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Book #13: Mrs. Dalloway

Get your pitchforks ready. Find a stake you can set fire to. Get ready to riot and burn an effigy of me.

Because I’m about to be honest: I didn’t like Mrs. Dalloway. There, I said it. I’ve probably committed some kind of literary heresy by admitting this, but I’ve got to keep it real, as the kids say.

On the back of Mrs Dalloway‘s book cover, Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, says that this book “was the first novel to split the atom.” That’s hearty praise–and this is a book that gets a lot of it. Virginia Woolf is a darling of critics. Her stream-of-consciousness, verbose style was unique and new when she first used it in Mrs. Dalloway.

But, man, I just did not enjoy it. Now, as a disclaimer, I fully appreciate Woolf’s writing skill and Mrs. Dalloway’s place as a great work of literature. I don’t dispute that. When I say that I, personally, didn’t enjoy this book, that’s all I mean–that I personally didn’t enjoy this book. I’m not throwing stones at those who are in love with it–and there are many.

Honestly, I’m a little dizzy from reading Mrs. Dalloway. You’ve got to really work to read and understand it. I’ve seen a lot of good recommendations in many of your comments about this book–read it in one sitting, read it a second time, read it slow.

I couldn’t read the book in one sitting, nor do I plan on reading it again (for now), but I did try and read it slow. I couldn’t help but read it slow because I was having to reread passages so often.

Here’s an example of one of Woolf’s amazingly long, yet poetic, sentences:

It was not to them (not to Hugh, or Richard, or even to devoted Miss Brush) the liberator of the pent egotism, which is a strong martial woman, well nourished, well descended, of direct impulses, downright feelings, and little introspective power (broad and simple–why could not every one be broad and simple? she asked) feels rise within her, once youth is past, and must eject upon some object–it may be Emigration, it may be Emancipation; but whatever it be, this object round which the essence of her soul is daily secreted, becomes inevitably prismatic, lustrous, half looking glass, half precious stone; now carefully hidden in case people should sneer at it; now proudly displayed.

That’s a 116 word sentence.

Now the long sentences are difficult enough to focus on, but then you also have to keep up with Woolf’s dizzying stream of consciousness technique, which, outside of James Joyce, is the most difficult I’ve come across.

Basically, the narrator seamlessly jumps around into the heads of one character to the next. Before you realize it, you’re reading about the thoughts of someone totally different.

For example:

Calmly and competently, Elizabeth Dalloway mounted the Westminster omnibus.

Going and coming, beckoning, signalling, so the light and shadow which now made the wall grey, now the bananas bright yellow, now made the Strand grey, now made the omnibuses bright yellow, seemed to Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting room; watching the watery gold glow and fade with the astonishing sensibility of some live creature on the roses, on the wallpaper.

See what just happened there? Bam! We go from Elizabeth Dalloway to Septimus Smith without any forewarning. That happens repeatedly in Mrs. Dalloway, and you’ve really got to stay on your toes, as the reader, to keep up.

So what of the plot?

Virginia Woolf

Correct me if I am wrong, but the novel was light on plot and heavy on character descriptions. The entire novel takes place within the period of one day–everything centered around Mrs. Dalloway planning to host a party that night. Throughout the book, we encounter several characters, all of whom will be at the party later that night. But I just never really cared about these characters. I simply didn’t feel invested in them.

Not much actually happens in the book–outside of one incident with Septimus Smith. It’s almost more of a reflection of what had happened in the lives of these characters prior to the day of the party–rather than events that were actually going on during the day about which the book is centered.

The novel, admittedly, is supposed to illustrate the beauty in the mundane aspects of our lives. But, ironically, I found myself drifting off and thinking about the mundane aspects of my life (How many miles am I running this afternoon? Did I pay the phone bill?) while reading Mrs. Dalloway.

Maybe I’m simply not a good enough reader or “literary critic” to appreciate this book. I’ll admit that may be the case.

But this one is, by far, my least favorite of the first 13 books I’ve read on Time’s list. Maybe I’ll find some redemption in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, also on the list, when I read it later.

Other Stuff

Opening Line: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

The Meaning: A lot of the novel seems to revolve around the inevitability of death. One main character dies while others struggle to understand the meaning of death.

