Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

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In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf captures a woman’s joys and frustrations in a single day by revealing her thought processes. Although some other character’s thoughts are captured as well, it was Clarissa Dalloway that I related to.

I struggled to read Woolf at first. It was confusing and rambling and I didn’t want to keep reading. Someone suggested that I slow down significantly. So I did: I began reading it aloud. As I did so, the stream of consciousness writing style became clear to me.

The turning point for me – where I decided I wanted to continue reading – was as Clarissa (Mrs. Dalloway) stood looking in a bookstore window, trying to decide which book to buy for her ill friend.

“…Ever so many books there were; but none that seemed exactly right to take to Evelyn Whitbread in her nursing home. Nothing that would serve to amuse her and made that indescribably dried-up little woman look, as Clarissa came in, just for a moment cordial; before they settled down for the usual interminable talk of women’s ailments. How much she wanted it — that people should looked pleased as she came in, Clarissa thought and turned and walked back towards Bond Street, annoyed, because it was silly to have other reasons for doing things. Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. Oh if she could have had her life over again! …” (page 10)

I do that: I try to imagine what people want from me. I try to do things because I feel I should. My husband, like her husband, is my example of what I should be: doing things for the things themselves or for myself (i.e., because I personally want to take my friend this particular book). I often find myself thinking that if I had my life over again, I’d get in the habit of doing things right.

In the next paragraph, she ponders what she’d do differently if she did have her life to live over again, and she mourns the death of who she is or was:

“…She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway. …”

This paragraph struck me even though I’m completely different from some of the specifics Woolf mentions. I’m young; I’ll probably have more children; I am rarely called Mrs. Reid and never Mrs. my-husband’s-first-name Reid. But somehow I did relate to Clarissa. Sometimes I do feel invisible, unseen, and unknown. I spend 12 hours a day awake with a toddler, alone, and when I do go in public, people see me as the mom with the toddler. They see me through the filter of what I’m doing, and not as myself. Clarissa’s feelings are similar to some of the feelings I have as I go through life as a busy mom with a busy kid. Who knows me?

The rest of Mrs. Dalloway has so much more in it that I got out of it on this read. As I read, I kept thinking, “I need to reread this before I can write a proper post.” Suffice it to say, I’m not writing a proper post this time around: I will have to reread it to get more of the marvelous depth I found in Woolf’s introspective look at a variety of people.

Throughout, Clarissa was the one that I was fascinated with, and on this read, I didn’t see the necessity of the other character’s detailed experiences. I’m sure if I reread it, I’d see just why certain people are brought into the story.

I related to Clarissa’s frustration at the party, even though she’d been so excited about it. I, too, often plan something only to wonder during the whole event “Why did I want to do this again?!”

In the end (spoiler warning), I found it touching that Peter was the one to recognize Clarissa as Clarissa, and not as “Mrs. Dalloway.” I felt he was the only one who never stopped seeing her as herself, and I am comforted knowing that this is the type of relationship I have with my husband. How precious it is to me to know I am not “unseen” and “invisible” to him! If only Clarissa could have had friends (beyond Peter, who probably wasn’t going to be around for long) or a husband who could have seen her properly.

I suppose Mrs. Dalloway is a depressing book, for that reason. Clarissa feels alone and sad. Despite the joy of the morning and the planned events, the evening’s party only brought her lower into her aloneness. But as I finished the novel, I didn’t feel depressed, I felt enlightened. I felt I wasn’t alone because others (even fictional characters) go through internal battles, others feel “unseen” in the middle of a busy street, and yet these “others” survive. They do find some moments of joy and friends that recognize them for themselves.

What point made you want to keep reading? Or did you enjoy it from page one?

What character did you most enjoy reading about? 

Reviewed on January 15, 2010

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.

  • Actually the character I felt the most kinship with was Rezia, whose progress through the book felt very personal to me – though as I said in m y review, to me the fun was that it DID move from soul to soul so quickly…

  • I have a lot of Woolf on my shelves but I have always been too indimated to read any of them. Although I only read the first half of your review–didn’t want to read any spoilers!–you made me consider the fact that reading Woolf may not be as scary of a prospect as I’ve made it out to be thus far.

