Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was written in 1925. This is an unconventional book that is filled with nuanced character depictions as well as all sorts of observations about life. The prose is presented in stream of consciousness style. The narrative shifts between the thoughts of many characters. Clarissa Dalloway is the main character, and most of the book is focused upon her. The novel takes place during one day of her life, though much of the story involves flashbacks and reminiscences.
Though written in stream of consciousness style, the sentence structure of this book tends to be conventional. I have read a little commentary on the Internet, and I have found that this book is lauded for its innovative style. Woolf’s mix of the conventional and the unconventional does seem unique. Because of the conventional prose and the absence of a chaotic narrative, I found this novel to be the most understandable and accessible stream of conscious narrative that I have ever read.
Not all that much goes on in this story. Much of the book takes place in the characters’ minds. Thus, this novel is, above all else, a character study.
Clarissa’s mind and past are explored in great detail. This is also true of other characters. Richard Dalloway is Clarissa’s husband. Peter Walsh is an old romantic interest of Clarissa who has just returned from India. Septimus Warren Smith is a World War I veteran suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. We also meet other interesting characters. The peek into the minds of these people is moving and often sublime.
There are certain themes that recur over the course of the book. Aside from that of PTSD, the role of women is explored. This book is often called a feminist novel. Gender is examined in all sorts of ways in this book. These explorations are complex and nuanced and are in no way simplistic. To do them justice would take a separate blog post. The themes of communication, isolation and time are also presented. I could also devote separate blog entries to each of these subjects. Throughout the story, these various issues are bouncing around in all of the characters’ heads.
In addition to the above, many of the characters ponder death and aging, as well as meaning-of-life issues. I want to write a few words about the work’s meditations on what seems to be life’s futility in the face of inevitable death. As multiple characters in this narrative are in their early fifties, they are aware that they are not yet old, but that death is not as far as it once was.
Clarissa is very thoughtful and complex. She contemplates the meaning of life in the context of death at several points in the narrative. Here, Woolf’s writing, characterization and philosophizing are very strong,
“what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense: and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know. All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!— that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all”
There is a lot going on in the above quotation. Clarissa is wondering about the purpose of life. She finds fulfillment in bringing people together through the numerous parties that she throws. Clarissa’s need to bring people together may be a defense against mortality. Finding and creating meaningfulness in life like this reminds me of the themes that existentialist writers, like Albert Camus, explored later in the twentieth century.
I think that it is also significant that Clarissa highlights her own shortcomings. Perhaps that is indicative of a self-esteem issue. Finally, she realizes that it will all end in death and no one will remember the joy and the meaning that she has found. This is typical of a fatalism in the above that pervades the entire book. Unlike more hopeful stories, none of the characters experience epiphanies where they come to terms with mortality or accept death. Instead, the realization that life will eventually come to an end, wiping out much of what there is to life, hangs over the entire work.
I think that the above look into Clarissa’s thoughts encapsulates a certain grand level of thinking that ordinary folks often engage in. I find that Woolf captures this kind of thinking both realistically and in a very aesthetically pleasing way.
I also think that it is striking how much character development, as well as insight into life, is packed into only a couple of sentences. Much of the book is like this.
This is a curious work. It is in many ways a brilliant book. It is a stream of consciousness narrative that is more accessible than most. It is a fascinating and unique character study. It is not for everyone, as it is mostly a look into characters minds and an exploration of various themes. This book is so packed with ideas. For those interested in innovative literary styles or who like to explore what makes people tick, this book is filled with fascinating things to explore.
You picked one of my very favorite passages, and analyzed it so beautifully. This is the first Virginia Woolf that "clicked" for me; I did find it more accessible than To the Lighthouse, for example, which still baffles me.
I also was amazed at how much Woolf was able to pack into her words. It's a short book in terms of page length, but so dense it took me days to read.
Interesting. I know Woolf is seen as a Modernist author because of her writing style and it's good to know that it's so accessible. I have one of her's coming up in my next 10 batch - 20th Century Classics. I should be starting them early next year.
i've read a fair amount of VW's work but, abashedly, not this one... i've tried a couple of times but it just didn't go... but i think you really hit the nail on the head with this review: she was an innovator and extraordinarily perceptive into how people work.. so i must give another effort... tx for the kick in the derrier, Brian...
Very good review and critique! MD is one of my all time favorite novels. I’m not keen on others by VW, but I often return to this one. If I were to recommend ten books for a desert island survival kit, MD would be one of them.
P.s. the ten book list? Curious?
Hi Lory - This is the first Woolfe book that I have read. I can see why you were impressed by it.
There is indeed a lot going on this relatively short book.
Hi Cyberkitten - I am looking forward to reading what you think of Woolf. This is her only book that I have read. Some of her other works look like they are very different.
Hi Muddpuddle - I actually found this book a little tough going at fist. It took a while for my interest to be sparked. Once it did I found the characters and the philosophical parts fascinating.
