Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

What critics didn’t say about Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

An homage to Virginia

It seems strange that Ian McEwan’s homage to Virginia Woolf in his new novel, Saturday, has not been more widely commented upon. The distinctive structure of the book, which follows one day in the life of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, is the exact structure of Mrs. Dalloway, which follows a day in the life of a housewife, Clarissa Dalloway.

This satisfying framework allows both the neurosurgeon and the housewife to move through London, performing ordinary tasks that somehow contain all of life. Minor events like a game of squash or a walk in the park occasion sensual epiphanies and nervy reflections: Both characters are high-strung and unnaturally alive to the smallest triggers of memory and perception. For Perowne, shopping for shellfish to make stew for a dinner party that night stirs up primal feelings and deep thoughts—just as shopping for flowers launches Mrs. Dalloway into a dreamy investigation of her past. Both the surgeon and the housewife are conventional types, dimly aware of something lacking in their comfortable lives: a kind of daring.

Public events similarly intrude on the two wartime novels: In Mrs. Dalloway a mysterious motor car bearing either the queen or the prime minister is spotted in the streets, and in Saturday the prime minister is glimpsed on the displayed television sets in a shop; throngs of admirers gather outside of Buckingham Palace in Mrs. Dalloway, and protesters wave placards in Saturday; a plane on fire evokes terrorist fears in Saturday, and a plane advertising toffee breeds fear and confusion in Mrs. Dalloway. The war against Germany hovers anxiously over Mrs. Dalloway, as the war in Iraq hovers over Saturday; in both books one can feel the city’s tension in the traffic.

On the domestic front, both Saturday and Mrs. Dalloway take up the particular blend of love and alienation and awe that parents feel toward their adult children. And in each, art and literature have what might be considered an unrealistic, magical presence: Poetry has an incantatory redemptive power that tames the madman in Saturday, just as lines of Shakespeare focus Clarissa’s mind in Mrs. Dalloway. A homeless woman’s nonsense song in Mrs.Dalloway has the same eternal, soul-lifting force as Perowne’s son’s jazz song in Saturday. (Though, of course, the idea that art can save us was less implausible and startling in 1925 than it is now.)

Though each novel is very much of its era, Saturday and Mrs. Dalloway’s larger preoccupations are virtually the same: namely, the smug self-satisfaction of a certain stratum of educated, well-to-do London society, and the exquisite cracks within that satisfaction. For each, one can imagine book-jacket writers dreaming up the phrase “until a random act of violence reveals the precariousness of their sheltered lives.” The deranged man who shatters the peace of Mrs. Dalloway’s party is a victim of shell shock, whereas the deranged man who threatens the family dinner party in Saturday has a neurological disorder. McEwan may have updated Woolf’s preoccupation with psychology with his own riffs on neurosurgery, but at heart each writer is concerned with the workings and malfunctions of the brain, as well as the sublime and terrifying fragility of our domestic lives.

It is not just political affairs, but physical health that threatens our precious security: Each writer hints at heart problems in his or her main character and foreshadows a possible heart attack that never materializes. (Some critics have argued that Mrs. Dalloway does have a heart attack at the end of the book.)

To say that Saturday is in dialogue with Mrs. Dalloway is not in any way to detract from its achievements. Ian McEwan has a remarkable, distinctive voice—it’s testimony to his power as a writer that he is not eclipsed but energized by his preoccupation with Woolf’s novel, even when there are moments where one feels Woolf’s idiosyncratic intonations. Take the very Woolfian sentence at the end of Saturday: “There’s always this, is one of his remaining thoughts. And then: there’s only this.”

Given the many parallels, one wonders why so few critics have interested themselves in McEwan’s connection to Virginia Woolf. It may be that there is a certain gentle sexism at work: Is it too hard to imagine that a male writer of McEwan’s stature might be channeling Virginia Woolf? Is the leap from a neurosurgeon to a housewife too distant for critics and readers to conceive? Does the separation we still have in our minds between a woman’s novel, which is “domestic,” and a man’s novel, which contains wars and politics, still so pronounced that we can’t clearly see the amazing, sexless feat of weaving the two together? It may be that McEwan has built into the novel his own clever test for his readers on the subject of literature’s transcendent power—do we fail to recognize Mrs. Dalloway in exactly the same way that his well-meaning, educated Henry Perowne fails to recognize Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” when it is recited with such miraculous effect in his living room? It is a tribute to Woolf’s immortal Mrs. Dalloway that it has spawned not just imitators, but truly distinguished works of art, like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and now Saturday. It is as if something in Mrs. Dalloway calls out to be transported to other places and times, to be shared and updated and rethought. With her sensitive, aging hostess, Woolf created not just a character, but an entire form, infinitely flexible, eternally fresh: a new way to look at the real and imagined perils of the world.