Fear no more the heat of the sun.' Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's fourth novel, offers the reader an impression of a single June day in London in 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative member of parliament, is preparing to give an evening party, while the shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith hears the birds in Regent's Park chattering in Greek. There seems to be nothing, except perhaps London, to link Clarissa and Septimus. She is middle-aged and prosperous, with a sheltered happy life behind her; Smith isyoung, poor, and driven to hatred of himself and the whole human race. Yet bo.
My students, like some of the LT reviewers, were initially put off by the stream-of-consciousness narration that moves among characters major and minor. Obviously, this isn't a novel with a standard plot line or a lot of action. But Woolf's brilliance is in developing her characters through their internal monologues. Instead of being told how they think and feel, we experience it along with them following the same erratic process in which our own minds work. Added to this, she structures the plot not so much around events (after all, not much happens besides Clarissa preparing for and giving a party, and poor Septimus being driven to suicide) as around a series of carefully selected images, sounds, symbols, and motifs. The genius of Mrs. Dalloway is that it was a literary experiemnt in its day, one that exercises a student of literature's analytic skills; yet that takes nothing away from the experience of reading the novel, if one just gives in and gives up the usual expectations and flows along with Woolf. To me, it is a beautiful, timeless work. Its themes and its deep understanding of the human condition still resonate today.
Yes, it is an extended stream of consciousness - jumping in and out of the heads of various characters, some of which are connected by a fairly loose thread. For some this would be maddening, for me it was wonderful!
In case you are unfamiliar with its premise, the novel covers a single day on which Clarissa Dalloway is having a party. But the party is simply a structural device. What matters is what we learn of the leftovers of war, of the reflections of age, the follies of youth, of meanness of spirit and the pursuit of happiness.
i urge you to at least give it a go.
One of the stars of Woolf's Mrs Dalloway is London itself, especially for me because I used to work in the Westminster district where Clarissa Dalloway set out to buy those flowers and I could so easily imagine the sights and sounds as she walked through St James' Park. The passage in the novel where Woolf flits inside the heads of her characters as they pass unknowingly by in the Park is a superb example of the stream of conscious technique. This is one of my all-time favourite sequences and it was a joy to read it again.
I have been reading H G Wells early novels and stories recently, written at the turn of the century and the difference in writing styles between them and Woolf's novel written in the 1920's is immense. Books that seem worlds apart.
Mrs Dalloway is a short novel it could almost be a novella and yet it can be a tricky read, because it is not always clear where or in whose head the story is taking place, however I think there is enough here to delight even the first time reader, not familiar with the modernist style (of which Woolf was one of the leading exponents). If ever a novel deserved five stars it is this one, I'm already looking forward to my next re-read.
Welcome to a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway (“I read the book today, oh boy.”) The introductionist states “With what pleasure we read the famous opening sentence…” If it starts with joy, it continues with tedium. Skipping the stylistic experiments, this just moves between different people, telling you a lot about them, but not making you care. Maybe there are beautifully lyrical passages – but they didn’t grab me. Maybe there is great use of short, repetitive sentences to drive home the point – but they just glared as unwieldy to me. Maybe this is a groundbreaking stylistic approach that broadens the mind and expands the….Nope – doesn’t work for me.
Look, it’s a nice enough story, and I could occasionally get engrossed in some of the tale. But overall, it is just too much minutia followed by “and-I-care-because-why” moments for the payoff of slight enjoyment to be worth it. (No pressure Mr. Joyce.)
I adore good characterization, and Woolf's is lovely. She gives us a real feel for who each of these people is as she invites us to ride around inside their heads and view the world through their eyes. Over a very short period of time, we learn a great deal about each and every one of them. And we don't just see how they view themselves; Woolf also shows us how those around them perceive them. I'll tell you up front, I'm an absolute sucker for anything that invites me to consider its characters in this way. The contrast between each character's view of herself and the way others see her is one of the novel's strongest qualities.
The prose is equally good. Even though Woolf deals with the minutia of everyday life, I found the story strange and dreamlike. I think this is due, in large part, to the sudden shifts in POV. One moment, we're hard into Clarissa's perspective; the next, we're deep in Peter Walsh's mind. From him, we jump to someone else... and then to someone else again... and again... and again... Even though the story is grounded in reality, the storytelling makes it feel as though it isn't. It's nicely done.
It does, however, make the book a bit difficult to sink into, especially if you've put it down for a while. I had some troubles in that area, and occasionally found that I just couldn't go back to it. I'd read a few lines and decide I needed another break. It's for this reason, more than anything else, that I've decided to pass it along to someone else. I enjoyed it, and I think I'll likely want to read it again, but I doubt I'll return to it any time soon. And when I do, I'm sure there'll be an obliging library or book market ready and waiting to provide me with another copy.
(A slightly different version of this review originally appeared on my blog, Stella Matutina).
If you are looking for a Summer book and have never read it before - this is the one that will leave you thinking about your own pace of life, loves lost and loves untested.
I read Night and Day several months ago, quite enjoyed it, and wanted to follow it with another of Woolf’s novels. I chose Mrs. Dalloway because it is the best known and most widely acclaimed. Juliet Stevenson, narrator of this Naxos Audiobook edition, is fabulous – an exquisite reader.
