, she had different ideas about what made a work of literature great. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote, “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in the drawing room.” She insisted on defying such prejudices by writing books that were slender, intimate, and largely about women.
Joyce himself wrote Ulysses to complicate old ideas about “epic” books: His hero, Leopold Bloom is a simple man who has a largely ordinary day. On June 16, 1904, he goes for a walk through Dublin; at home, his wife Molly awaits her lover. (Joyce chose to set the book on June 16 as a tribute to the date of his first outing with the woman who became his wife.) But he held fast, with Ulysses, to the idea that size and world-historical scope helped determine what was an “important book,” in a way that Woolf did not.
Mrs. Dalloway is more gently set in “the middle of June.” Like Ulysses, it has dueling story structures, several main players, and a narrative that winds through time and character. But its tone is quieter, less brash. Joyce’s language is better suited to being barked out in a room full of people. “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea,” someone on a Bloomsday stage bellows. “To love makes one solitary,” Woolf writes—a line not exactly made for a roaring public reading.
In keeping with that comparative gentleness, Mrs. Dalloway is far less racy than Ulysses, which faced obscenity charges before it was published. Mrs. Dalloway handles sex and sexuality in a manner appropriate to its well-to-do social setting. Sex scenes are alluded to—Clarissa even has sexual feelings for another woman, her best friend—but the scandal is contained. One of the draws of Bloomsday is hearing aloud Bloom’s vision of “his pale body reclined at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap softly laved.” To hear what Woolf has to say about sex, you have to look a bit below the surface.
Joyce’s work requires fortitude and time to navigate, and Bloomsday is, I’m convinced, partly a celebration of survived suffering. Mrs. Dalloway may project its own air of exclusivity, but the book can be read in a leisurely afternoon without much difficulty. The suffering arrives later—when in a state of depression or hardship, you realize that Mrs. Dalloway is not a book you ever finish feeling. It is a book that reminds us that desperation and death are always with us, and it lingers long after the last page is turned.