Highlights: There’s a certain rhythm to Woolf’s writing. It’s poetic. You can understand why so many people love her writing. Definitely unique.

Lowlights: This book needed a few more periods. Woolf’s sentences are long and rife with commas and semicolons. But periods? Not many. You’ve got to really work to read this book. In fact, you probably need a quiet room with no distractions to focus. Since I read a lot on my lunch break, I found it harder to focus on this book.

Memorable Line: “Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.”

Final Thoughts: If you’re a Virginia Woolf fan, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I simply didn’t enjoy Mrs. Dalloway. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, kind of like coffee or spinach. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just a literary simpleton.

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102 Comments Post a comment
  1. notmsparker #

    I am with you here. There are few books I have found impossible to finish but Mrs Dalloway was was so dreadfully pompous and overintellectualised that I finally threw the towel in. One can be brilliant and produce wooden literature and one can be a brilliant writer who happens to have written a truly indelible book.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
  2. Eddie #

    Maybe it was just that you were distracted by the NCAA tourney and couldn’t really focus on the book? Just askin’…..

    Like

    March 21, 2011
    • Possible. Good thing the Braves haven’t started yet.

      Like

      March 21, 2011
  3. Patti #

    Thanks for the boldly honest review – you gotta figure that in a list of 101 books, no matter how well received over time and space, there will be at least a couple that you just won’t like. Though I have to admit, I may like the review because it relieves me from some of my own feelings of literary simple-mindedness after struggling with Virginia Woolf and her swirly writing style.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
    • Maybe at another time, I would have the patience and focus to “get” this book. But it just didn’t work for me this time.

      Like

      March 21, 2011
  4. I hated Mrs. D as well, so don’t feel to bad. It’s one of those polarizing novels that is either loved or hated. My review was similar.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
  5. lizard151 #

    At the risk of leaving a terrible first comment, Michael Cunningham is the author of the book, The Hours, not the director of the movie based on the book. But I’m with you. I didn’t get the book (Mrs. Dalloway or The Hours, actually) either.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
    • Not a terrible first comment. You’re right. I actually gave that same piece of bad info in a prior post as well. Thanks for the heads up.

      Like

      March 21, 2011
  6. I think Virginia Woolf is definitely one of those authors whose works you either like, or you don’t. You have no reason to feel bad about that. Either way, this is an insightful, honest review. I’ve only read “To the Lighthouse” so far, and I really liked it, but you’re definitely right about being focused when you read her. If there are a bunch of distractions, you can lose your understanding quickly.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
  7. I agree with you– I had trouble with this book, as well. My mind would drift like yours and I would get frustrated that I had to go back and read sections again… not that reading a second time made it any better. I loved “The Hours,” though. Don’t feel bad about disliking a classic– everyone has unique taste!

    Like

    March 21, 2011
  8. theveryhungrybookworm #

    Being a comparative lit major in college, I have learned to divide the books that one should read from the books that one enjoys reading. For example, I may love some “beach read” novel, but I don’t think it was important to my life. Similarly, I personally detested Vanity Fair, but I admit that it is worth reading and important. I probably should read more Virginia Woolf to be able to give my opinion of her personally.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
    • David #

      Good point; helpful distinction.

      Like

      March 21, 2011
  9. David #

    OK. I’ve got my pitchfork, some stakes, a flame . . . I just need to find some fellow rioters.

    No, no. I’m kidding. As long as they’re well supported–as yours is here–all opinions are game.

    I happen to have loved the novel after reading it. But even if I didn’t, I know I would still have tremendous appreciation for what Woolf was trying to do in this book specifically, and in her whole literary-modernist project in general.

    If anything, Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narration has now better prepared you (when you get around to it) for Ulysses.

    Even if I don’t always agree with them, I nevertheless enjoy your reviews!

    Like

    March 21, 2011
    • Thanks David. I’m glad someone who liked the book spoke up!

      Like

      March 21, 2011
    • Amen to this. If you don’t like Dalloway, you’re going to most likely hate Ulysses. When I first tried reading Ulysses, it was way worse than my first time with Dalloway. So much so, I abandoned it but like I said previously, I’ll happily join you to see if we can’t keep each other focused.

      Like

      March 21, 2011
      • I read Ulysses in college, so it will actually be a reread. I don’t recall hating it, but I had a lot of help from the prof in understanding it. I’ll be going solo whenever I get to it this time around, but at least I’ll have all of my old notes in the book.

