By John Allen
I haven't researched exactly how many works of literature focus on one day in their protagonist's life, but two novels immediately come to mind as standouts: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Saturday by Ian McEwan. (I think the latter owes a lot to the former as a pretext and model).
What I enjoy about both novels is how beautifully each writer renders a person's conscious experience. Woolf's novel explores early 20th century existentialism with hints of Freud; McEwan's novel, also existential, dramatizes recent advances in neuroscience and cognition.
While some readers may find this kind of attention to consciousness tedious, I marvel at how Woolf and McEwan brilliantly use language to reflect the rhythm and feel of each of their character's minds.
Clarissa Dalloway's day consists of preparing for a party that she's hosting that evening. In this remarkable passage, she's sitting on her sofa, mending her dress.
Notice how the rhythmic phrasing of each sentence and the use of repetition and variation give us—much like music— the feel of her thoughts and emotions:
In Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne starts his day standing at his bedroom window witnessing a plane whose wing is on fire as it approaches Heathrow airport. Later that morning, he's involved in a car crash that causes his life to unravel.
Like Woolf, McEwan structures language to reflect the feel of his character's thoughts, but notice how he leverages new advances in neurobiology unavailable to Woolf:
An habitual observer of his own moods, he wonders about this sustained, distorting euphoria. Perhaps down at the molecular level there’s been a chemical accident while he slept— something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting dopamine-like receptors to initiate a kindly cascade of intracellular events; or it’s the prospect of a Saturday, or the paradoxical consequence of extreme tiredness. It’s true, he finished the week in a state of unusual depletion. He came home to an empty house, and lay in the bath with a book, content to be talking to no one. It was his literate, too literate daughter, Daisy, who sent the biography of Darwin which in turn has something to do with a Conrad novel she wants him to read and which he has yet to start— seafaring, however morally fraught, doesn’t much interest him. For some years now she’s been addressing what she believes is his astounding ignorance, guiding his literary education, scolding him for poor taste and insensitivity. She has a point— straight from school to medical school to the slavish hours of a junior doctor, then the total absorption of neurosurgery training spliced with committed fatherhood— for fifteen years he barely touched a non-medical book at all. On the other hand, he thinks he’s seen enough death, fear, courage and suffering to supply half a dozen literatures. Still, he submits to her reading lists— they’re his means of remaining in touch as she grows away from her family into unknowable womanhood in a suburb of Paris; tonight she’ll be home for the first time in six months— another cause for euphoria (Kindle Locations 62-73).