Hi R.T. - I have not read anything else by Woolf. Her other books do look to be different. I am indeed curious about your dessert island books. I plan to post my own favorite book lists soon.
I enjoyed reading your review. I have never read Woolf; I'm not sure I will but I do find your thoughts on this book extremely interesting.
I wonder what happened in Woolf's life to form her thinking. I have a biography of her and it may be the first biography I read of an author before reading any of her works.
I read this many years ago, in college. I have an old copy of the book at home, in a bookcase. (I like the cover you posted here, which is different than mine.) It's a classic novel by Virginia Woolf. It's also a character study, as you say. Excellent post! You touched on the important themes in this work.
I love this book and will continue to reread it every so often. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend Michael Cunningham's The Hours as well. Merry Christmas to you and your family, Brian!
Thanks Suko. I tend to look for my favorite cover when posting a on a book.
Thanks Sharon - I find it interesting to know about an author's life and to try to understand how it influenced their ideas. With that, I am always torn as to whether to terad biographies of writers as there is so little time to read actual works. I also know very little about Woolf's life.
I read this one years ago and I really enjoyed it. I found it beautifully written. Like you mention, it's a wonderful character study. I need to read more Virginia Woolf, I have To the Lighthouse on my shelves.
Happy Holidays Brian!
Thanks for the book recommendation JoAnn. I have not read the Hours nor have I seen the film. I Googled it and it looks very good.
Merry Christmas to you and your family!
Hi Naida - "Beautifully written" is a good way to describe this book. This is the only Woof that I have read, I also need to read more.
Happy Holidays to you and your family!
Hi Brian, You analyze this major classic so well. I read a review some time back on Amazon that said about Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse that you can't rush through it. Its a book to be read slowly and give it your entire focus, no TV set on in the background My guess the same holds true for Mrs. Dalloway.
Hi Kathy - This book does require more focus then average. With that I found it to be less challenging then other stream of consciousness books that I have read.
Brian, here is a link to my new blog and the first posting. VW didn’t make my list for 2018, but there are plenty of other challenges.
I invite you and your many visitors to stop by the new site.
Thanks for the link R.T. I will be visiting.
I haven’t attempted any stream of consciousness type books - Mind you, I don’t think I can actually define what that term means! Just wanted to wish you and your family a very Happy Christmas & may 2018 be filled with good things for you all. I’m in envy of your NY weather - we’re sweltering over here although Christmas Day is forecasted to be quite a bit cooler.
Hi Carol. It is 39 degrees Fahrenheit here on Long Island.
This would be a good stream of concessness book to start with.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family!
I read this one long ago and remember it being like you said. It is a bit of a curious book and fatalistic as you say. I have not tried her other works, have you? I like the feminist aspects of her life & the bit that it is represented in this novel. It's not an easy read but one that's contemplative.
Hi Susan - The book definitely portrayed women in an illuminating and feminist way. I have not read other Woolf books but I want to now.
Hi Brian, thank you for this post. I stayed away from Woolf all this while because I was honestly intimidated. I wasn't quite sure if I could follow the stream of consciousness kind of writing. Now that you say that this is her accessible work, then maybe I should throw caution to the wind and try reading this one. Thank you for the encouragement, Brian.
Hi Deepika -.I have read a few stream of consciousness books and I think that this is the one that I would recommend as a first attempt.,
Great analysis. I'd like to read this (the only one of her novels that I've read so far is To the Lighthouse).
"Instead, the realization that life will eventually come to an end, wiping out much of what there is to life, hangs over the entire work."
The struggle with this - what it all means, what we're living for - is so central to life. People come to terms with this in different ways.
Thanks Hila. I have only read this work from Woolf. I want to read To The Lighthouse. That is really a profound quote.
This is such an interesting review to me. I know very little about Virginia Woolf, having only read one title back in college, To the Lighthouse.
But this really intrigues me, so thanks for that!
Thanks Laurie - I also knew little about Wool before reading this. I must give To The Lighthouse a try.
This is an author I have thought about picking up over and over but never know where to start. Not sure but I am intrigued by your commentary Brian, would you recommend starting with this or a different one? xxx
P.s Merry Christmas lovely
A belated Merry Christmas Lainy.
This is the only Woolf book that I have read. Some say this is her best and it is not too long so it may not be a bad place to start.
virginia woolf is my very favorite writer!
I absolutely LOvED her lighthouse and particularly the main character .
this book seems to reveal my current state of mind though i have ACCEPTED the death .
i will definitely read it and read it often as it sounds worth it ,thank you Brain for another outstanding review!
wishing you Merry christmas and happy new year my friend ,may you see many more with your precious family!
GREAT review as usual, Brian!!
