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[194] Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

dalloway“It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? . . . So That to know her, or anyone , one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.” [152-3]

Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing style requires utmost concentration, as her scenes not only shift swiftly and imperceptibly between past and present, primarily through Clarissa’s, Septimus’s, and Peter’s memories, she also combines interior with omniscient descriptions of characters and scene. Often unbeknownst to her readers, she leaps from one character’s thoughts to the mind’s eye of another or a physical locale. As abruptly as she changes the perspective, Woolf handles such transition between the interior and the exterior very smoothly that, upon meticulous perusal of the text, with the constant announcement of time, one can discern a structure of the novel (instead of random tangents of thoughts) and perceive the pace of the characters’ lives. Most noticeable of this device is Big Ben’s striking noon that takes place at the novel’s exact midpoint.

Mrs. Dalloway covers one day from early morning to evening in one woman’s wife. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife, walks through her London neighborhood to prepare for the party that she will host that evening. When she returns from the florist in the morning, an old suitor and friend, whom she had influenced like nobody had ever done, pays her an unexpected visit at the house. Peter Walsh’s arrival allows us to be privy to Clarissa’s meandering thoughts, which focus on that summer thirty years ago when she chose to marry Richard Dalloway, who never shares her desire to truly and fully communicate. Much of Clarissa’s thoughts remain private, as she is inclined toward introspection that gives her a profound capacity for emotion. As the wife of someone in public office, Clarissa keeps up the public relations to high society. But privately she is aware that she has, in rejecting Peter and choosing Richard, she has sacrificed passion for the security and tranquility of an upper-class life. At the same time, in the midst of her chores, in her private contemplation of the fear of death, Clarissa strives to establish the channel for communication and throws parties in an attempt to draw people together.

In all this there was a great deal of [Richard] Dalloway, of course; a great deal of the public-spirited, British Empire, tariff-reform, governing-class spirit, which had grown on her, as it tends to do. With twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes—one of the tragedies of married life. With a mind of her own, she must always be quoting Richard—as if one couldn’t know to a tittle what Richard thought by reading the Morning Post of a morning! [76-77]

Much of Clarissa’s personality is seen through Peter Walsh, whose most consistent character trait is ambivalence. Middle-aged, fearful of having wasted his life, and highly skeptical of the society, he can never commit to an identity, nor can he decide what he feels. His unhealed hurt renders him very critical of people, the Dalloways in particular. He detests Clarissa’s bourgeois lifestyle, though he blames Richard for making her into the kind of woman she is—sterile and conventional. In his thoughts he often reflects upon Richard and his actions with such negative connotation, and indeed, Richard struggles out of his stiffness but fails to even express his love in words:

Bearing his flowers like a weapon, Richard Dalloway approached her; intent he passed her; still there was time for a spark between them—she laughed at the sighte of him . . . But he would tell Clarissa that he loved her, in so many words. He had, once upon a time, been jealous of Peter Walsh; jealous of him and Clarissa . . . He was holding out flowers—roses, red and white roses. (But he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words) [116-118]

Peter’s often fidgeting with a pocket-knife indicates his indecisiveness toward the English tradition that older citizens like Aunt Helena and Lady Bruton champion. He doesn’t know whether he abhors the English tradition or he just accepts the English civilization as a norm, as the failure of the British empire began to show in 1923. His attitude toward death is also drastically different from that of Clarissa, who has come to term with her mortality, despite her dread of aging.

Woven into Clarissa’s day of preparation and reflection is the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock. Hallucinations reel him as he sits on a bench at Regent’s Park raving about seeing his friend Evans, who perished in war. Although he is mad, the former poet shows many traits that he could be Clarissa’s double. Indeed Woolf saw Septimus Warren Smith as an essential counterpoint to Clarissa Dalloway. He regards human as evil after the war and resorts to his internal world. Skeptical of his surrounding, Septimus fears that people in the world have no capacity for honesty or kindness. It seems to me that Woolf intended for Clarissa to speak the sane truth and Septimus the insane truth, and Septimus’s detachment enables him to judge people more harshly and indiscriminately than Clarissa is capable of. He also offers a contrast between the conscious struggle of a working class veteran and the blind opulence of the upper class.

The end of the novel tracks back to and makes sense of the lines I have quoted at the beginning of this review. That is, Clarissa’s reflection of people. To know someone beyond the surface, one has to seek out the people and places that completed that person. What does this mean? It means one has to be experiencing the social and physical environment in which the people inhabit. The structure of Mrs. Dalloway supports this “theory” of Clarissa, since most of the novel concerns people’s thoughts instead of the surface actions. The open-air omnibus, for example, symbolizes the ease with which friends could once share their deepest thoughts. The automobile with the blind drawn, in which Septimus and his wife sit, symbolizes the repression that have confined many British people. It becomes very clear toward the end that death, which most characters have dreaded throughout the book, is a communication, means of preserving one’s soul. That is when Clarissa and Septimus converge.

She felt somehow very like him [Septimus]—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. [186]

197 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

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27 Responses

  1. A couple of years ago I started my own little Virginia Woolf project–wanting to start with her first book and work my way through the rest. I made it through the first couple, but then got distracted! I have read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, however, at other times, but whatever I got from them is long lost. I’m glad that you say a careful reading will make the structure of the novel clearer. I want to read more of her work and much more carefully than I did before. The other two I read were The Voyage Out and Night and Day–both more straightforward and not experimental. Maybe I was afraid to continue on with my project. (But will get back the books eventually).