  • I didn’t feel like the book was meant to be depressing. Something happens that’s sad, yes, and people are often sad, but in the end, the individual doesn’t matter, and life goes on. I don’t know that it was particularly uplifting, but it felt satisfying. Life keeps going. I hope that makes sense.

    The way you talk about your public relationship with your son is exactly how I felt when reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

  • This is such a great review – I’ve resolved this year to read one book by Virginia Woolf, as I have never done so before, and now I am actually kind of excited about it. Thanks for that!

  • I always want to keep reading the Virginia Woolf novels that I’ve tried… the problem is that I never feel I can! I have the same problem that you had at first, in that I always feel I’m just reading a jumble of words that fail to say anything to me at all. And I’ve tried reading slow, and I’ve tried re-reading paragraphs and then I ultimately feel stupid because I still don’t get it. Last night I made it to page 28 of To the Lighthouse and then put it down because I got tired of struggling so much with the text. I admit, it’s the furthest I’ve ever made it into a Woolf novel thus far, and I still think that maybe one day I’ll be able to make it through one so that I can have a chance of knowing why people who love her do love her so much, but right now I guess she’s my literary kryptonite. So now I’m reading Charles Dickens, because he’s my other literary stumbling block and I want to feel I can read at least one author who intimidates me!

  • Your review (and the comments so far) really show how your stage of life affects the way you read a book. When I was a young mom with my first toddler – 40 some years ago – I don’t remember being much of a reader. And I don’t think I’d have been able to read Virginia Woolf. What finally made me ready when I read To The Lighthouse last year? I just don’t know – although I have to say I’m so much in love with language now. Isn’t this fun, reading along with other folks?

  • I don’t think the book is meant to be sad or depressing. Maybe it takes more than one read to get past that because I certainly understand how the various elements between Clarissa and Septimus are sad. Septimus makes me cry. But ultimately I find the book to be quietly uplifting.

  • Not a proper post? I loved it. It explores a very valid point about relevance for some readers. Personal connections enhancing the reading experience. And although my children are 9 and 12 now, I have been right where you are now – as invisible as some of Mrs. Dalloway’s characters. Or at least I felt that way.

    And the book is sad. But I did note that how can I come away from a book that should leave me a bit depressed with such happiness and readerly contentment?

    Also loved that you read parts of it aloud. I did the same. It almost calls for a voice, doesn’t it?

  • Rebecca, I’ve read the book numerous times and I STILL don’t feel able to write a “proper post” about it. I think you did a great job! But I also deeply know what you mean. How to encapsulate it all?

    There was this series of letters after Mrs. Dalloway was published in which two of Woolf’s friends wrote to her, almost simultaneously. They both liked the novel but one said “Why include Clarissa? It’s obvious that the point of the novel is Septimus.” And the other, almost in the exact same words, said “Why include Septimus? It’s obvious that the point of the novel is Clarissa.” 🙂 So I think you’re really hitting on something here – the shifting facets that expose different characters to the reader, and the reader relates to different ones depending one his or her own experience. When I first read the book I hardly noticed Rezia, for example, but now I think she’s so poignant…and I think that realization came partly from being in a long-term partnership myself, and imagining how scary it would be if my partner became schizophrenic or suicidal.

  • Very nice post. How closely you related Clara’s feelings to your own too. Several people have said they need a second read or even more to get the flow. I’m clearly one of them. I’ve just read it for the first time-no notes in the book or anything to help a little. But these posts are so enlightening that I’m really glad I joined the group. I look forward to your thoughts on the next book.

  • I identified most with Clarissa as well, but I didn’t see her as depressed as you! Moreover, I didn’t think Peter tried to see her as herself at all. To me, it seemed like he was projecting his issues on to her! Isn’t it funny how we all got such different impressions from the book? I wonder if this being my second go round affected me much…I know that I wasn’t as bothered by Peter the first time I read it.

  • Thanks for this post! It is amazing how much your own place in life effects how you respond to a book – and I think this is even more true when it comes to Woolf. I’m so glad you stuck to it – I definitely had to slow down and figure out how to approach it the first time round. With my second reading I’ve decided that reading slowly is simply the way to go with Woolf. There is really so much going on at once!