        Like

        March 21, 2011
  10. It’s NOT an easy to love book by any stretch of the imagination. First time I read it I wanted to claw my eyes out. The only thing that made it interesting was analyzing it in class from a Jungian perspective (Dalloway encoutnering her Shadow and Animus characters). The second time I read it, I found it pleasant but also it had more meat to it thanks to my professor.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
  11. I had to laugh when I read your review of “Mrs. Dalloway”! I remember my son, an English Lit Major, trudging down the stairs with this book tucked under his arm. He threw his entire 6’4″ frame onto our sofa with a thud, sighed and yelled, “Virginia Woolf had A.D.D! Oh. My. God! This book is the worst thing I’ve read since I had to read “The Golden Bowl”. (Henry James) He has since read all of Ms. Woolf’s writings, and still believes the woman should have been medicated. He has, however, come to appreciate her writing style and her ability to describe something to the Nth degree so the reader has a good visual. Other than that, he says her books, and I quote, “Still suck.” This from a kid who loves books so much, he would read while backpacking along the Pacific Trail.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
  12. Oh – It helps to read “Mrs. Dalloway” aloud. That’s how I got through it and actually enjoyed reading it.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
  13. A run-on sentence is a run-on sentence, no matter how gracefully it is phrased.
    Jodi

    Like

    March 21, 2011
    • Technically, though, they aren’t run ons. Just REALLY long, grammatically correct sentences.

      Like

      March 21, 2011
  14. It is a si,pla fact that you are not going to like every book you read. I feel the same way about “Lord of the Rings.” Where was the editor on that one? But you do need to visit my blog and pick up your prize.

    Like

    March 21, 2011
    • Tolkien is a bit wordy, isn’t he? It’s been awhile since I read those books, so when I get to them I’ll be interested in seeing if I’m still a fan.

      Thanks for the nomination on your blog!

      Like

      March 21, 2011
  15. Don’t feel bad. I read about 20 pages and decided it was a bore. And I don’t apologize for saying it was zzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

    Like

    March 21, 2011
  16. Disappointed you didn’t like it, but she is not for everyone. You might like To the Lighthouse better, but I wouldn’t guess it will be up there on your list. It does, at least, move forward in time past one day (in fact one section of the book is titled “Time Passes” and fast-forwards you by years)–but you’ll find the same style and perspective shifting. That “sentence” you quoted is part of what I love about her–layers and layers that shift and tilt, but leave you with a small but hefty point to consider at the end.
    I haven’t tackled Ulysses ever, but I bought it a few months back and it awaits me on my shelf. That book is my reading goal for this year, but I haven’t been able to muster the courage.

    Like

    March 22, 2011
  17. Thanks for sharing your opinion. I thought it might be interesting to try but now I’m not so sure. Seems like there is some very heavy use of the semicolon, LOL and I dont know how I feel about one sentence taking over a half a page. I’ve struggled through Jane Austen for the same reasons. I was actually thinking of tackling one of hers again soon. Also, saw you’re starting Deliverance…can’t wait to see what you think. Enjoy!

    Like

    March 22, 2011
  18. I have had to read Mrs Dalloway as part of both my undergrad and (this year) my postgrad degrees and have hated it each time. As theveryhungrybookworm pointed out, there is a stark distinction and possibly even a discrepancy between works of fiction that are to be ‘enjoyed’ and those that should be ‘appreciated’. I believe that the truly marvellous ones can be both enjoyed AND appreciated; by which criterion, Mrs Dalloway (and, frankly, most Modernist lit of its kind) are not (for me) marvellous books. One can evaluate and praise the innovation and beauty of the technique, but it is the overly self conscious technique (which is often seems like the ‘point’ of the work in itself) that creates a barrier between the novel and the reader. I do not like the feeling of having to battle with a book; some people do. Of course, this is all subjective. I found To the Lighthouse a little more accessible, though. As for Joyce – don’t get me started – I feel that a reader has to ‘train’ themselves before tackling any of his works. I threw A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (his easiest novel, apparently) across multiple rooms when reading it (during both attempts).

    On a separate note, I really love your blog. Congrats on the double FP achievement; it is very much deserved. 🙂

    Like

    March 22, 2011
    • Yes, I definitely didn’t enjoy this book, but I can appreciate it. Still, it was just a brutal read.

