Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This is the first book in the Woolf in Winter read along. It’s also the first time I’ve personally read Virginia Woolf. I’m amazed that a book written in 1925 can have so much bearing on life today in 2010. 85 years have done little to lessen the grief people suffer from war, or the social status some try to achieve, or the way that we look back on our lives with a mixture of joy and regret.

Mrs. Dalloway is 52, I’m 48. I can relate to her almost perfectly as she remembers how she looked and what it felt like to be 18. I, too, look back on my life and wonder, “What if I’d married this person?” or “How would my life be different if I’d made that choice?” (I doubt that the loves of our lives are ever fully erased; even 30 years later Peter feels “extraordinary excitement” when he sees Clarissa at the end of her party.)

Her party is the vehicle for which the novel takes place. All day long she prepares for it, from stepping out early in the morning to buy the flowers herself, to meeting most of the people whom she had invited.  My favorite of these characters happens to be Sally Seton:

But her voice was wrung of its old ravishing richness; her eyes not aglow as they used to be, when she smoked cigars, when she ran down the passage to fetch her sponge bag, without a stitch of clothing on her, and Ellen Atkins asked, What if the gentlemen had met her? But everybody forgave her. She stole a chicken from the larder because she was hungry in the night; she smoked cigars in her bedroom; she left a priceless book in the punt. But everybody adored her (except perhaps Papa). It was her warmth; her vitality-she would paint, she would write.  (p. 181)

I don’t think I’m supposed to like Sally best; afterall, the novel isn’t entitled Mrs. Seton. But, Clarissa ended up irritating me. I found her too focused on the external, too intent on a good facade, too motivated by the demands of society.

In the end, I think Clarissa made peace with her choices. She finds great contentment in her party, in her guests, her daughter, her husband, her life. This is in high contrast to the tragedy of Septimus Warren Smith, who announces throughout the novel that he will kill himself, then succeeds by throwing himself out of a window.

What are we to make of this? Can we surmise that the lives we live are an indication of our spirits? I will be contemplating both of these characters for a long time: one takes his life, the other plans her party. It’s such a dichotomy.

Join in the discussion of Mrs. Dalloway with our fine hostess, Sarah.

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36 thoughts on “Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf”

  1. I like the new look too! This is one of my favorite wordpress themes :)Your thoughts about Mrs. Dalloway are spot on with mine. Though I ended up liking Rezia and Septimus the best. Clarissa did annoy me as well, but she was very perfectly created, you know? You chose a completely different quote than I did, but it's so wonderful! Excellent choice 🙂

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  2. Oh, I definitely think the lives we lead reflect our spirits, not to mention our emotions and our thoughts. But your question is interesting because I'm not sure how I would describe Clarissa Dalloway's spirit. There's a point near the end where she seems to be tired of her party-giving self. Her love of life seems to be a major theme– She seems to feel she has been given a certain life and a certain personality– she seems to know herself pretty well– and how she responds to these gifts is what matters. She makes the choice to respond with gaiety, doesn't she?

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  3. There is a certain appreciation that those of us mid way through life have for this novel, isn't there? The questions, the possibilities all circle in our heads about the possibilities past.I think Mrs. Dalloway, as Julia suggests, loves life in way that renders her endlessly satisfying to me but she has partially lost a means to define or write that joy while mired down in the classist, patriarchal position she occupies in society. When she removes herself either physically or through memory from those restraints, we see her real spirit.So glad you enjoyed the read, and I look forward to your thoughts on To the Lighthouse.

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  4. That's so true; when she removes herself from the restraints of society, I appreciate her so much more! It must be as you said, that that's because we can see her real spirit then.This is a wonderful discussion; I'm enjoying it so much, and greatly anticipating To The Lighthouse.

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  5. It'll will be good to read your thoughts when you get it done. Isn't it hard to keep up with our lists? Thanks for appreciating the new look. This one is probably here to stay, as every time I move I lose links to books I've read.

