Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway


Claire {@ kissacloud} and three friends are doing a Woolf In Winter read-along. The first book they’re tackling is Mrs. Dalloway, and it’s being hosted by Sarah {@ what we have here is a failure to communicate}. I picked up the Vintage classic last year, while idly browsing a second hand book store, and have since been extremely ambivalent about it – mostly because I’ve never read a book by Virginia Woolf, and I have an inexplicable fear of the unknown, specially when it comes to much-acclaimed classics.

Mrs. Dalloway is probably the most difficult novel I’ve ever read. And, I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s probably (one of) the most difficult book(s) I’ll ever read.

Woolf’s meanderings is essentially a stream-of-consciousness-style narrative to provide an insight into the lives of a few Londoners, including the protagonist: Clarissa Dalloway, who is preoccupied with the last minute details of a party she is to give that evening. Yet, the book digresses between reality, flashbacks as well as imaginary visions of the characters, and these digressions are helped greatly by the complete absence of chapters, so that the reader is left trying to figure out which character’s on centre-stage at any given point in time, and how their story fits in the grand scheme of things, the grand finale, the party.

Set in London, a few years after the first World War, Mrs. Dalloway unsurprisingly starts off with the spotlight on the protagonist herself, the wife of a politician, who is planning to throw a party. Yet, as the book progresses, and the clock on the Big Ben ticks, the spotlight falls on a myriad of characters including Peter Walsh, an ex-boyfriend of Mrs. Dalloway, who has just come back to London, and brings back old memories; Septimus Smith, a war veteran, who seems disconnected from the story, as he slips into insanity, haunted by the ghost of one of his friends who died during the war; doctors who attempt treating Smith; his worried wife, Rezia; Mrs. Dalloway’s daughter Elizabeth, and Mrs. Dalloway’s enemy, Miss. Kilman.

The story, in real terms, lasts just one day, but, with the many different perspectives that Woolf weaves in, it seems to last a lifetime (in a good way). It’s sensitive, philosophical even, giving an insight into human nature as we don’t really know it, but, emphasising, ever so subtly, on the appreciation of life, and the eventuality of death.

So, he was deserted. The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and this killing oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood – by sucking a gaspipe?

It’s a relatively short novel, at 172 pages. However, it took me over five hours to finish it, and all my concentration. There were sentences about fourteen lines long, there were connotations long-winded and intense, there were provoking thoughts that stayed on, long after you’d flipped the page. Yes, Mrs. Dalloway’s primary preoccupation was with the party, and exulting in life’s wake. She had married a man she presumably didn’t love as much as she loved someone else. Yet, her character is anything but superficial, flawed with merits – or, should that be meritorious with flaws?

She muddled Armenians with 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; 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; how every instant…

The other thing I loved about this book was it’s glimpses into London in the early 1900s. I thought that Woolf captured the heart and soul of central London beautifully (this book is mostly based in and around Westminster), and I actually felt that I was accompanying the characters, as they ambled the streets, or rode the Omnibus, or napped in Regents Park, or, for that matter, enjoyed the hustle-bustle at the Strand.

I am really pleased that I read this book, and I will be seeking another Woolf book sometime in the future, albeit, I don’t think I can do four Woolfs in eight weeks – it’s seriously hard work! Hats off to all those of you who are! Claire {@ Paperback Reader} and Rachel {@ Book Snob} recommended reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours after reading Woolf’s masterpiece. Subsequently, I’ll be reading it later this month.

Thanks to Claire {kissacloud}, Sarah {what we have here is a failure to communicate}, Emily {evening all afternoon} and Frances {Nonsuch Book} for hosting this wonderful read-along.

54 Responses to “Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway”

  1. 14-line-long sentences? That’s simply unnecessary! Although 172 pages sounds just about perfect.

  2. I totally agree with your review; Mrs Dalloway was an incredibly challenging read for me, yet I absolutely loved it. You certainly need to concentrate on the long stream-of-consciousness passages. They somehow all seem to come together and make sense in the end, and I doubt that a less-skilled writer could so aptly make this work. I’m keen to try another Virginia Woolf at some stage, and it might be The Hours, but it will need to be at a time when I am in the right frame of mind for such a heavy read and can devote my entire concentration to it.

    • You’re absolutely right about everything coming together at the end, and I don’t even want to imagine how a less skilled writer would’ve made this work. I almost thought Woolf would just have a bizarre unsatisfying ending. Goes to show how little I know!

      I don’t know which Woolf I’ll tackle next. Might be To The Lighthouse, but, let’s see… hope you get ’round to one soon. :)

  3. This sounds really interesting. But a little intimidating at the same time, considering that you’ve called it ‘the most difficult novel you’ve ever read’. I want to read something by Woolf this year, but I’ve got so many other authors I want to try as well, so I’m not sure if Woolf will make it to my shelves as yet. Hmm..