I have recently purchased four Woolf books. I found them all on eBay. Three of them were being sold together, and they are the annotated paperback editions published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. They were listed as being in "Good" condition, but, when I got them, they looked practically brand new!! SOOOO happy about that!! The total price for these books was $9.95 plus $4.00 S/H. The three books are: "The Waves", "To The Lighthouse", and "Orlando". The fourth book, which I bought separately, is "A Room of One's Own". It, too, is the annotated edition, and it looks almost new, as well. It was listed as being in "Very Good" condition. The price was INCREDIBLY reasonable, too -- $1.64, plus $3.49 S/H!! I kid you not! You need to check out eBay when shopping for a book or books. They frequently have book lots for sale (like the one I just bought), and FREE shipping, too! I have frequently found them to be cheaper than Amazon, would you believe?
Anyway....I've told you all this because now I need to buy "Mrs. Dalloway" in order to complete my collection! Lol. :) :)
About "Mrs. Dalloway", the first thing that comes to mind is that Woolf obviously did NOT follow that well-known advice to writers to "show, not tell". I find this type of advice totally SILLY. There are no hard and fast rules in writing. Usually, when this "advice" is given, it's meant to let writers know that, instead of having paragraphs describing a character, or even a descriptive passage, a writer should use dialogue and action to convey what they want to say. Well, again, this is silly, and I think it's SO contrived, too!! Besides, it sure doesn't apply to the stream of consciousness style.
i think you picked an EXCELLENT passage that tells us much about the main character, as well as the human condition in general. It definitely tells us that Mrs. Dalloway is not at all a superficial, shallow person, but instead, one who enjoys pondering Life's deeper issues. It's ironic that Woolf later ended up committing suicide, since, through this passage, she seems to regret that a person's memories will be lost when that person passes away.
I took a look at "The Waves" the other day. It, too, is written in a stream of consciousness style, and has six narrators. The prose is very poetic, too. I honestly would not mind reading this type of work, as long as I love the prose, and the observations in the book are profound and challenging.
I have a suspicion that it's precisely this type of self-deprecating rumination that many women engage in. This, of course, points to the fact that we women have been relegated to positions of secondary importance for many centuries, and still are. We tend to doubt ourselves a lot.
I love that this novel also delves into gender issues. Of course, Woolf is known as a feminist author. I had never given much thought to reading her work before, though. Shame on me! When I came across the three books on eBay, I realized that I do NEED to read her books. So it looks like 2018 will be the Virginia Woolf year for me!
Thanks for your very insightful thoughts!! HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU & YOUR FAMILY!! <3 :)
That is a great deal that you got on those books. It is nice to collect all of an author's notable works. Hopefully you can find a good deal on Mrs. Dalloway. I only ever thought of buying hard to find books on eBay. It seems that there are some great to be found.
I agree, "show not tell" can be violated and it should not discourage a writer from describing things a lot.
Mrs. Daloway is indeed a deep character. Sadly it seems that a fair number of women who self deprecatie. Some men do it too.,
I am really curious to know what you thought think of Woolf. I have heard her other books are different.
Have a very happy New Years!
One day I will read this. I have read A room of one's own, Orlando, her short story "The mark on the wall", and To the lighthouse (twice) but have somehow never managed to get into this. Timing I think. I'm determined to read it one day.
BTW I notice that your name doesn't link to your blog when you comment on mine. Is that a preference of yours?
Hi Whispering Gums. This is the first Woolf book that I have read. I want to read the others.
Thanks for letting me know about the comments lol link. I will try to rectify that.
Brian et al....
I had a complete meltdown with Blogger and had to wipe slate clean and resume with different address but familiar name. Content postings will resume soon. Forgive my meltdown.
Happy New Year!
Virginia Woolf is one of those writers that I have mostly given up trying to read and like, although I have heard that Mrs Dalloway is one of her more readable books. You did a terrific review--I enjoyed it probably more than I would enjoy reading the book! I honestly don't think I believe that stream of consciousness actually is effective--it was innovative and authors used it to push the boundaries of narrative, but like so much from the early 20th century, I'm not sure it actually worked all that well.
Thanks foe the update Tim. I have added your new address to my blog reader.
Happy New Years!
Thanks Jane. Mrs. Dalloway is the only Woolf that I have read. I have heard that her other works were different. I tend to like stream of consciousness narratives. As they go, this one was very different from the others that I have read.
Happy New Year Brian, here is to many fabulous books! xxx
This sounds like an interesting book. I haven't read much about it, but it seems to be highly recommended by a number of feminist bloggers/vloggers I respect. (Of course, I suspect anything written by Woolf is liable to be on a feminist syllabus!) It definitely seems like a book I should read!
Happy New Year's Lainy. Here's to reading in 2018.
Hi Kate - The book really explores the role of woman at the time. I can see why this book would be part of a feminist syllables, even the feminist cannon.
Wonderful review. This is one of my dessert island books. Have you read Woolf's The Waves? If not, I'd be interested in what you make of it. I thought it amazing but it seems like not many people read it. I have to read it again to cement it, but I think it rivals Mrs. Dalloway.
Thanks Stefanie. This is the first Woolfe that I have read. I plan to read more. I will hopefully get to The Waves soon.
Post a Comment