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  6. Rezia was a very touching character. She loved her husband so much, and she tried so hard to help him. (I couldn't believe how the doctors kept inisiting there was nothing wrong with him!) The part just before he dies, where they're in the room together as she's fixing her hats, is so poignant. I feel badly that her love wasn't enough to sustain him.

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  7. Great review. I liked Sally too. I clearly need to read this book again. Reading all these reviews today makes me realize that I missed the nuances. So far those I've rea have each brought out something completely different. I'm getting quite an education about Woolf's fiction. Sarah hasn't posted yet I see but my post is up.

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  8. Thoughtful post, Belleza – and so true about the book seeming surprisingly relevant to modern life. You're definitely not alone in feeling frustrated with the character of Clarissa Dalloway – Woolf herself worried that Clarissa was too surface-y, too shiny and polished. I personally love her, but I can understand how she comes off as too superficial to many readers…and, like Frances said, the society in which she lives has encouraged those tendencies in her. At the same time, that passage about how her party-giving is an offering a bringing-people-together, I find very touching.Thanks so much for reading along!

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  9. I'm getting an education, too, Sandra. It's wonderful to have the chance to discuss this with each other, it adds so much to my point of view about the book which I've always wanted to read.

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  10. Emily, I'm gaining a better perspective on Clarissa through everyone's thoughts, and as you say, her party is an offering. It's lovely to give of oneself for the purpose of bringing others together, and that is not a quality I'd ever scorn.

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  11. I think it's interesting that Clarissa herself questions her own superficialness. She kind of resents the mirror that Peter seems to represent, in that he is so good at showing her where she fails, or what she is really thinking when she sits down to write a kind note, etc. She resents it because she sees the truth in it though – and I love how she accepts that, her own failings and disappointments, and strives to go on and do better, offering what little she can and taking as much joy as she can find in it all.

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  12. I noticed how some of the characters were much more appealing than others too, and during the passages which focused on the less appealing ones (Mrs. Kilwin and the doctor and his wife for example) my mind tended to drift, as it does when you're forced to listen to dinner party conversation with someone you don't really care for!I did enjoy Sally, for she was like a breath of fresh air among these rather stuffy people. I think Clarissa would like to be a "deeper" person, but she's such a product of the life she's chosen that she doesn't quite know how.

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  13. You are so right, I didn't think about just how much of life now was reflected in a book written almost 90 years ago. That has made me want to re-read it again. I must remember this train of thought when I do eventually re-read it! Though that might be a while.

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  14. I wrote about the contrast between Clarissa and Septimus too! But you articulate it so much better. I think the lives we live sometimes are in fact a contradiction to our inner selves. We dream of things ultimately higher (in intellect, society, or in spirituality) but leave our outer selves as they were, packaged in the way we were fashioned growing up, the way our family and peers have branded us.

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  15. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the book. I also took part in this challenge and never heard of Virginia before. The book was beautiful, somethimes indeed difficult, but in the ending you just think about life. I also somethimes get irritted by Clarissa! 🙂

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  16. I like your idea of seeing Peter as a mirror, reflecting her youth and what was her life now is rather than what it could've been. She does take the joy she can, and it seemed to me that she was ultimately content with her marriage. I thought Peter was the one who had more regrets.

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  17. Becca, I love your connection with being at a dinner party with someone you don'tn really care for: perfect! I hadn't thought about Clarissa being a product of the life she's chosen, so much, because I think I usually take the idea that we make of ourselves what we want. However, we're probably very much a product of our environment/social structure. Ew…

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  18. I think if I ever read it again it will be with much deeper appreciation from all the discussion we've had about this book. What an enriching experience to me as a reader!

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  19. This reminds me of Becca's comment about how we may be more of a product of our social structure than we think. I so want to be true to my inner self, and even more, the self that I believe God has made, and I wonder how much of that I've sacrificed to 'fit in'. I know it's a battle in the materialistic city within which I live to not be caught up in fashion and finances, trips and possessions. See how this makes "our" lives like Clarissa's?!

