Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“The World had raised its whip; where will it descend?”
                                                                   -  Mrs Dalloway

       Mrs Dalloway is one of those rare books that I abandoned midway despite really wanting to read it. This was over three years ago when my son had just been born.  Let me share some hard earned wisdom with you:  Mrs Dalloway  is not the best read when you’re wading through post partum depression. In fact, you may want to avoid Virginia Woolf entirely. Anyhow, now that I’m not perpetually sleep-deprived and cranky (much) I thought I’d give  Mrs Dalloway  another go. I was surprised at how much darker it had felt the first time I’d taken it up. Goes to show, doesn’t it, that a book can mean such different things depending on where you are in your life. Now, I’m not suggesting that this book is actually all bright and sunshiny, far from it, but it’s more thought-provoking than depressing.

       Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party that evening and the book follows her and a few other characters around London during the hours preceding the party.  The narrative zigzags between the past and the present, thoughts and words, but Woolf does this with such skill that you are never confused.  Since there’s nothing here that can conventionally be termed a story, I’d like to examine some of the elements of the book that interested me.

       Clarissa Dalloway: Woolf lived with Clarissa Dalloway for a long time before finally giving her a book of her own. The character first appears in the novel The Voyage Out and then in the short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, before evolving into the woman we meet in Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa is a wonderfully multi-layered character. At first glance she’s just another charming, but shallow and self centred woman of privilege. But beneath the serene exterior, she has her own struggles with life, age, mortality and isolation, although her struggles aren’t dramatic or noisy.

       Septimus Smith: Woolf intended Septimus to be another version of Clarissa. In her notes she refers to Septimus as Clarissa’s twin. Interestingly the two characters never meet or interact but it’s easy to see the link between them. Septimus suffers from post-war trauma and hallucinations. He is also convinced that humanity is innately cruel and therefore not worth being a part of. 
For the truth is (let her ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen.

       Clarissa’s loves: Richard Dalloway, the very proper and safe man she married, loves Clarissa in his own measured way but one is never quite sure if Clarissa feels anything beyond affection for him. Peter Walsh is the romance of her girlhood whom she rejected because he unsettled her. Now he’s back and a lot of her feelings for him are probably because he represents her youth. However, Clarissa’s most passionate love is for Sally Seton, a radical and bold girl who visited Clarissa when they were both young. 

       Dr Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw: Woolf really spews venom at the medical community of her time through these two characters. They are perhaps the most caricature-like of all her characters. Dr Holmes, the family physician, is insufferably patronizing. He seems to think Septimus is just being a bother and there’s nothing wrong with him that a hobby and some distraction wouldn’t cure. Dr Bradshaw, the specialist, on the other hand, pretends to sympathise but his ‘cure’ is really just a way of shutting the mentally infirm out of society.
Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views, until they too shared his sense of proportion.”

       Woolf’s notes suggest that she intended this book to be a sort of juxtaposition of the sane and insane, the living and the dead, the past and the present. She succeeds quite spectacularly in this regard. Admittedly, Mrs Dalloway takes some effort to read despite being a very slim book. But don’t let this put you off. I know a lot of people who have read and hated it but I still suggest you give this a chance, possibly even a second chance. I think it’s worth the effort.


  1. I've never read any Woolf books but I do associate them with hard work. But, as you said, that's not always a bad thing! Glad you found a better time to read this book.

  2. I think you’re right – reading Woolf right having giving birth seems like a really really bad idea. I’m glad you came back to it though. It’s one of those works that I didn’t really enjoy while I was reading it, but now I think about positively and it did inspire me to read more Woolf. I read To the Lighthouse and
    enjoyed it, and then I read The Waves I love that one! I think I’d like Mrs. Dalloway more on a reread,when I’m not focused on figuring out what’s going on. You have to just let the language crash over you and carry you on.

    1. "You have to just let the language crash over you and carry you on." very well put Lindsey.

  3. Try Woolf's short story "Solid Objects"-it is only 5 pages or so and it is, to me, a true master work.

  4. I read this for my undergrad degree and it stayed with me as one of my favourite classics, especially the moment where Clarissa's thinking about the death of Smith. I can understand why this book seemed a bit dark to you on first reading!