  • Yeah! Someone else thought it was depressing! 🙂 I’m not sure I should be excited about that though. I didn’t think it was depressing in a bad way; I still really enjoyed it. Rezia is the character who most stuck with me, and who I felt the most for. I felt like Clarissa also had a sad life, and it’s interesting to me that so many others thought it was uplifting. To me, she just seemed to settle. I just want something more in life than she had, and I know I have a far better relationship with my husband than she seemed to with Richard, which is why I think I found it sad. I just felt like we have something so much better and deeper and have a stronger love, and it’s sad that she doesn’t have that.

  • Jason, …and I read it wondering why in the world Rezia and Septimus were there! Off to read your review.

    Stephanie, I did find it intimidating, but going slowly was ultimately rewarding!

    Amanda, I think I read THE AWAKENING in my pre-marriage days. Sounds like one I’d resonate with now. I think you make a good point: neither happy nor sad but satisfying in the end!

    Jenny, I’m also excited to read more Woolf! On to more Woolf in Winter!

    Steph, I can understand: I think it takes a certain concentration to read that can be very frustrating. Read it aloud, when you have a long block of time, and just listen to the words — like poetry. Then it worked for me, at least. Enjoy your Dickens at least (if you can!).

    Lu, Like to said in response to Jason, Rezia’s presence confused me. Definitely need to reread and see what you all saw!

    Julia, it is fun reading along! I can’t wait to read everyone else’s posts!

    Stefanie, I can see the quietly uplifting! I did find it ultimately sad because I felt for Clarissa so much: she was so lonely. But yes, she moved on. So for me was definitely satisfying if anything.

    Frances, that is the key. Although I too found it sad, I put it down not feeling depressed by satisfied. Maybe just because I’m not feeling as lonely as poor Clarissa! And yes, definitely calls for a read-aloud voice. Looking forward to the next Woolf!

    Emily, so interesting about the different perspectives! I definitely need to reread it considering the other characters. And I don’t feel bad about the fact that I miss a lot in this post because I’m sure I’ll reread it 🙂

    Sandra, I’m glad there is a group to give their feedback, otherwise I’d be talking to the wall, it seems. There is so much here! I too need a reread!

    Kathy, definitely a book to be savored!

    Eva, Interesting comments about Peter. I really want to reread now and see what you’re saying. He did have plenty of his own issues, so I wonder how I didn’t see that. I just loved how in the end he calls her Clarissa when no one else recognized her as Clarissa but as Mrs Dalloway. But I’ve only read it once. So much I missed, I’m sure.

    Sarah, these comments are showing me how much I “missed”!

    Chris, “dream-like” is a good description.

    Lindsey, yes, what you say about Clarissa and her husband is why I was sad about her life! They just didn’t communicate ever and I’m so glad I can communicate with my husband!

  • It’s so nice to hear that you struggled at first with Woolf’s writing style. I had the same experience, but you’ve inspired me to pick up her work again.

  • Rebecca, I really loved your post. It’s great that you found such a personal connection with Clarissa’s character. I myself connected the most with Peter. It’s so odd because my life is nothing like his, and his attitude completely different from my own, and yet I felt for him the most. I shall find myself rereading this and gleaning so much more after all the insights garnered from everyone’s posts.

  • I just finished my second read of this book and only remembered the pacing – so fast! so much STUFF! the first time and was glad I could slow it down for the second read. This book begs to be read again and again.

  • This is the second review on this book two days running and I came to both by accident. I picked up this book in a second hand stall and now its top of the TBR pile. Thanks

  • Trisha, it’s just so different it takes a bit of getting used to!

    claire, I too find it curious that we all respond differently to the same words. The sign of a great novel!

    Care, definitely a book made for rereads.

    Mystica, there was a big group read-a-long so there are lots of reviews out there this week! You should give it a try.

    Suzanne, yeah, although it’s short, it’s not meant to be rushed through.

  • Glad to see you made it through and enjoyed it. I was interested to see you comment about reading it aloud. I have listened to audiobook versions of both this and “To the Lighthouse” (in addition to reading them) and it surprised me how both works improved while hearing them…things ‘clicked’ that escaped me during the initial reading.

  • Your reaction of not feeling alone because other people go through the same thing is exactly how I felt at times reading ‘To the Lighthouse’, very hard to keep hearing Woolf’s ideas on the depressing nature of the world, but also rather enlivening like all artifice has been ripped off. Maybe Mrs Dalloway should be my next book by her.

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