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  20. Nina, thanks for visiting. I'll come over and read your thoughts, but I'm glad you know what I mean about Clarissa. Maybe what I dislike about her are some of the very things I dislike about myself, as I read through all the comments above.

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  21. This really is fascinating. I've not read the book, but your review and another I've read suggest a very interesting perspective: Clarissa and Septimus as the two sides of Virginia Woolf's own bi-polar disorder. Clarissa certainly has a thing or two in common with the Bloomsbury crowd, and Septimus, in his withdrawal and isolation, ends his life with a gesture lived out by Woolf in her own.If this keeps up, I'm going to be developing one of those TBR piles! Lovely, intriguing review.

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  22. Linda, join us on January 29th for In The Lighthouse. I would so love to have your perspective! Do you have time to read it before then?Manic depression (bi-polar disorder) is so very hard for me. My first husband suffered from it before he died, and it's so difficult for me to understand the how it comes, why it stays part of it. Like any disease, I suppose. If I get brave enough, I'd like to read more of Woolf's life (knowing very little about it) because I can see that she dealt with this subject head-on.

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  23. I agree with you, I thought Sally was the most likeable character. Thanks for respecting my honesty. I must admit to being a little fearful about posting my own opinion for fear I would sound ignorant. However, I felt I wouldn’t be true to myself if I posted something else.I have learned a lot reading the reviews and comments. There were a number of reviewers that said they had to read the book several times before they enjoyed it. I really enjoyed participating in the reading group. This was my primary reason for joining up. I think it is great fun to share thoughts about a book with other people. I would like to join up with more people conducting reading groups. And I do plan on continuing with this group at least through the next book. I just hope it has a plot 🙂

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  24. Yes, I like Sally too. It is funny how much our perceptions of different books change over time. This time around, I think I understood Clarissa a bit better than when I first read her in college (heck, I'm practically her age now), but also found her much more difficult to write about than expected. Odd.Your review is wonderful & has me thinking. Thank you.

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  25. I'm going to have to pass on "The Lighthouse" if I'm to finish the JLC3 books. But we'll see – I never know when I'm going to get an unfortunate stretch of bad weather that keeps me from work. When that happens, writing and reading help keep my mind off my diminishing cash flow ;-)When I lived in Liberia, there was a woman with obvious psychological problems. She never was diagnosed formally, of course, but we all suspected bi-polar disorder. Your comment reminded me of something other Liberians would say when she began exhibiting strange behaviors – that the spirits had "overtaken her". From their point of view, her disease was a visitation rather than a disease. Practically speaking, it was a perfectly adequate explanation, and helped everyone deal with the situation without condemning the woman. Did you know that Woolf herself attempted suicide by throwing herself out a window? One thing I have to find out, just to satisfy my own curiosity, is whether that happened before or after writing Mrs. Dalloway. More research is required!

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  26. Sally's character was incredible, simply because she didn't end up doing what society expected her to do, but did things her way. I loved that about her, and the fact that she seemed to have a good head on her shoulders – far less whimsical than Clarissa. However, I really liked Elizabeth's character – specially when she gets on the Omnibus and sees life on the Strand. In fact, I think that was one of my favourite parts of the book – it just made the book come that much more alive in my hands/head! It's been an extremely cool experience – reading so many people's thoughts and insights into a classic. I'm going to have to mark it for a re-read…. soon!

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  27. It's been several years since I read Mrs. Dalloway, but I so enjoyed reading your review and the follow-up comments. Not to worry, dear Bellezza — you were quite articulate! I don't know if I'll ever reread the book, but you've inspired me to watch the movie again. Maybe back-to-back with The Hours.

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  28. I like the new look of your blog! Thanks for the thumbs up on the new PBS series. Every season of my life that I see the Jane Austen series I muse on how my attitudes about the various characters have evolved.

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  29. Such thoughtful observations Bellezza:) Sadly, I didn't get to join in the read-along for this one, but all your reviews really convince me that I should read this soon. I agree with your thoughts about the unchanging qualities of human society. Times change but man remains the same.

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