    On another note, I noticed you’ve got A Wild Sheep Chase on your side bar. Haven’t read that one yet, but hope you enjoy it! (I seem to get unnecessarily excited every time I see someone reading a Murakami..)

    • I’m glad I read this book, intimidating and difficult as it was. I do think it’s worth a read, but, I know what you mean : too many authors, too little time and all that.

      I love the two Murakamis I’ve read, and so far, I’m enjoying this one. Unsurprisingly, it’s slightly bizarre…

  4. Augh, and here I was hoping it was easy. Haha, but I won’t be daunted–I haven’t read Woolf before, but I want to this year, so, well, there. I’m determined. ;p

    • Very good! Hope you enjoy the Woolf experience. I’ll be keeping an eye out for your thoughts on it. It’s a very rewarding experience, and I am glad that I read this. Heck, I’m almost ready for another Woolf now!

  5. The most difficult nover you’ll ever read? That’s saying a lot! The most difficult I read were probably Lolita (Nabokov) and Atonement (Ian McEwan). Have you read those? Does it mean I’m gonna have troubles with Woolf? :)

    • I read Atonement, and didn’t find it that “difficult”. Lolita – the subject matter was too disturbing for me, and I left the book without even crossing the fifty page mark. Nah, I don’t think you’ll have troubles with Woolf. For me, it required patience during the first few pages, and then I sat back and tried to enjoy it as much as possible. And, I did! Her writing will make you re-read sentences and paragraphs, but, I just figured that’s part of the Woolf reading experience.

      Really hope you attempt one of her books, and that you enjoy it.

      PS: Before this, the most difficult book I’d read would have to be Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I don’t know if that statement helps you or not?

  6. Interesting thoughts. I have read most of Woolf and I found Mrs Dalloway the easiest of her stream of conscious style novels to read – once you get to Jacob’s Room or The Waves things really start getting out of hand!

    You might get on better with her earlier, and later novels – The Voyage Out, The Years…they read much more conventionally and are very good.

    Now you’ve read Mrs Dalloway you simply MUST read The Hours. It is stunning.

    • You’re scaring me! I’ll definitely be trying another one of her books shortly, just because it’s a hell of a ride, but, once it’s over, you realise you enjoyed it! I fully intend to read The Hours soon – I’m heading to Switzerland for a long weekend, and it’s one of the three books that’s going with me!

  7. I am so glad that you persevered and that the challenge paid off for you; there is a great sense of accomplishment and reward after reading Woolf. I love Virginia Woolf’s novels (although I am rationing them out) and also started with Mrs Dalloway many years ago. Having The Hours lined up already is great thinking and I’m glad that you took my recommendation on board. Rachel is right and the stream-of-consciousness becomes very experimental in Jacob’s Room and The Waves but the former is also short and a good read. I cannot recommend Orlando highly enough, Between the Acts is also good (and straightforward in style), you should also read VW’s short stories when you can and most definitely her essays especially A Room of One’s Own. I am very excited about finally reading To the Lighthouse for Woolf in Winter.

    • I’ve decided I’d be reading Orlando first, even though, with a little Googling, it’s considered one of her “easier” texts. There’s so many things I love about the person that is Virginia Woolf–her sexuality, her tragedy–that, well, it’s such an oversight that I haven’t ever read her!

    • I read your comment, and realised I’m more confused about the next Woolf I want to read, after reading it!! I’m going to be reading each and every review of the Woolf In Winter challenge, in order to try figuring out my next one, but, I don’t really think it’s going to help!!

      I will be looking out for your thoughts on To The Lighthouse though, as I thought it would be my next one…. hope you enjoy it!

      • Confused in a good way?! As in overwhelmed, tempted by them all? I think To the Lighthouse or Orlando would be good bets although perhaps you should wait until we see what I think of it! I don’t think it’s going to be brazy hard but we’ll see…

        I find it interesting reading about your “difficult” books as Midnight’s Children and Lolita are both favourites for mine; MC I could reread time and time again and discover something new each time. The most difficult book for me has been Ulysses, which is why I have yet to complete it.

  8. You make me feel a little bit better and a little bit worse about attempting ‘To the Lighthouse’ soon. I almost wish I’d picked up ‘Mrs Dalloway’ instead in fact, because it sounds vaguely domestic and domestic classics do tend to be easier to read.

    • Glad to have helped :)

      I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts on To The Lighthouse. Hope you enjoy it, and try Mrs. Dalloway soonafter.

      It’s not as domestic as the subject would have you believe – it’s meanderings and digressions and flashbacks and all the good stuff!

