Mrs. Dalloway: My first Woolf novel

woolfOverall, 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.

sistine madonnaAlso, 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!

[This books is #13 of my classics reading project.]

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26 thoughts on “Mrs. Dalloway: My first Woolf novel

  1. Mrs. Dalloway is one of my all-time favorite books, but I definitely understand your problems with the way religion is represented in the book. In recent rereads I’ve found Clarissa to be a less perfect character than I previously assumed. Therefore, her opinions about Miss Kilman may be somewhat unfair (indeed, we see Kilman actively trying to be a better person). The teacher who taught me the book assumed Clarissa’s perspective was the “correct” perspective, but so much of the book is about realizing that everyone is more complicated than at first appearance and that we can never fully know a person. Anyway, I do hope that you try another Woolf novel. I’m currently reading To the Lighthouse, and it’s definitely an easier book to read (more linear plot, clear perspectives, etc). It’s a different book than Mrs. Dalloway.

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    • I wouldn’t have thought to call Clarissa’s perspective “correct”, unless that perhaps meant the perspective that came nearest to the author’s. Although one can sympathize with her disappointment upon looking back on her past, there isn’t much else I would agree with her on, especially love and death. “The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; […] She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away while they went on living.” There is something very wrong with such a woman.

      That being said, I am not done with her yet. I am hearing from others that I should try To the Lighthouse or The Waves, so I will save my final verdict on Woolf until then.

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      • Definitely. Unbelievably closed off from the world and its problems. She’s a rich woman who only cares about her party. I sympathize with Clarissa at times in the book, but she is not a very likable character.

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  2. Interesting. I automatically felt I’d think the same about yet another author I’ve never read, but I intend to. And then I see Fariba loves this title. I don’t know which will be my first title by Woolf, -I was going to jump straight ahead to To the Lighthouse, when a friend also recommend me A Room of One’s One. I am now very curious to know how it’ll go for me. Like you say, some atheist authors have written books that are among my favorites, and I don’t require characters that are lovable (Madame Bovary is a book I value, it makes me think about values, true marriage, love, all in a positive way.), but there has to be something objective to hold on to.

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    • Everyone I know (including myself) who has read A Room of One’s Own enjoyed it, so I can recommend it without hesitation! One of my colleagues graciously took time the other day to explain to me why he loved Mrs. Dalloway, so that it made much more sense to me. Right now, based on recommendations from others, I’d say read To the Lighthouse when you start reading Woolf’s fiction, though you may be able to appreciate Mrs. Dalloway more than I was able to on my first read.

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  3. This is an interesting discussion and an interesting review, I have never thought about Mrs Dalloway from a religious point of view! Meaningless, self-absorbed and seeing no further than their own circle of mortal acquaintances – that is very well put and I think you’re right and I think is the point of Clarissa Dalloway. To me she is a very real, Edwardian women. Her life is about her beauty, her fine marriage, her husbands career and her children. Her whole point is social success and in this book where she is older (she appears in VW’s first book as a young wife and mother), her beauty is fading, her husband receives invitations without her and she is dreaming of her younger days. I find her loneliness heartbreaking.

    Clarissa Dalloway is about the same age as VW and a social success, VW was not. Her step-brothers desperately wanted her to be, making her attend social functions, dress up and fulfil the conventions that she had no time for – I think thought meaningless.

    VW was trying to come up with a new type of writing (not wanting to call them novels), and I think sometimes character and plot give way to style and rhythm. Which means we have to change our ways of reading and our expectations (as with Joyce and Eliot). I’m glad you’re going to read another of her books and am looking forward to what you think of To The Lighthouse (if that’s the one you choose). My favourite is Jacob’s Room. I would also love to know what your colleague said!

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    • Thank you for the comments! I find the appellation “Edwardian” intriguing and accurate. My only encounters with King Edward are from King’s Speech and Victoria and Abdul, and neither depiction is flattering.

      My friend called my attention to the structure of the work, pointing out that it all takes place in one day–really, the whole novel is just her going to buy some flowers for a party, and all the reminiscences and thoughts that accompany that day (as well as the parallel lives we are meant to compare with her). He also said that he just loved her language, though I did not find myself reading over lines again. I remember a few odd but fun words she used, such “oilily” and “uglily”. I always remember Stephen King’s adage that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”, but these aren’t your ordinary adverbs.

