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Repost: Book #13: Mrs. Dalloway

It’s rerun week at 101 Books! Today’s post originally appeared on March 21, 2011101 Books will return live on Monday July 9. 


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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