  9. 19 Jacqui

    I adore Mrs Dalloway and love that you loved it. Virginia Woolf is one of my ‘heroines’ but you are right – her writing can be hard work. Fir me though it is always worth it. I recently read Th Hours and loved that too.

    • I am really looking forward to reading The Hours now. It’s on my list after the Murakami and Cloud Atlas.

      I hope, in time, I can talk the same about Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway was a stunning read.

  10. It sounds like a challenging but worthwhile read. Excellent review.

  11. I have only quickly glanced at your review and the comments as I have yet to finish Mrs D – almost there though! I have found it a different book to read but I am really, really enjoying it so far. The style of writing is very different to what I normally read and I think that is why I am liking it – it has opened a new avenue for my reading.

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I agree with you about the style of writing being totally different – it took some time to get used to it, but, once I grew more familiar with the way Woolf writes, I enjoyed it more and more.

      Hope you enjoy the last few pages :)

  12. @Claire : Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely loved Midnight’s Children, but, Rushdie’s style of writing took a little bit of getting used to. Lolita, on the other hand, I hope to try again sometime soon. The subject matter was much too sensitive, and, maybe, now that I’m older (and wiser?) it’ll be easier to read?

    Confused in a good way is right :) Agree with you – should wait ’til I see what you guys think of it.

  13. Wow! I am impressed (and slightly envious) that you have completed your first Virginia Woolf. And in five hours. That sounds like a fast read for a book of this ilk.

    I am no less worried about ‘To The Lighthouse,’ which looms imminently, however you have captured why I should read it.

    • Well, I said “over five hours” :) It was bordering on six, to be perfectly honest, but…

      I’m really looking forward to what you think of To The Lighthouse. I’m feeling brave enough to tackle another Woolf.

  14. Five hours is impressive!

    I loved this book, it was the first Woolf I ever read, (I’m only just in the first few pages of my second – To The Lighthouse) and I remember feeling so incredibly accomplished when I finished it.

    As much as it infuriates me, I love stream-of-consciousness writing because once you do become absorbed, it’s like waking from a dream when you finish.

    Great review!

    • I know what you mean about feeling “incredibly accomplished”. I share the sentiments!

      Stram-of-consciousness writing, if done skilfully, is fantastic. It’s only when authors let the ribbons fall, instead of tying the ends nicely, that they become a chore, instead of a pleasure. Woolf, of course, ties it all up nicely, and leaves you delighted.

  15. That’s my favourite cover that I’ve seen!

    I’m rereading this one for Woolf in Winter, and I love it. It’s funny; I don’t find it difficult to read, because Clarissa’s thought process is SO like my own, that I just float away with her. I think that’s why I’ve always loved Woolf!

    • I love the cover too, although I do have a thing for the Penguin Modern Classics covers!

      Oh cool – think it’s the stream-of-consciousness narrative that made it somewhat difficult for me to read. Am looking forward to tackling another couple of Woolfs to see how I get on. It’s the first one that’s the toughest, they say…

      • My first Woolf ever was Orlando; I’ve heard that it’s one of her easier ones, since it has more of a plot. But I haven’t read it since I was 16, so I can’t wait to revisit it next month!

  16. “flawed with merits – or, should that be meritorious with flaws?”

    LOVE this formulation! I’ve always felt that Woolf is glorying in the imperfect in this novel – the vital imperfect, just like the passage you pulled about Clarissa muddling Armenians and Turks, etc.

    And also great that you bring up how tied to place Mrs. Dalloway is – it’s almost as though the central character IS London, and Peter, Clarissa, Septimus and the rest are supporting players that experience the city from different angles.

    Lovely post!

    • Thank you.

      The thing about the passage about Armenians and Turks is, it makes Clarissa sound really loopy/flaky. Yet, earlier in the book, we know she’s read Huxley, amidst others. That just seems to be slightly contradictory – maybe it’s just me.

      You’re right about London potentially being the central character – specially as Woolf uses the Big Ben to show the passing of time…

      PS : Also thanks for being part of organising Woolf In Winter. Been incredible!

  17. Great points you bring out. I didn’t find it to be a difficult read but I did seem to miss a lot of the nuances. You summed it up brilliantly when you said “It’s sensitive, philosophical even, giving an insight into human nature as we don’t really know it, but, emphasizing, ever so subtly, on the appreciation of life, and the eventuality of death.” I’ve read Orlando and lots of Woolf’s non fiction and enjoyed them very much. This book is a departure-as it certainly was in 1925-and more like work as you said. Everyone seems to be saying that a second or even third reading opened their eyes about the story. I’m glad I joined the group and I will try this book again in the future. Good for you for sticking with the book enough to finish and for an honest review.