      Thanks for the kind comments about my blog!

      Like

      March 23, 2011
    • Jennifer #

      heehee, I’m pretty sure I did that with “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” too. And with the one chapter from “Ulysses” we had to read I thought someone was playing a cruel joke on me.

      Like

      April 8, 2011
  19. Rushking #

    Why ?

    Like

    March 23, 2011
  20. Looks like fun. I’d like to give it a try. I got an odd feeling Virginia Woolf might be for me…

    Like

    March 23, 2011
  21. Thanks for the warning!

    Like

    March 26, 2011
  22. Jennifer #

    I agree with you. I had to read this book for a Master’s class (MA in English of course) and I hated it.

    Like

    April 8, 2011
  23. OK, I probably didn’t get half the inferences in this book. It’s rated so highly, but because I disliked it, that means I didn’t understand/get it, right? Then, the one person comes along and says hey…the emperor has no clothes. And there, you have an AHA moment. This was mine 😀

    Like

    April 19, 2011
  24. Teresa #

    I am very late to the game, here, but I just finished the book. What beauty — I loved it. I agree with MissFitz63’s son – Woolf’s style reminds one of ADHD. But ADHD can be a gift, too. There are so few feminine voices on the Times’ list and Gone With the Wind, while great, is not my style.

    Like

    July 8, 2011
  25. I had to read this book for my humanities class and usually I prefer to read the book than watch the adapted movie any day, but this is the only book that I had no idea who was narrating the story at any given point. The movie “Hours” allowed me to appreciate the story line though one day I plan to attempt another one of her novels and gain a different sense of appreciation. I also noticed Naked Lunch on your list…it seems an easy read, but can be a bit ‘out of your zone’ for some readers and it used to be on the banned book list. Interesting read and great comments on it from other readers who either loved or hated it.

    Like

    October 7, 2011
  26. What a frankly great piece of writing.

    Like

    November 18, 2011
  27. You could not be more precise!

    Like

    December 16, 2011
  28. Lori #

    I couldn’t get in to either Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse…then I got toasted and read them and had a much more enjoyable time…started to appreciate her writing a little more.

    Like

    January 21, 2012
  29. Shem the Penman #

    Wah.

    Woolf is hard.

    Wah.

    Like

    March 8, 2012
  30. I totally really agree with you, finished the book a week back and trust me it isn’t going to leave a very lasting impression on me..

    Like

    May 25, 2012
  31. Susan #

    Hi, I’ve just come across your blog. Isn’t it great that we’re all different! Mrs Dalloway is my absolute favourite book, I have read it several times now and love it every time. It is the one book I wish I could have written.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
  32. I’m really enjoying your list, we’re on such a similar wavelength book-wise. I was made to read Mrs Dalloway in my first year of my English Lit degree, and I was in the minority in my seminar group because I didn’t like it. Glad to see someone agrees!

    Like

    April 12, 2014
  33. I completely agree. I can take dose after dose of Trollope or Maugham, but a teaspoonful of Woolf is more than enough!

    Liked by 1 person

    October 26, 2014
  34. At least it’s short! I am really feeling for you if you still have(?) to read To the Lighthouse, that is much more difficult as there are more characters and the setting is more static.
    I actually found the stream of consciousness in Marlon James’s Seven Killings book to be more difficult than Mrs Dalloway.

    Like

    December 25, 2015
  35. heschides #

    I too didn’t like Mrs Dalloway. In fact, I found your blog after Googling “didn’t like Mrs Dalloway.” It may have been a class-consciousness issue for me, but I did not like these people at all, except Septimus of course. And not liking the characters would be a small thing if there were something else at stake, in the plot, literal or metaphorical, but I think we are supposed to identify with these characters’ understanding. That I couldn’t do. I do hope you read To the Lighthouse though; it is epic in a way that Mrs Dalloway is provincial, and the prose, if occasionally even more difficult, is also more beautiful. Be well.

    Like

    July 1, 2016
  36. Jon #

    Hopefully no one under the age of 30 enjoys Mrs. Dalloway, the stream-of-consciousness of a middle aged women. I wish I could see into the future to see where it places on your list when you are 50.

    Like

    September 11, 2017

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