Mrs. Dalloway is the story of a day in June 1923, as lived by Clarissa Dalloway and several other London citizens. The eponymous protagonist is a wealthy, middle-aged socialite who is planning an evening party. Running parallel to Clarissa’s story is the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked veteran of WWI; he is withdrawn, delusional, possibly on the brink of madness. The two stories intersect at the conclusion of the novel. Themes in Mrs. Dalloway include existentialism, madness, loneliness, and fear of death.
The entirely of the novel is written in stream of consciousness, which for me is both its strength and its atrophy. Woolf’s prose is beautiful, and I can appreciate her genius in fusing third person omniscient point of view with first person interior monologue; but I do not enjoy this style of writing. Fleeting transitions between characters make the prose difficult to follow, and there are no breaks in the writing, chapter or otherwise. The audiobook consisted of one track of over seven hours. In addition, the novel has no discernible plot; it explores its various themes through the musings and meanderings of characters’ thoughts. And, truthfully, I did not find any of the characters particularly likeable. Septimus Warren Smith promises to be at least relatable, but even he is somehow blank.
I much preferred Night and Day to this later novel; the characters were decidedly more likeable and relatable, and the plot of the novel had some structure. I can appreciate Mrs. Dalloway but will not reread. I also do not widely recommend the novel, but I do recommend it to those who read strictly to observe literary form and genre.
I've been meaning to read Virginia Woolf for quite a while now since I am particular to the classics. I didn't know what to expect when I picked up this book, but what I found here was a poetic and lyrical read.
The book is told by an invisible narrator and as you read you get a glimpse into the thoughts of the characters within the story. It is a story about old regrets and old dreams. There are no chapter breaks and the book is a series of free flowing thoughts from one character to the next.
The writing is disjointed, and though it was a short book, it's not one that can be read quickly.
In Mrs Dalloway, we get a glimpse into a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged society woman, as she plans a party. The book takes place in June during post-World War I England.
As Clarissa prepares for her party that will take place that night, she has flashbacks and memories of her past. She remembers her love affair with a woman named Sally. Her ex-beau Peter Walsh stops in for a visit and tells Clarissa he is in love with a married woman. She finds herself sad at this confession and wonders what would have been if she had married Peter herself. Peter is actually still in love with Clarissa and has many regrets about losing her.
Another character in the story is Septimus Warren Smith, who is a severely depressed veteran and is contemplating suicide. Although Clarissa never meets him, he is a main character in the book and his depression is taking over his life. I did feel bad for Septimus and Woolf does an excellent job at getting the reader into his head, to really see what his illness makes him feel like. His thoughts are frightening and sad.
I found him the most touching character in the story, I felt bad for Septimus. I think sadly enough, Woolf may have written a manic depressive so well, since she suffered from mental illness and ultimately committed suicide herself.
The story all comes together in the end at Clarissa's party, where friends from her past and as well as her present are gathered at her home.
I have to mention, the final lines in this book are among my favorite of any book I've read.
Like I said, I really enjoyed Woolf's style of writing. I think Mrs Dalloway is a book to be read slowly and to be savored. I bought this book at a library sale for about 25cents. Don't you love when you find gems like that?
The two central themes I found involved the web imagery that connect us all and that we really are unable to know anyone. When I read it in college I did a whole paper just on time in the novel and how the characters dealt with time/aging. There is so much in this novel. I'm sure if I read it again in 10 years I'll focus on something else.
The setting resonates too, in these strange social distancing days—not London, but the fact that the characters have just emerged, somewhat shell-shocked, from a World War and a pandemic. They've changed from their ordeal, and at the same time the world has changed out from under them. They are working hard to preserve their respective status quos, yet under the surface they’re stunned, appreciative but disoriented, slightly breathless. And there but for the grace of 100 years go we, I think.
I'm kind of surprised I haven't read it before this, but maybe that's reasonable in context:
When one was young, said Peter, one was too much excited to know people. Now that one was old, fifty-two to be precise (Sally was fifty-five, in body, she said, but her heart was like a girl's of twenty); now that one was mature then, said Peter, one could watch, one could understand, and one did not lose the power of feeling, he said.
It’s not that the plot is engaging; there is almost no plot. The book is merely a record of one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, and that of a few of her friends, and some people that she passes by. We are given access to their thoughts as they go about their day. Clarissa buys flowers, mends a dress, and gives a party. She hosts a visitor, just back from India. She thinks about a girl from her school days, with whom she had been in love. Septimus Smith, suffering from PTSD from WW I and the loss of a fellow soldier with whom he’d been in love, quietly sinks into a fatal madness. The stream of consciousness leads us seamlessly through the minds of these people; there are no chapters to provide breaking points. Wolff’s prose is simply beautiful; she describes the everyday moments that are usually forgotten or ignored as things of beauty. But the book is not just pretty prose; there is surprising depth to some of the characters. Clarissa and Septimus, in particular, although not directly connected, seem to be two sides of the questions of life and death. Five stars.
If for no other reason, I am impressed by the fact that Woolf captures the nature of human thought in such an accurate manner that, as a 21st century male college student, I am able to identify with the thoughts of her characters.
This is the first piece of writing by Woolf that I have read, and I will definitely remember the unique style Woolf uses to effectively make a day in which nothing really happens into one of the great pieces of literature of the 20th century.
For all its frustrations, one just cannot help but notice that this is a fine piece of creative art. I also enjoyed it much more than the last Woolf novel I attempted, which was To the Lighthouse. I will now probably give the latter another try, though not just yet.