Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Thoughts on a Reread)

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Yesterday evening I returned home from my classics book club meeting very sad. We read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and when I last read it, I remember wishing I could read and discuss with other classics readers. My classics reading group (last year, a total of four of us) agreed to give it a try this year.

Alas, the people in my group, different people from those who gave input on this years’ books, were nothing but scathing in their thoughts of Mrs Dalloway. It was too much work, there were no chapters, nothing happened, the characters were flat and boring (!). In short, they got nothing out of it.

I can relate to that feeling. I recently read The Red Badge of Courage and felt only joy when it ended because I was not enjoying it at all. But this was particularly hard since I so enjoyed my reread.

This post contains thematic spoilers for Mrs Dalloway.

I loved Clarissa and Septimus and Rezia and especially Peter Walsh. I hated Richard Dalloway, and Doris Kilman. Richard was a jerk. Poor Clarissa was trapped; likewise, Septimus was trapped.Clarissa because of her gender roles in a changing age; Septimus because of his haunted past, his life during the war. I saw how they are foils for each other, and I loved discovering it.

One of the discussion questions I found about the book asked this.

When Clarissa reflects on Septimus’s death at the end of the novel, she experiences a moment of being, or an epiphany. What truth becomes clear to her, and why is it significant?

This end was one of my favorites in a long time. I loved her recognition of the world for the first time.

It was new to her. …  It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed. The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. … She felt somehow very like him — the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad 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. (page 186)

Can I just keep quoting Woolf? I love it. I need to read more of her novels. I believe Woolf is an acquired tasted, and she is meant to be read slowly, ponderously. She is meant to be reread. No, she’s not for everyone.

But it did break my heart a little bit to realize that all those in the group who read the book got none of the beauty. It makes me want to read everything a little bit more carefully. What beauty am I missing?

Reviewed on June 16, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I think Woolf requires a very specific audience. When my book club read this one – and they picked it! – no one showed up to the discussion. It was the only month in my club’s 5-year history when no one showed, and as far as I can tell, no one bothered to finish the book either. I agree, it makes a wonderful discussion book, but only if everyone involved actually read it and got something out of it. :/

  • I also read this with my book club but I seem to remember most people liking it. It is hard work, for sure. I had the feeling reading it that I was a feather on the wind floating from person to person in the book. I don’t remember a lot of it but as soon as I was done I knew I would have to reread it-someday.

  • I ADORE Woolf and I agree that she appeals to a limited number of readers. On the plus-side, I feel an enormous kinship and happiness when I connect with another Woolf reader. It is its very own special nerd-club!

  • I think Amanda is right that not everyone (even dedicated readers!) will respond to Woolf with a passion equal to your own. I must sadly admit that I have never been able to read anything by Woolf; she and I just appear to be on completely different wavelengths. I think I would try harder if I were reading her for a bookclub, but I can’t say in all honesty that my reaction would be much different from the rest of your group!

  • I know how you feel. When I spent a semester writing about Woolf in college, the vast majority of people with whom I talked about my project had reacted to her work similarly to what you’re describing. They were almost offended at the experimentation, at the lack of chapter breaks and “plot,” and the roaming limited third-person narrator (all things I find very inspiring about the novel). The word “depressing” was also bandied about a lot—whereas I find her utterly exhilarating. It definitely drove home to me the subjectivity inherent in interacting with art. And it was simultaneously disappointing (because I wanted to share my love of Woolf with others) and freeing (because after that I felt more empowered to voice my own reservations about books that are favorites for others).

    And I don’t think Richard Dalloway is a jerk! It’s a bit pathetic that he can’t tell his wife he loves her, but I have a lot of affection for him. That final scene when he and Elizabeth stand next to each other at the party and he tells her how he didn’t recognize her because she was so grown up…how can you not like him after that? And how he chats with Ellie Henderson when nobody else wants to, and sees to the comfort of ancient Miss Parry even though he doesn’t really like parties or understand why Clarissa gives them. I think he has his charm, Richard Dalloway.

    • Emily » ok, point taken about Richard Dalloway. I just felt he was repressing Clarissa; she was very unhappy and he didn’t seem to care or notice. Sigh. Now I need to read read it again. PS I found it exhilarating too!

  • I definitely feel that way about some authors! And as another Woolf lover, I was once told that I was LYING, that no one really liked her, I just wanted to ‘look smart.’ Um, ok. *rolls eyes*

  • I can echo Emily’s feelings about Woolf when she says she finds her writing “utterly exhilarating.” I just listened to To The Lighthouse, and if I had been reading a print copy, I know I would have underlined 2/3 of it! I don’t remember being quite as passionate about Mrs. Dalloway, although it was a positive experience.

  • I haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway yet, but I will. Such a shame it got such a bad reaction. I hope to see it. I hope to love it.

    I wonder, often, what beauty I’m missing. Sometimes I feel like I can’t really take in a novel on first read, the way I will on second read. I’m becoming a big fan of rereading. 🙂

  • I tried to get a book group I was in once to read Mrs. Dalloway. They all agreed but after two weeks they all called me and said there was no way they were going to finish the book. None of them liked it! So we read something else, I can’t even remember what, instead. I was so disappointed because it is a book I love and have read several times. So I understand how you feel.

  • I struggled with Mrs. Dalloway when I read it last year. It took me over an hour to read 35-odd pages, just because I genuinely found it a difficult read. However, I persisted, simply because I fell in love with her writing, and I wanted to know about the Septimus story. Like you, I thought the ending was fantastic.

    Thing is, every book is perceived differently by the reader. There are so many books that I have hated, and not found any redeeming quality… but other bloggers out there mention those books in their top-ten of all times. Not a classic, but Time Traveler’s Wife comes to mind. I really really hated the book, and I’m okay with that… there’s other books out there for me, for me to enjoy, for really, it’s all down to an individual.

    • anothercookiecrumbles » “every book is perceived differently by the reader.” I had this happen recently with RED BADGE OF COURAGE. OThers commented that they liked it, but I just didn’t find anything redeeming in it….Unfortunately…

  • As a fellow Virginia Woolf lover (i moved mountains to do my final uni dissertation on her non-fiction writings and biographies), I suggest you to read The Waves. It’s pure poetry, definitely without a real plot, but such beautiful words and descriptions.

  • About four years ago I noticed that I was checking Spanish Football scores several times a day – which felt like a poor use of my limited time on Earth. So I decided to read the 100 greatest novels instead. This is how I came to read “Mrs. Dalloway” for the first time.

    I am reading it for the fourth time now (I’m around page 30) and am finding that (more than ever) it absolutely slays me with the beauty of the prose and the illumination of meaningful ideas.

    My sense is that only the first 30-40 pages are challenging, and then it’s a fairly easy read to the end – but others may feel differently. Although it is only #93 on the list of great books which I’m reading, I have it as a clear #1 on my list.

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