Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was chosen by the Banned Books Club on which means this is yet another rereading.  But am I ever glad we chose to read this book so that I would be compelled to reread it.  I am beginning to think that Woolf will become a part of my rotation reading where I put certain favorite and favored writers, gradually reading and rereading everything they’ve written.

This novel lends itself to being read at least twice, if not more frequently.  So little seems to be happening on the surface.  On the first page Clarissa Dalloway decides to get “the flowers” herself as she and her household prepare for a party she is giving later that day.  That’s it.  That’s the plot—Mrs Clarissa Dalloway is giving a party and things happen throughout the day, people come and go, do things, think thoughts, say what they want but rarely what they mean, etc.

So why does it merit being visited more than once? 

For anyone who wants to be a writer and use the third person multiple point-of-view, Woolf so brilliantly moves between characters that it is almost impossible to perceive the shifts.  This novel should be read as a textbook by any writer who is struggling with how to make smoother point-of-view transitions because, when it is poorly done, it can be disruptive to the narrative flow, causing the reader to no longer feel lost or immersed in the overall story.

I found myself once again bemused with myself.  The novel begins with the single sentence:  Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  Which begs the question:  how is it that I didn’t think that flowers would be so meaningful when I read it the first time but this time I felt like every page was blooming with yet another reference to a flower or the use of floral imagery?  Nearly a third of the way through I was tempted to start at the beginning of the novel with the purpose of noting all flower images as I read along.  I’ll have to hopefully remember to do it next time because there are many and, no doubt, there are papers or entire books written on the subject out there somewhere.

It is also interesting to see how delicately Woolf handles the shift in society that is occurring at the time of this novel for it takes place five years after the end of World War I.  Sandra Gilbert, in her wonderful book Death’s Door, talks a great deal about the effects of this war upon society in general and the grieving process in particular.  Upon this reading of Mrs Dalloway, I found myself pondering the implications of the war, how much is changing, and will continue to change.  Clarissa’s generation is part of one stratum of society but society is moving at a pace that will soon leave her and her kind behind.  Some of the changes are as subtle as her daughter’s choice to wear pink instead of white while others are more apparent, with post-traumatic stress disorder being part of the story as well.  

There is a psychological depth that is especially remarkable in that psychology, itself, was relatively new in general and making only gradual inroads in literature, typically in the more experimental novels being published at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  Woolf has obviously not only considered this in her composing a seemingly simple story but she has truly mastered it.  If so little happens on the surface of things, there is a great deal that is happening within the depths of the characters.  Again, mostly subtle but some quite obvious.

I want to reread this novel already and not move on to anything else but I already have other books to be read and I can only hope that there will be time a year or two from now for me to revisit Clarissa Dalloway and her world.

To read my original review: go here.

This novel is also part of the Classic Bribe challenge I've been enjoying so very much.  


  1. Yes! This is easily one of the best novels that I have ever read in my entire life. No hyperbole.

    Well said about Woolf's amazing ability to transition fluidly between different character perspectives. I have never come across any other author who is able to enter the cognitive perception of their characters so effectively with such intricacy and emotional resonance. It's awe-inspiring. The abundance of flower imagery is certainly striking and perhaps it does serve a greater metaphorical purpose than initially perceived. I'll have to keep this in mind the next time I read the novel. Great review as always, Satia. :)

  2. Thanks Jason. The review is as much a reminder to myself so that when I do reread this novel (and short of not living long enough to do so, I trust I shall) I will remember what to look for the next time I read it.


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