Monday, August 24, 2009

22. “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf

Year of first publication: 1925
Genre: modernist novel
Country: England

About the author: Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) was an experimental novelist, critic, short story writer and essayist of the twentieth century, best remembered for the classics, To the Lighthouse (1927) and Mrs Dalloway (1925). She was born in London in 1882, daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a literary critic. She was born in an upper-middle class, socially active family. She suffered her first major breakdown on the death of her father in 1904. In spite of the fact that in Victorian England women were not encouraged to attend university or participate in the literary debate, she began writing essays and reviews. Later she moved with her family to Bloomsbury where they gathered around them a set of writers and artists, including Leonard Woolf, who married Virginia in 1912. Together they set up the Hogarth Press which published Sigmund Freud, Katherine Mansfield and T.S. Eliot. Leonard also encouraged Virginia to write in her calm periods. Her first two novels are fairly conventional, but her later works are highly innovative: she used the interior monologue, or “stream of consciousness”, and poetic symbolism, with the emphasis on character as opposed to plot. Apart from the aforementioned classics, other works by Virginia Woolf include Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931) and A Room of One’s Own (1929), a feminist text. Continual mental depression led Virginia to drown herself in 1941.

Plot: In London, at the end of the First World War, Clarissa Dalloway is preparing for one of her famous parties. Unexpectedly, her first lover Peter Walsh comes back from India and brings old memories with him. Clarissa remembers her childhood dreams and the events leading to her uneventful marriage with Richard Dalloway, who gave her a comfortable life in an affluent neighbourhood of London. Around Clarissa, a set of different characters: Septimus Warren Smith, for example, who’s going mad with shell-shock and her daughter Elizabeth, who’s now almost a woman. As Septimus decides to commit suicide because he’s not able to deal with life anymore, Clarissa reflects on death and on the differences between people’s personalities.

Some thoughts: I absolutely love Virginia Woolf: I’ve already read To The Lighthouse, Orlando and most of A Room of One’s Own (I used it a lot when I was writing my graduation thesis on Janet Frame, as both authors felt the necessity to have a quiet place and enough “piece of mind” to write without too many worries). I love her “stream of consciousness” and how she portrays the inner life of different people, especially women, in their everyday actions. When I was in London I went in front of her house in Bloomsbury and took a picture, then sat in the nice park in the square just in front of it and ate my sandwich, wondering how many “deep thoughts” that place had heard from Virginia and her friends of the Bloomsbury group.
In Cunningham’s The Hours (and in the movie of the same name) there is a fictionalised version of Virginia Woolf in the period when she was writing Mrs Dalloway (and also in the period of her suicide, such a sad thing when it happens to an artist, don’t you think?). I think that the use of famous people, either dead or alive, as characters in novels (it’s becoming more and more common) reveals that the interior world of that particular person is something we still have an interest in. In this book, we don’t read about Virginia Woolf’s interior world, of course, but we learn about Mrs Dalloway’s thoughts and musings, which is quite satisfying anyway.
Given that it is quite impossible to say something on Mrs Dalloway that hasn’t already been said a hundred times, I just want to point out something that struck me. A recurring sentence in the book, which is actually a verse from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, says: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages”. Both Septimus Warren Smith and Mrs Dalloway utter this sentence over and over again. Moreover, it is used in Janet Frame’s Autobiography: when the author is in the mental hospital, she keeps on scribbling this sentence (I can recall the scene in the movie very well, because she writes the sentence on the walls of her room / cell). The three of them (Septimus Warren Smith, Janet Frame and Virginia Woolf) suffered from some sort of mental illness and my interpretation, at the time when I was reading Janet Frame’s book, was completely wrong. I thought that this verse was quite hopeful, a sort of encouragement to ignore the storms in your inner world and try to live your life happily, but I found out that it is quite the opposite. The line is actually from a funeral song that celebrates death as a comfort after a difficult life. Septimus’s life has become unbearable: he has lived the horrors of the war and lost many friends, thus ordinary life in post-war London is worthless to him. Clarissa reflects on the death of her friend and feels responsible for it. Was it the same feeling experienced by Virginia Woolf moments before she drowned herself, during the Second World War, when London was being bombed? Through Shakespeare’s words, nonetheless, Clarissa can finally accept death, something that had been troubling her for the whole day. There is therefore an optimistic side to this novel that is otherwise rather sad.
I acknowledge that with this novel Virginia Woolf found her voice: she describes everyday actions like buying flowers or eating dinner, showing that no action is too ordinary for the attention of a writer. Given that Virginia Woolf was writing the novel in the period when Sigmund Freud was publishing his theories on the subconscious and there was much interest in psychology, I can understand how fascinating the mind of a human being must have been for her. The author shows that our inner lives are always very rich, but they are separated from each other’s. Despite the fact that Clarissa throws parties in order to draw people together, they remain distant and struggle to communicate with each other. It is perfectly clear that people like Clarissa or Septimus are emotional and sensitive, they like to think a lot and to reflect about life, whereas other people like Richard or Lady Bruton are more materialistic. If you pay attention, for example, flowers are a recurring theme and certainly they are a symbol of emotions and a rich inner life. In the book people treat flowers differently: Clarissa is comfortable with flowers and in the first section she is buying flowers for the party, whereas Richard handles the conventional bouquet of roses awkwardly and gives them to Lady Bruton, who lays them stiffly by the plate.
There is so much more to this novel and I’m sure it needed more attention and at least a reread (sometimes it was difficult for me to deal with the shifts of point of view, but I guess that’s the inconvenience of the stream of consciousness).


