Overall, I did not care for Mrs. Dalloway. First of all, I was surprised by the way it was written, not having read anything about Woolf’s fiction before now. After reading for some time, I noticed that I hadn’t quite taken in what was going on, and one minute we were watching Clarissa prepare for a party, and then without pause, we were watching Septimus and his Italian wife, and there was so much apparent nonsense in between. What was I reading? I had enjoyed A Room of One’s Own (a prose work of Virginia Woolf) but Mrs. Dalloway had none of that work’s clarity or ease. I considered quitting after 30 pages, but a voice encouraged me to continue.
What made the book thoroughly unenjoyable was the meaninglessness of it all and the general unlikableness of any of the characters (with a few exceptions). These are the same reasons why I found The Trial by Kafka or Buddenbrooks by Mann thoroughly unpleasant (again, with a few exceptions). Perhaps one might say that there is much meaning and cleverness in the work if one takes the time to tease it out, but whereas I have a divine guarantee that I will find some fruit in the difficult words of Leviticus or Zechariah, I have no such assurance from Virginia Woolf, and so I do not anticipate returning to the work, at least not until someone has helped me see more clearly what she is trying to do.
Also, Virginia Woolf is an atheist. This does not automatically rule out excellent writing. George Eliot did not believe in God, and yet she would often meditate on the Madonna and Child, and she fills her books with so many saints, beautiful to see and worthy of imitation, so much so that it is not a stretch to say that one becomes better by reading her work. On the other hand, this novel of Virginia Woolf is full of self-absorbed characters who seem to see no further than their own mortal circle of acquaintances. I do not imagine one becomes better by reading it.
The most extended look at religion in the book was in the presence of Miss Kilman, a religious woman, who spends time with Elizabeth, the daughter of Clarissa Dalloway. The scene reminds me of Anna Karenina, when Kitty spends much time with a pious woman, to the annoyance of her father, and ends up scandalized by the imperfections of the same woman. The same theme of religious hypocrisy runs through this section about Miss Kilman, who is perhaps significantly named and designated as a German. At the same time that Miss Kilman goes off with Elizabeth, we enter into Clarissa’s thoughts: «Love and religion! thought Clarissa, going back into the drawing-room, tingling all over. How detestable, how detestable they are!» What a strange combination! To condemn religion along with faith or prayer would be unsurprising, but here Mrs. Dalloway includes love (indeed, the kernel of true religion) in detestation! Of course, she seems to mean a love as passionate and destructive, just as she means religion as superficial and false. One thing Woolf does nicely is set Clarissa and Miss Kilman in contrast, how they love and hate each other, and are envious of each other, and especially regarding Elizabeth.
There are other intriguing pieces throughout. The way Septimus identifies Dr. Holmes with «human nature» and finds him horrible, and Sir William Bradshaw’s notion of «proportion» that serves as a sufficient substitute for God, though he seems to take his own life as the ultimate measure of its content.
I am not done yet with Virginia Woolf, as I still have To the Lighthouse sitting on my shelf, but I think I will put it off for a while. I am willing to convinced away from my initial impression, and I would greatly appreciate anyone who could share insights on Mrs. Dalloway or Virginia Woolf!