    • Thanks. I’m really looking forward to reading it again, just to see how much deeper the story runs. Of course, reading everyone’s reviews has opened my eyes a little further, anyway.

      Like you, I’m glad I joined the challenge, and like you again, I’ll be reading this book again. Soon, hopefully.

  18. I’m not doing Woolf in Winter but since Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books I’ve been enjoying reading the various reviews, especially when when so many are saying they enjoyed it! :)

  19. 39 tuulenhaiven

    London as a character is definitely an apt description. I especially like when Elizabeth is taking the bus and clearing her head, and how the Strand gives her inspirations about what she might want to do in the future. It IS a difficult book, but I’m so glad you got through it. Thanks for this post. :)

    • I love that part of the book – specially the imagery of the Strand is wonderfully done, and it even relates to present-day London. In fact, I spent a lot of time imagining the book in present day London.

      Thanks so much for organising Woolf In Winter, as well as for hosting the first part. It was a great experience, and I only wish I’d be joining in for the rest. :)

  20. I see Sandra already pulled the quote from your post that most attracted me –

    “It’s sensitive, philosophical even, giving an insight into human nature as we don’t really know it, but, emphasising, ever so subtly, on the appreciation of life, and the eventuality of death.”

    So many neglect the fact that Clarissa loves life, chooses it as Septimus does not. She has accepted the narrow confines of the life she has made for herself but see the possibilities from her past. Her chance to be seen, to not be invisible that she may have unwisely taken a bye on.

    Please read Orlando. It is my favorite Woolf, a love letter to Vita Sackville-West with commentary on bios that I find compelling. But hope to see you along for all four if you feel up to it. Thanks for your great insights here.

    • Thanks for the comment (and for organising Woolf In Winter with the others).

      While I would actually love to join in for at least one more, I am avoiding buying any books at the moment, and I don’t actually have any library membership (don’t ask). I will definitely read Orlando soon though, and, will keep an eye on all the reviews that follow, for the remaining three books.

  21. Ohh it took all my concentration too! And I believe, more than 5 hours! I’m so glad you liked it, really. This was my first Woolf experience, too, and, after reading everyone’s posts, realize how much I’ve missed while reading. I was so enmeshed in the prose that I hadn’t the energy to look at things objectively. Definitely a reread is in order (or two, or three). Like you say, the subtle emphasis on “the appreciation of life, and the eventuality of death” is what makes this book so universal. Despite having little in common with the characters, I can feel the connection. Thanks for reading along! :D

    • I love how Woolf used Septimus and Clarissa to illustrate the two extremes of loving life and giving in to death.

      Thanks a ton for organising the readalong – and I’m looking forward to the re-reads already. Like you, I had little with the characters, but the connection was there, and like some of the other participants, I hope, with time, the book will read as “an old friend”. :)

  22. I didn’t find Mrs. Dalloway difficult reading, uncertainprinciples, but then your paragraph that begins “Woolf’s meanderings” sounds like the perfect recipe for baking up just the kind of story I’d like! By the way, I really envy you your familiarity with London–my copy of the novel came with a diagram of many of the places involved, but it didn’t mean all that much to me since I’ve never been to your fine city yet. Tears. Anyway, thanks for the interesting post!

    • You should really visit London – it’s a fantastic city, and so many great stories are based here. Mrs. Dalloway, especially, really brought the city to life, and I think that’s one of the many reasons why I loved it.

      Thanks for stopping by, and commenting :-) Glad you enjoyed the book as well.

  23. 48 Bellezza

    It was my first time with Virginia Woolf, and through Mrs. Dalloway, too. I was rather appalled at myself for not having read anything by her before, so I felt quite compelled to join in this Woolf In Winter Challenge. I’ve gained so much perspective by reading everyone’s thoughts and reviews; it helps so much to know that I wasn’t the only one working through sentences which were paragraphs long or characters who appeared as suddenly as a mist. I know I’ll need to reread it someday, probably a few time, to get even more out of it. For now, though, I’m moving on to To The Lighthouse. Hope I can get there. ;)

    • Good luck with To The Lighthouse. I half-wish I was joining in as well.

      Like you, it was my first Woolf, and again, like you, I was appalled with myself for not reading anything by her! I love the solidarity on the world wide web!! This readalong was fantastic, for, I’ve gained so much more insight into the book, than if I’d just read it on my own. I am kind-of looking forward to the re-read. Think it’ll be a much more rewarding experience than the first attempt.

  24. 50 lena

    I’m glad you challenged yourself and gave Mrs. Dalloway a chance to charm you. Even if the others are “harder” than Mrs. Dalloway – I’d give them a try – just to keep challenging yourself (:

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