  2. You’re right on about Septimus’s being a double of Clarissa. She had never met him and does not even know his name, but she experiences a moment of clarity, or “moment of being,” in the small room when she identifies strongly with him and his dramatic action. Woolf created Septimus as Clarissa’s double, and throughout the book he has echoed her thoughts and feelings. In this scene, Clarissa realizes how much she has in common with this working-class young man, who on the surface seems so unlike her.

  3. Fabulous review! Even though I disliked the book – I found Clarissa so shallow that she bored, bored, bored me – the best was the middle part with Septimus, who was experiencing a bout of madness, and I felt that was the most honest part of the book. I know I’m in the minority here, and as an English Lit degree person I should be able to see what makes this book great, but by the end, I thought it was about the most shallow people in the world – which, if that is what she was showing, that would be powerful at that time – but it seems to me that she was trying to intellectually distance herself from passion, and the characters were choosing safety without passion, which I disagree with – so as it reveals Virginia’s world, it’s a social commentary, but as a gripping read? I ended up having no interest really in the outcome except wishing that the party would start, darn it!

  4. PS I saw the movie The Hours and read the book, and hated it possibly even more. I’m really curious to see how you find them! lol

  5. I feel like I need to print this out and put it into my copy of Mrs. Dalloway to help guide me along when I finally decide to read it!!

  6. I’m passing along some proximidade love to you!

  7. Such a wonderful review/explanation of a detailed, complex book. Wish I could be one of your students in the classroom, but I will gladly accept the opportunity to learn from you by reading this blog.

    Thank you so much for sharing your note taking tips. It sounds like a wonderful system that I plan to implement while reading the books for my summer courses.

  8. Great review. I think your advice about careful reading really does apply – so many semicolons and shifts in trains of thought really keep readers on their toes!

  9. I’ve started Mrs. Dalloway severa l times over the years, but was never able to finish it until I read it in conjunction with The Hours. And perhaps because I’m now the same age as Clarissa, her random stream of consciousness thinking makes more sense to me!

    I enjoyed your very perceptive thoughts on this novel.

  10. This is a very useful review for me, especially as it discusses the symbolism and theories connected with a deeper understanding of the book. One must delve under the surface or be completely perplexed when reading this author, so your insights will be very helpful next time I take up this book. Thanks.

  11. [...] [194] Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf [...]

  12. Danielle:
    Concentration and patience are what I need to read through Woolf. Friends have told me that Mrs. Dalloway is the most accessible of all her works. So I’ve got a long way to go. :)

  13. John:
    Very nice comment. Indeed I began to see the parallel between these two completely different people, gender-, class-, and status-wise. From the emergence of both, I can spot the similarity Woolf tries to convey, although she is not contrived. I find this very witty. That is the reason why she was glad that he took his life because he has chosen to preserve his soul by not ruining it by living in the society.

  14. Susan:
    I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I almost thought that the “soul” of the novel is Septimus because he’s the only one who remains true to his cause and principle. He’s most respectful character in the book. It almost reminds me of The Great Gatsby, which also portrays how careless, materialistic, status-oriented, and shallow people are. I think I like The Hours better of the two.

  15. Staci:
    It’s an rewarding literary journey if readers patiently stick with it. :)

  16. Sandy:
    Yay! Another award. Thanks for always thinking of me. :)

  17. Molly:
    You’re welcome. I am trying to capture the gist of the book and say a few words along the way when I read.

  18. lena:
    Her writing style—one that is characterized by many English locutions, loopy sentences, windy fashion—focuses you to slow down to not only to understand the meaning but also to appreciate the language.

  19. Becca:
    Yes, stream of consciousness is like reading someone inner thoughts. Thoughts are most primitive of ideas—unedited, unrevised, and very raw, so reading someone’s thoughts needs patience and open-mindedness because they have to obligation to be organized. :)

  20. Greg S:
    Good memory would also help. Sometimes I find reading something that bears no obvious significance until you read it again later in a different angle. Woolf seems to delight in dropping some ideas that seem to have no importance and then, 50 pages later, she begins to develop that thought. You have to be on top of her ideas. Re-reading passages therefore is a must.

  21. [...] [194] Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf [...]

  22. [...] of wealth, as the rich indulge themselves with regard for nothing but their own pleasure. In Mrs. Dalloway, the prime minister stands in for the old pyramidal social system that benefited the very rich [...]

  23. [...] Emily Brontë Growth: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë Marriage: Middlemarch, George Elliot Love: Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf Parenthood: To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf The Future: Between the Acts, [...]

  24. A question. Did you ‘borrow’ this off the sparknotes site or are you associated with them? Cause a good deal if this is word-for-word the same, with no referencing or quotations acknowledged.

  25. lee:
    I was associated with them at the time the notes were published.

  26. [...] will take turn to post conversation questions as participants read through four books. Having read Mrs. Dalloway last year, I’m game for perusing either To the Lighthouse or Orlando with the group. Lesley [...]

  27. [...] detached, and is very subjective. I find the writing of this book (so far), in comparison to, say, Mrs. Dalloway, much more accessible and less dense, despite its stream of conscious style all the same. The bowl [...]

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