Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Well. Well, well, WELL.

Before I begin, I should warn you that in my experience so far, one can either say nothing about Mrs. Dalloway, or one can write a hundred pages about it. Finding a middle ground is practically impossible. I'll attempt to find the middle ground right now, but I'm just warning you, I might get carried away.

Reading this book was sort of...surreal. Probably because it was a stream of consciousness novel (I know--Captain Obvious here). I'd never actually read a stream of consciousness novel before, so it was quite a bit of of a stretch, but it was well worth it.

Going off the stream of consciousness theme, these were probably close to my thoughts as I read the first 25 pages:

"What? What? And...who? What? Where? What? And what's that...and this? And who? And what?"

Okay, you get the picture. It would have been easy to throw this book away, never to look at it again (except for the fact that I had to read it for a class--whoops). But like I said, this book was worth the mental journey.

Before reading this book, I read Virginia Woolf's essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," in which Woolf laments how many authors are incapable of accurately portraying human nature. We need to be true to what we are, Woolf says. We need to stop focusing on the social and political and everything else external, and start focusing on the character, the person, the internal.

So I was interested to see exactly how Woolf decided to go about that. And now that I've finished the book, I'm still asking myself, did she accomplish that purpose?

And I really don't know. Here we have Clarissa Dalloway, the main character. By the end of the book, we know plenty about Clarissa. She's the "perfect hostess," yet she feels alone and isolated. She doesn't quite know what love is, but she's done lots of speculating on it. She wants to control everyone around her because she doesn't know what she's good for. She has some serious self-esteem problems, but most other people see her as lovely and charming.

But then again, that's just what I think she's like. Somebody else would probably come up with very different characteristics to describe Clarissa. This is just what I thought was important. But is it? Maybe I'm just seeing Clarissa through my own lens of experiences and values.

The truth is, even though I read through a whole day's worth of Clarissa's thoughts, I still feel like I might not know her at all. And I realized that I feel that way because I can't put Clarissa in boxes. I can't just say, "She's a housewife," or "She's a mother," or even, "She's lonely," or "She's in love with Peter." I mean, even though some of those things might be true, they hardly say anything about who she really is.

But realizing that is also liberating. Maybe this means that boxes don't mean anything. Now, some of you might be nodding sagely and thinking, "Oh, honey, I realized that a long time ago." Yes, yes, I know, but this is different. I'm not talking about stereotypes; I'm talking about defining characteristics. If someone asks me, "Who are you?" I would probably say things like, "I'm a daughter, I'm a sister, I'm an American, I'm a woman...etc." Labeling isn't necessarily negative. I'm proud to be all those things. But maybe they don't mean anything.

Okay, if you've made it through this blundering rant and you're wondering what my point is, I suppose it's this: The novel, in some way, is about understanding. And it's saying that we can't understand someone just by knowing things about them. Just because we know every detail of their lives doesn't mean we really know who they are. The only way to know someone is to know what they think, how they think, what they feel. And too often we make assumptions based on knowledge that means nothing.

There is plenty more to say about this book (one I wanted to talk about was the extremely adventurous punctuation, which I loved), but I think I'll end it here, and just leave one other note: The thing I loved most about this book was how open it is. There is no "moral of the story," not even an unspoken one. It's like a painting. It's just there. You can see just about anything you want to in it, and no one can tell you you're wrong. I guess that's something I just love about classics in general--heck, even books in general. But it was especially poignant in this one.

I recommend this book, even just to get out of your comfort zone. If you decide to read it and you never have before, here is my reading guide:

Relax. Breathe. Don't try to understand it. Just keep going.


  1. Mrs Dalloway is my favourite novel! I am in love with Woolf's limitless nature of free indirect narrative. What a skill she has by, as you say, surpassing the labels of an individual and actually making them more 'real' by blurring the distinctions of character. What a pleasure it is to read, and I'm glad you like it too! I recently wrote a post on my blog about this novel, if you're interested it is: http://beautybehindapaneofglass.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/mrs-dalloway-you-have-made-me-see.html


    1. Thank you for sharing your post! I enjoyed reading it.