  1. Hola muy buen blog.
    Conozco poco el ingles y el italiano, pero he leído algunos post de tu blog y veo que compartimos algunos gustos en lecturas.
    De la literatura italiana a mi me gusta mucho Italo Calvino y Baricco.
    De Woolf mi libro prefiero es las olas.
    En tu lista de lectura en el numero 26 esta la fiesta del chivo es un libro muy bueno
    Bueno saludos desde Chile

  2. Me alegra que puedas leer mi posts en italiano o en inglés, o que por lo menos ententes! Nunca podría escribir algo sobre literatura en castellano, me faltan demasiadas palabras...

    Calvino y Baricco son muy buenos escritores, quizás mis preferidos en absoluto entre los italianos. Mi novela favorida de Calvino es "Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore", conoces? No he leido "Las olas" de V. Woolf, esa me falta, pero Virginia me gusta muchisimo, tiene una sensibilidad que es dificil encontrar en novelas de este tipo y epoca.

    Sí, me gusta mucho Vargas Llosa, he leido bastante novelas suyas! Me gusta aún más que García Márquez (la super-star de la literatura hispano-americana, no?). Cuando escriba el comentario sobre "La fiesta del chivo" me dejarás un comentario diciendome si estás de acuerdo o no!

    Yo también conozco algo de literatura chilena, algunos poetas (Neruda y Mistral sobre todo) y algunos escritores (he leido mucho Isabel Allende, pero las primeras novelas me han gustado y las siguientes no). También me gustaría leer Bolaño que creo es chileno!


  3. Stefania:

    Quiero ampliar mis conocimientos de ingles e italiano , para leer en lenguaje original las joyas narrativas de esos idiomas

    Mi novela preferida de Calvino es “Si una noche de invierno un viajero” , que es la traducción de Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore”. Es la novela donde un lector se encuentra con una lectora, por que los dos están leyendo el mismo libro y tienen las paginas cambiadas. Gran novela. Hermosa.

    Las olas es un muy buena novela, yo estoy buscando un libro de Woolf donde habla de unos lectores de una biblioteca publica.

    Mi novela preferida de Vargas Llosa es conversación en la catedral , en el fondo toda la narrativa de Vargas Llosa , me gusta lo único que no me gustan son sus artículos en los periódicos , donde habla de cualquier cosa menos de narrativa.

    Bolaño es chileno y tiene excelentes novelas , mi preferida es 2666

    Saludos y sigo explorando los secretos de tú blog y esperando las nuevas entradas.

    Pd: Ahora estoy leyendo Esta historia de Baricco , ¿ Tu has leído algo de el , yo he leido Seda , Océano Mar , sin sangre , City y me gustan mucho?