Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

After reading Woolf’s To The Lighthouse I was excited to dive into Mrs. Dalloway.  Following the lead of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf used the same writing style, and, in a loose imitation of Joyce, chronicles a day in the life of a prestigious middle-aged woman in London. Woolf critiqued Joyce’s Ulysses, calling it “illiterate” and “under-bred,” finding the graphic sexual fantasies and the foul language base, and saying it reeked of a “queasy under-graduate scratching his pimples.”  Was Mrs. Dalloway Woolf’s attempt to get this style of writing right?

Using her signature “stream-of-consciousness” style, Woolf chronicles one day in the life of Mrs. Richard Dalloway, the wife of a respectable, wealthy gentleman.  Set in post-World War I London, on this particular day she is preparing for a party she will host that evening, an unusual party whose guests will span the ages of her life, past and present.  As she performs her tasks, her mind wanders back through days gone by, unearthing ghosts of earlier loves, regrets, irritations, ever-present worries and satisfaction.  The reader is also privy to the thoughts of many of her friends who will be present at this party, as they perform their daily business.

As a secondary plot, we meet Septimus Warren Smith, a surviving soldier of the war, yet a hollow shell of a man, his mind barely touching reality.  In spite of the persistent yet useless intervention of his wife and doctors, he gradually is sucked into a whirlpool of despair, seemingly of his own making, and suffers a very poignant and pathetic fate.  Or does he?

Julia Stephen
Virginia Woolf’s mother
source Wikipedia
Virginia Woolf, Age 20
source Wikipedia

I’m going to go out on a limb here and offer a very unusual interpretation of at least one theme in the novel.  Woolf’s treatment of Septimus, in contrast with Mrs. Dalloway and her social peers, was very intriguing.  If we examine the thoughts of Mrs. Dalloway and her friends and acquaintances, they touch upon parties, flower-shows, scholarships, the family business, Bartlett pears, gossip and cricket.  In comparison, Septimus’ musings revolve around human nature, the truth, Evans (his friend who was killed in the war), aloneness, meaning, and the beauty of words.  Septimus is presented on the surface as a character who is emotionally unbalanced, while Mrs. Dalloway’s circle is the respected rational group.  Has Woolf turned appearance on its head?  Is the perceived deranged person really the one who is sane, and are the ones who appear “normal” actually the group who is not?  It’s an irony that’s inescapable.

For Septimus, the only liberation from a world turned upside-down was death.  Is his escape from a materialistic world concerned with trivialities an heroic act?  Woolf makes it appear so:

“…… Death was defiance.  Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone.  There was an embrace in death.”

Ironically, sixteen years after the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf followed Septimus into the murky fog of depression and, placing stones in the pockets of her overcoat, walked into the River Ouse near her home, drowning herself, a sad fate for one of the most respected female literary writers of the time.

Virginia Woolf – Romanian Stamp
Source Wikipedia

I just loved Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and I really wanted to like Mrs. Dalloway.  There are certain aspects I do like about it, such as the character of Septimus Warren Smith, the relentless passage of time, the allusions to various literary works of different eras, the exploration of the lingering impact of the first World War and the diminishing influence of the British empire.   The prose is lovely, light and lyrical, each sentence a candy you can pop into your mouth and taste a burst of spring.  Yet I found the story meandering and disjointed.  In To The Lighthouse, the stream-of consciousness  flowed towards one main character, Mrs. Ramsey, wrapping her in a warm glow, even while each character retained their own lively identity.  In Mrs. Dalloway, the streams flow out from Mrs. Dalloway and a host of other characters, at times to alight on each other, but many times to float out into the atmosphere, leaving the reader confused or adrift.  The lack of cohesiveness was like an irritating burr in my britches and no matter how much I tried, it was hard to ignore.  Yet, in spite of the persistent irritation, I will probably re-read this book sometime in the future.  Woolf’s books are like a deceptively packed suitcase where you’re never quite certain if you have even removed half of what is contained.

13 thoughts on “Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

  1. "…burr in your britches…" – an interesting way to describe it. Well, at least you are willing to try it again. I certainly did not digest Mrs. Dalloway, but I am curious about To the Lighthouse and A Room of One's Own.

    BTW, did you ever see or read The Hours?

  2. I am one of those readers who are terrified of Woolf. I'm quite content at observing her from a distance (ie. reading other people's thoughts on her). It's interesting that you mention the lack of cohesiveness that prevents you from enjoying the novel as a whole, because I had same problems with Clarice Lispector that seems to be praised by everybody. I'm all for stream of consciousness, but I'd like it all tie in a nice sensible conclusion.

  3. Yes, I need to stop writing my posts so late at night! :-Z

    As you know, I LOVED To The Lighthouse but I haven't yet read A Room of One's Own. Behold the Stars just posted an interesting review of Hyde Park News which is a collection of family articles from the Stephens' Family Newspaper (Woolf's family). It sounds very interesting.

