Friday, January 15, 2010

Mrs. Dalloway by Virgina Woolf

I read this novel for the first time as part of the Woolf in Winter reading group. Discussion of this book is hosted today by Sarah at what we have here is a failure to communicate. There you will find the reviews and opinions of the other book group readers. I thought a second perspective on the book might clarify some things about the story for me. So I invited John Mutford of The Book Mine Set to do a guest post and give us his take on this modern classic. My thoughts on the book are at the end of this review. Here's what John had to say.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virgina Woolf

"It was okay. This is not the glowing review that I'm sure many English profs would give it.
While I can't say that such a scant plot enthralled me, it isn't as boring as one might think.

I think I have a better handle on this stream-of-consciousness style. Quite like reading a daily-journal-entry-type blog, it has the appeal of being let into someone else's world and the realization that most thoughts are actually quite mundane. But what keeps Mrs. Dalloway from slipping into the back of your brain too much, is the occasional glimpse into her troubles and especially her desires. When Woolf sticks to one character at a time, I'm fine. I'm not sure I grasp everything at those moments but my attention doesn't waver off leaving me trying to figure out what so-and-so is talking about. I read about the luncheon party that Richard Dalloway (Clarissa's husband) was invited. If Woolf had let go the stream-of-consciousness thing here, or still had it contained within a single person (say Richard) perhaps I could have followed. But it jumps from one person to the next and I simply couldn't attend to anyone. I found myself thinking about a time I went to an arena full of people with my hearing impaired grandfather. His hearing aid was rendered useless and he simply had to shut it off, explaining later that it couldn't focus on or isolate one conversation and just magnified all the noise in the room. See the connection?

At the end of this book, I have a theory. But going along with that theory, I have to question why Woolf chose Mrs.
Dalloway as the title character and not Peter. I saw Clarissa Dalloway as being on one end of an unhappiness spectrum, with Septimus on the other, and Peter finding his place in between. Clarissa's unhappiness seemed to stem from dwelling on trivial things (such as parties with her elite friends) while Septimus' unhappiness seemed to stem from dwelling on global, intangible things (such as human nature). Peter walked back and forth between the two, trying to find happiness, leaving him a fragment of a man (represented quite nicely with his constant fiddling with his pocketknife. (Freud anyone?). It is only at the end that he thinks he has found the answer through a conversation with Sally. Basically, he seems to resolve the question of how to find happiness- not through thinking at all (whether trivial or global) but by following his heart.

I've never heard anyone debate whether Mrs. Dalloway has a happy ending or not, but I'd have to say not. While it looks like Peter has found his answer, I'd have to say not really. Following his heart would have led him to Clarissa and almost certain heartbreak. Furthermore, if the adage were applied to Clarissa, she would have been led into the arms of Sally (and most likely heartbreak too, unless you feel a lesbian couple could have found happiness in 1920s England). And applying the adage to Septimus wouldn't even make sense. So all in all, I somewhat enjoyed a pessimistic book with nary a plot to be found."
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Thank you John.
John Mutford is a reviewer who lives in the far north of Canada and has been blogging since 2005 He has had articles published in several places. This man reviews everything; literature, poetry, short stories, Shakespeare's plays, even books of the Bible, he's fearless. he also hosts interesting challenges, author polls, and other original book features that are a lot of fun. Do stop by at The Book Mine Set and take a look. __________________________________________________

My opinion is not much different than John's. I am glad that I finally read it, I will no longer feel left out and clueless when people discuss it. I have read several of Woolf works and enjoyed them all immensely ; A Room of One's Own, The Death of The Moth and Other Essays, some of her letters and diaries, Orlando, and Jacob's Room, which I reviewed here. Her intelligence and wit shines through everything she writes. Mrs. Dalloway was Woolf's fourth novel, published in 1925, and it was immediately recognized as a major achievment. My edition states "With this book she finally broke from the form of the traditional English novel, establishing herself as a writer of genius."

Basically she turned the novel of manners on its head, using the interior monologues of the main characters to give us deeper insights into their thoughts and lives. But not enough happens in Mrs. Dalloway to arouse any real interest for me. I'm not averse to stream-of-conscience writing at all. Jacob's Room in 1923 was Woolf's first experiment with it and I had very little trouble. And I always enjoy writing that let's me inside a character's head. In this story Clara (Mrs. Dalloway) plans and hosts her party, a thing she's known to do, and except for Peter's unexpected visit nothing much happens. His sudden presence does stir up strong emotions, bringing back memories of an important time in Clara's life when she made the decisions that she now lives with. All of us at times wonder how our lives would be now if we'd made different choices, married a different person, etc. But inconvenient timing prevents Clara from contemplating her thoughts for long. She is after all preparing for a huge and important party (even the Prime Minister is invited). She has little chance to sit and ruminate. Clara and Peter are the same people in the same situation at the end of the story as at the beginning. Perhaps there's more subtlety in Woolf's writing here than I am picking up on and a second reading would show me more. I know many people love this book and consider it to be her best work. I think I just need more in a story.

