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Bookths

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf | BOOKTHS

Bookths is back after a whirlwind of graduating and life changes.

I also bought about 30 or more so books at a fill-your-own-box book sale at CASE in Downtown Cleveland.

claire with a box of books
Pictured: me downplaying my pride and trying to make copious literary purchasing seem cool to the youth.

So, I will have plenty more material to work with in the future. As of this moment, let’s talk Woolf.

I wrote a story in the last semester of college and drew some inspiration from Virginia herself, drawing some parallels to her rather upsetting suicide, when she filled her pockets with rocks and let herself sink into the river before another war broke out.

As she is one of THE MOST influential authors in history and of the modern (20th century) period, people are often shocked that I haven’t read any of her novels. Which, considering the amount of classic novels and must-reads out there, you’ll have to cut me some slack as I try to sprint through them all.

In the middle of a rather desperate moment of self-doubt, I had driven to the library to ease my mind (something 13 year-old me was fond of) and went traipsing through the fiction section, saw Mrs. Dalloway and its relatively small stature, decided I could fit it into my eight other current reads (I don’t know how, because no, I couldn’t) and here we are. Let’s break it down.

The Author:

Virginia Woolf is one of the big dogs of literature. If you want to talk literature, you better talk Woolf (and I certainly didn’t until now.) As I mentioned, her contribution to writing happened in the 20th century, so her work is considered modernist. And, if you’ve ever read The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, you know about the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, which is something Virginia Woolf pioneered.

Profile of young Virginia Woolf

She was London-based, born of a rich family, and went to Kings College London—a smart cookie! Between WWI and WWII (sheesh what a time to be alive) Virginia Woolf was a central part of London’s literary scene and, later on, became a figure for second-wave feminism with her works highly regarded world-wide and translated into over fifty languages.

Who is Mrs. Dalloway, what’s going on?

Now that my Wikipedia explanation of Woolf is over, we can get to the story. There are a whole lot of characters in this book which covers a single day in our titular character’s life, as she prepares for a party. Sounds like it’s going nowhere, right? Oh how incorrect one can be.

  1. Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa): Our main character, the woman who is throwing a party later. She is often described as having buckets and buckets of charm but also as all too stiff and strict in her character. During her day, she reminisces on her marriage to Richard in lieu of Peter and, if after all, one made her happier than the other.
  2. Peter Walsh: Clarissa’s old flame, he worked in India where he fell in love with a married woman. Peter has a habit of opening and closing a knife while he’s nervous and often projects a desperate and loathing energy towards Clarissa, whom he still loves but recognizes the impossibility of their match. Others describe him as adventurous, smart, and interesting, but far too desperate to be in love to ever be successful. No one wants to help him get a job, which reminds me a bit of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich, when a man dies and at his funeral everyone spends time dividing his possessions and position in lieu of mourning him.
  3. Richard Dalloway: Clarissa’s husband, a clear-minded man who isn’t nearly as romantic as Peter Walsh, but does indeed love Clarissa even if he misunderstands her. There is a lovely scene regarding Richard’s purchasing of flowers for her and wanting her to see that it means he loves her, because he is incapable of saying “I love you” to her (which raises the question: does he in fact love her?) This is after he chooses not to purchase her jewelry, not knowing her taste—a heartbreaking hint to how they are strangers to each other.
  4. Septimus Warren Smith: War veteran and husband to Lucrezia Smith, he suffers from what appears to be PTSD or a form of depression (much like Woolf herself) and, after promising his wife he would kill himself, is presented to a doctor. To the  first doctor, he attaches all of human error to, a living symbol. Septimus is unable to feel reality, sees it all as something false and the people in it as unaware of the tragedy they live. He is coded as Clarissa’s foil.
  5. Sally Seton: Clarissa, Peter, and Richard’s old friend, albeit closest to Clarissa and Peter. She is fun-loving, wild, and openly passionate. She seems to facilitate communication between stubborn and prude Clarissa and to obstinately romantic Peter, acting as their medium. She works quite well as a contrast to them both, but also as a hint as to what Clarissa and Peter desired and what everyone else expected of them.
  6. Miss Kilman: A deeply religious and deeply spiteful woman who instructs Clarissa and Richard’s daughter in history, as she is among the British experts of history. She is well-educated, but poor and plain-looking. Using her religious fervor as a self-righteous justification, she is openly rude to Clarissa whom she sees as materialistic and vain.
  7. Sir William Bradshaw: A premier doctor for mental patients, of whom he says over and over again, simply need to realign their sense of “proportion.” I can’t say much about him, because of how he manifests in this story…you’ll just have to read it!
  8. Elizabeth Dalloway: The daughter of Clarissa and Richard. Someone I deem important in relation to her parents and thus, their characters. She is not her mother by all accounts and is used against her mother by way of Miss Kilman, yet there are moments where she and Clarissa collide and make sense of each other.

The plot of this book is relatively difficult to describe, it being mainly a hop-skip-jump from character to character as we swim through their thoughts. To sum it up Clarissa Dalloway is having an important party, Peter Walsh is back from India to get a job and try to bring back his lover from India, Sally Seton shows up, Septimus gets hospitalized, and we finally get to have our party at the end. As for the rest, the details are beautiful, the phrasing immaculate, so that I can’t do it justice. (See: read it.)

What of it:

Who cares about the day in the life of some rich old white lady in England? Why bother with a book of no chapters and hardly any paragraph indentations? What is the meaning of this single day?

“She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”

Honestly, it’s a dense and complex piece that requires re-reading (the best kind of book) and my impressions at the moment are as follows: Woolf is a masterful writer, her turns of phrase and her figurative language is appallingly rich in meaning. This is a novel that reflects a modernist conundrum—remember we are pre-WWII and post-WWI, the game of world politics and violence has changed—in which the frivolity of modern life is set against a backdrop of astounding violence. The utter meaningless nature of a party, a marriage, and the past are pit against the overwhelming weight of what it means to live and exist.

Or, at least that’s how I saw it.

Update:

That’s two down: Nemesis by Agatha Christie and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I’m in the midst of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, so I hope to have that wrapped up soon. Warning: it’s a doozy.

As always, thank you for joining me, if you did.

Bisous,