    I haven't read or seen The Hours. I'd like to read more Woolf before I do. Two down and how many to go ……..?? 🙂

  4. Try To The Lighthouse. It was very dreamy but I loved being able to get into the characters thoughts and I felt Woolf made them all quite real. It gave more of a sense of pre-War England vs. post-war England than this book. You are right though …….. Woolf's books don't have a plot. They are REALLY character driven.

    I hadn't heard of Clarice Lispector but I think I'll avoid her for awhile. 😉

  5. Love this review 🙂

    "Was Mrs. Dalloway Woolf's attempt to get this style of writing right?" – you know what? Yes, it was an attempt to get it right, and what is more – she DOES get it right. I know you found it a tad disjointed, but what is more accessible? Joyce or Woolf? Woolf. She just… gets it right! 🙂 I'm terrified of modernist writers, but not of Woolf, never of Woolf.

    (As you can tell I'm a big fan)

  6. Woolf's books are unusual to say the least. You have to just let yourself drift with the characters thoughts and try to know them in that way. Eventually you get a sense of them in their struggles and approach to life. To The Lighthouse was definitely more cohesive. I could grasp onto ideas and themes, whereas with Mrs. Dalloway I kind of just floated away with all the thoughts flying everywhere. To The Lighthouse was written after Mrs. Dalloway so perhaps Woolf had honed her craft a little more by then. I'd love to know what you think of it if you choose to read it!

  7. I would love to be able to sit down with you, have a nice cup of tea and discuss all these classics that we're reading! I think it would be a fun conversation!

    You have the advantage over me because you have read Ulysses, while I haven't. I am anticipating your review (which I haven't read yet). As a fan, you must have read To The Lighthouse, O. Did you find it improved over Mrs. Dalloway? Different?

    Now I must get over my fear of Ulysses and read it sometime. The only thing is that I know I'll have to read it at least three times before I'll feel like I'm getting somewhere. That's alot of book and very daunting. Well, someday ……

  8. I have read To The Lighthouse, BUT – it was a very long time ago, and it was my first Woolf, and one of my first classics. I did love it – it was that book that sparked my love of Woolf – but I still don't think I appreciated it as I might if (when, rather) I re-read it. Which, incidentally, will be soon because it's on my re-read list!

    I find it hard, having just read a Woolf, to move on from it. I'm about a quarter of the way through Dead Souls, and two acts into Hamlet, but I just want to go and read To The Lighthouse now!

    As for Ulysses – I never cracked that book, so I don't think I have any advantage over you! I want to give it another go, but not sure when.

    And yes, a cup of tea and a classics chat would be most fun! 🙂

  9. I haven't read any of Woolf's books yet. She is an author whose books I'd like to take a look at. Mrs. Dalloway sounds like a good starting point based on your review. Looks like it may have some challenging points, but worth the investment in time.

  10. If you do choose Mrs. Dalloway to start and don't like it, please don't give up on Woolf. To The Lighthouse is ……. well, I don't want to say an easier read, but I found it more rewarding. Please let me know what you think after you've read it!

  11. A great review of one of my favorite novels! In fact, I would go so far as to claim it along with 'To the Lighthouse' as the two best novels I have ever read. Even though you weren't completely sold on it, I am glad that you were able to appreciate its strengths in terms of style and form. I agree completely with your assessment of irony in relation to Septimus and the embracing of death as a 'heroic act.' Suffering from shell-shock and unable to reintegrate back into society, he undergoes a type of psychological death but you are correct to pinpoint that it also serves as a rejection of the 'material world.' Perhaps my interpretation is a little more nihilistic, but I see Septimus as someone who cannot deal with the harsh reality of life: death becomes a reprieve. The way Woolf is able to convey his depression and descent into "madness" is so convincing and tragic.

    I find that this is one of those novels that greatly improves on repeat readings and closer analysis. There is so much to absorb and each reading is like a new experience.

  12. Ah, you noticed my hesitant approval of it. I felt like I was wading through a marsh full of jewels but was only able to find about 65% of them. I know there is more in this book for me to "mine", but that's what makes a classic, a classic, right?

    Yes, your view would be more nihilistic than mine. I cannot forget the thoughts of Septimus …….. he was really focussing on what is important in life (beauty, truth, loyalty …..) and it was because he couldn't find these in this world he had been plunked back into, he chose not to live there (death). So not so much a rejecting of the material world as a failure to recognize anything in the world as worthwhile or human; more of a focus on the lack of the positives than the negatives. Does that make sense? I thought the war gave him clarity within the obscurity of the real world. But this is only my take and perhaps not what Woolf meant to portray at all. It actually worried me for a moment that I was most able to relate to a shell-shocked suicidal victim. 😉

    I really enjoy your insightful comments, Jason!

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