I look forward to the next novel in our Woolf in Winter reading group, To the Lighthouse, hosted by
Emily at Evening All Afternoon. We will be posting our reviews on January 30.
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Have you read Mrs. Dalloway? What are your thoughts?









30 comments:

  1. I can understand how someone for whom plot is very important would find Mrs. Dalloway rough going - I think a lot of the plot-type action has already happened, and we see it unfold in Peter and Clarissa's memories of Bourton, and Septimus and Rezia's memories of the War. Personally, I like this - both for its quietness of action in the present, and also because it gives an alternate view of the typical plotline, in which young people thrash out their difficulties and end with marriage (or defeat/victory, in the case of Septimus's war story). But Woolf gives us the perspective of life going on - the decision of who to marry, for example, is just the beginning in real life, not an Austen-style conclusion.

    I also thought John's point about Peter's centrality was interesting, because this book has a history of different readers finding different characters central. Woolf got letters from two friends of hers almost simultaneously, and one said "I think you should cut Septimus - the point of the novel is Clarissa"; and the other said "I think you should cut Clarissa - the point of the novel is Septimus." I really like that about it - how different readers attach to different aspects of the book.

    Anyway, thanks for reading along!

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  2. *Emily: Thank you for your thoughts. I already feel different after having read all the other reviews today. Your post is fantastic by the way, I learned so much by reading it. The different reactions to Woolf's style are fascinating. Those letters reveal what is still true today obviously. So many have emphasized reading it more than once, or very slowly to get more out of it. I look forward to reading it again. And your thoughts on To the Lighthouse.

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  3. Thanks for these two interesting opinions! It's so fascinating to see how many different impressions can be gathered from one book. For me, the style is so refreshingly different, that I am swept along - I loved the very minor characters who you got glimpses of as their lives intersected for a moment with the main characters.

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  4. Character driven rather than plot driven is not everyone's preference. But I also like the idea of a re-read. After all, I have read this particular book more than a few times. :) There are a lot of places within Clarissa's and Septimus's heads to inhabit, and I think that once you clear the initial bump of the novel not being what was expected, subsequent reads offer up a lot more.

    Enjoyed your (and John's) thoughts here, and looking forward to our read of To the Lighthouse.

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  5. Having read several posts and comments already, I'm flabbergasted at the new insights that come up each time I go to another one! It's funny about the plot question. With other novels I've been impatient because the story didn't seem to be getting under way, but with this one plot never entered my mind. Using Emily's wording, "how different readers attach to different aspects," I think I attached to the flow of life as it streamed through each character's mind. I'm thinking at the moment of Elizabeth as she rode the omnibus. It seems to me that Virginia Woolf captured the way our midns work.

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  6. Awww; I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy this as much as I did! But good for you giving Woolf a shot. :) I suppose, for me, while Clarissa is the same person from beginning to end, I know so much more about her by the end of the book...so while her character doesn't changed, a lot more of it is revealed.

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  7. Like you, I think a second reading will add a lot more to the book, for, after reading so many reviews today, I feel like i've missed out on some subtleties.

    This was my first Woolf, and I'm hoping to try another sometime in the near future.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and, for the wonderful guest post! The pivotal character, for me, was Septimus, just because I thought he gave the book a kind-of depth that just Clarissa's party would've lacked. With the diametrically opposite Clarissa and Septimus, the book gives us an insight into two people who make choices, that literally define the line between life and death.

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  8. I think we are quite alligned in our thoughts on this one. I think the technique and writing were brilliant, the rest just didnt quite do it for me.

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  9. I've been trying to remember if I'd read this book. I swear I have but I didn't remember a thing about it. Maybe I did read it and felt the same way as you did and that's why I don't remember it.

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  10. I loved that line about pessimistic book with nary a plot to be found...I think reading Woolf may be a bit of an acquired taste, of which I'm only recently acquiring after reading everyone's reviews today. I must admit, after the first read, I wasn't terribly impressed...all that stream of consciousness writing was a hair too self-absorbed for me at the beginning. Now I can let myself go in the description and mood.

    One more thought: I'd have loved the story to be told through Sally's eyes. In my mind, she was a fascinating character. I'd love to be her friend in real life.

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  11. I would have to say that anyone looking for plot should look elsewhere :) I really enjoyed the stream of consciousness style. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it as much, but as Eva said, good for you for giving it a try!

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  12. Reading your post is like having Cliff Notes before I try to read this!! I thank you kindly!!

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  13. I've never read Virginia Woolf, and have been hoping to find some reviews of her books. I appreciate this review, because it tells me definitely where NOT to start. This was a great review, too. Hearing from two very different people gave me a better perspective on how it reads. Both sets of comments were helpful and on point.
    Thank you so much for this post. I enjoyed it very much.

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  14. This was my first time reading her, too, and certainly missed so much of the nuances. After reading everyone's posts, I found so much more than I initially saw. I did love the language though, and wasn't thinking of the plot as I was enjoying the prose so much. I hope you find To the Lighthouse much more enjoyable now that you've gained much insight from the other readers. THanks for reading along, Sandra! (And thanks to John, too, for his thoughts.)

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  15. Now I'm really tossed up. I read another review this week that raved about the book. I didn't realize it was stream-of-consciousness writing. That could be a sticking point with me as I don't particularly care for it. In The Lie by Fredrika Wagman, that style made me want to screech by the end or maybe it was just that book. Anyway, thanks for another very insightful review.

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  16. I'm always impressed when people read Woolf for pleasure. She is high on my list of authors to avoid although it's probably split evenly between enjoyed and not enjoyed if I think truthfully about the works of hers that I've read to date. My biggest problem is that stream-of-consciousness generally makes me want to poke myself in the eye with a sharp and pointy stick. And that's a hard thing to get over. ;-) I do recognize her influence on the world of letters and appreciate her very feminist leanings but just can't make myself read her with any joy. Ah well. I'm glad others do.

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  17. I have always felt like I should read some Woolf. After reading this I'm afraid it would be a slow go for me.I will pick up one of her books one of these days, thanks for the review.

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  18. Thanks for stopping by and leaving such an encouraging comment. I actually visited most of the linked sites and read all of the comments at Sandra's site and at Claire's. Your post was among the first posts I read. The posts were well written and thought provoking. 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 especially liked the way Claire compared the book to a song. It did have a lyrical feel to it and there were many phrases, sentences and paragraphs that I enjoyed immensely. If that is the readers’ intent then the book is perfect. But even after studying the spark notes and reading about characters, motifs, symbols and such, I still can't see the point of the book. The only symbol that I got and really enjoyed was Big Ben tolling the hour and marking time. One cannot escape the passage of time, as all of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway discovered. I also like the fact that the story ended where it began, with Mrs. Dalloway as the central figure—symbolizing the futility of all our worry.

    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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  19. Thank you for stopping over and leaving a comment I feel like you no longer left out. I've known of Woolf since my years in school and even tried to read her, but never got very far. I agree that we all ponder the what ifs and the different paths we would have trod. I agree with your guest, Mrs Dalloway is an interesting choice for the central character.

    Christy

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  20. Much as I love experimental Modernist literature, I too had trouble getting into this book, although I ended up enjoying it. Regarding your reply to Emily, I think you are absolutely correct: this book has to be read very slowly and/or more than once. I like to read fast and I was in a hurry to finish this by Friday, so I think that's where I ran into trouble.

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  21. After reading your review and all of these great comment debates I am unsure as to whether to read Mrs. Dalloway or not! However, I wish I had before so I could have participated in this discussion! It's like being back in college - love it!

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  22. Sandra, I really enjoyed your point on whether or not Clarissa and Peter have changed by the end of the story and John's point about the importance of Peter as a character. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with your particular reactions, I think those are key questions for anyone to consider when trying to come to grips with the novel. For my part, I love Mrs. Dalloway's perfectly-worded last line for its ambiguous "answer" to these sorts of questions AND Woolf's inventiveness in telling a story with multiple points of view and such a clever use of time (i.e. although the "action," such as it is, only seems to take place in a single day, the characters' reflections on that day actually take the narrative back years and years and then back again). Anyway, thanks for the two reviews--I look forward to following along with you here during the rest of the readalong!

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  23. Personally, I have to admit, it is the "the appeal of being let into someone else's world and the realization that most thoughts are actually quite mundane" that most often draws me into a story, and not necessarily the story itself. I think I can actually read any story, so long as it's writing is something that can make me feel like I'm floating in cloud of words. It's the beauty of language that I more often focus on when I read, so I think I'll love this book.

    I'll try to catch up with the group for the second book :)

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  24. What a great idea to include John's perspective, too! This is definitely all about character, and not much plot.... a change of pace for me. I do plan to reread it in the not too distant future,

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  25. I definitely think rereading it in the future would be something you'd enjoy. I read it once and I think I was trying too hard to find the importance of it all that I overlooked the simplicity of it: the inner monologue that we all have, and how it can be true at times but also false.

    I read it again about a year later and enjoyed it much more. Focusing purely on her and not Peter, and trying to imagine all the little details (the flowers!!!) made it more enjoyable. Woolf seems to make people want to analyze her for more meaning than they should (sometimes).
    I found To The Lighthouse much more annoying.

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  26. Over the last 3 days I have read three reviews on the book and all have been totally by accident. All three reviews gave three different points of view which is I suppose the whole meaning of a review! It made for very interesting reading (the reviews I mean). I am just halfway through the book and liking it so far.

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  27. It was interesting to read your thoughts and John Mutford's review on 'Mrs.Dalloway'. It reminded me of my own experience of reading Roberto Bolano's 'The Savage Detectives'. 'The Savage Detectives' started with some kind of plot, but after that the majority of the story is a set of monologues of many characters who talk about a few characters we encountered in the first part of the book. It was quite distracting when one wanted to find out what happened next. But after I got over the initial distraction, I actually liked the book very much. I haven't tried reading Woolf before. Maybe I will give it a try.

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  28. i had to read this for school. it was difficult to get through but well worth it. completely fascinating and the story sticks with you for always.

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  29. Good brief and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you seeking your information.

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  30. Great choice for a review - thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

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