      I just dipped into Ulysses the other day (only dipped, I haven’t committed yet!), and I was impressed by the language and the erudition. With regard to language, he will sometimes just go for a paragraph talking about who knows what, but with the most lyrical sounding words, such that you feel the meter. As for the erudition, he makes extended asides on Christological heresies, alludes to Aristotle’s physics, and throws Greek and Latin everywhere. (I even suspected him of being seminarian; he was not quite this, but he was taught by Jesuits.) Every page I read made me want to go study philosophy and theology more! Though they are both pushing the genre, I don’t think Woolf (in Dalloway at least) had anything quite like this going on.

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      • “Life, London, this moment in June” that makes my heart sing, it skips along with hope and happiness and contentment (for that moment); but I agree there is nothing to compare with Joyce for erudition! I read Ulysses last year and spent a week working on Aristotle and Plato. Go on read it, I would love to read your reviews – it’s an experience!

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  4. Reading C.S . Lewis article called Christianity and Literature, I thought about you and this review when I read this:
    A Christian and an unbelieving poet may both be equally original in the sense that they neglect the example of the poetic forebears and draw on resources peculiar to themselves, but with this difference. The unbeliever may take his own temperament and experience, just as they happen to stand, and consider them worth communicating simply because they are facts or, worse still, because they are his. To the Christian his own temperament and experience, as mere fact, and as merely his, are of no value or importance whatsoever: he will deal with them, if at all, only because they are the medium through which, or the position from which, something universally profitable appeared to him.

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  5. Btw, I have your same moral dilemma when reading certain books. I believe we the readers, may be able to extract that universal meaning in works not obviously aimed at it. My question is, does that happen because there’s an undercurrent of true universal meaning?, or do we affich that with the overflow of our experience, our own movement of completion of something broken?

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    • All good questions! I’ve been rereading St. Thomas Aquinas on the morality of human acts, and his argument that every particular human act is either good or bad, and in varying degrees. So also, the decision to read a book, it seems, also makes us better or worse. Unlike the experiences of life, which we have to accept on some level, for better or worse, we don’t have to continue reading a book or even start one–but it seems there is some reasoning that goes into the decision to read a certain book. I just read Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” that gives some helpful considerations…I’ll probably type up something about it once I’ve set my thoughts in order.

      As for the undercurrent of true universal meaning–yes, that can be present in all sorts of authors. George Eliot and Rebecca West are two that I continually think about: both agnostic, or at least less than Christian, and yet both capable of seeing beautiful realities, visible and invisible, and putting the right words to them. I think this is why West called herself Manichaean at times –a non-religious account of her understanding of things would not do justice to the breadth of her vision. Eliot on the other hand realized, I think, that the Evangelicalism she absorbed in her youth was too small to account for reality as she saw and understood it. Both of them had personal challenges that affected their outlook, but never their capacity to see that there is ever something more.

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      • I loved this, Both of them had personal challenges that affected their outlook, but never their capacity to see that there is ever something more..

        I’m looking forward to your thoughts on Calvino’s essay.

        I continued reading C.S. Lewis’s other essays on literature and christianity, etc., and he goes to say that for the christian, literature is subservient to his life. The christian is happy reading good literature, or something lighter, and equally happy not reading. For the atheist writer (and reader too), literature is their religion. They’d put a lot of emphasis on writing, the style, the critics opinion, their status (as writers or readers).

        When we see something that resonates as true, or something beautiful, good, of value, that ‘something more’, it truly doesn’t matter who’s been the conveyor or the medium. Conversely, not everyone who defines himself as a christian and who wants to write, or produce art, would necessarily reach that heights. (That’s why, I believe, C.S. Lewis did’n believe in so called ‘christian literature’, or ‘christian art’, but in christians writing good literature, producing good art, and atheists (and everybody in between) doing the same too. The focus is not on the person, but what that person brings forth for the world to discern, or ‘judge’.

        West calling herself Manichean, it’s funny, and it totally hits the nail, she even knew her non-religious view, as you comment, couldn’t account for what she was offering in her works.

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    • I ran into someone in a bookstore today who had just finished it, and with delight! It may be a few months before I could conveniently pick it up (currently reading the 1100-page Kristin Lavransdatter), but I am now looking forward to it.

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      • I have read the first two Lavransdatter books, I too need to read the last. (We are crossing book paths lately! I too need to wait before Ulysses, who knows, maybe we coincide, at least, I am hoping to read it in 2018. I will enjoy your thoughts on it.) I too have friends who love Ulysses.

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  6. Ulysses is so rich, it would be a shame to read it on your own, it’s a sharing experience in my view. I wonder if you’ve both read Portrait of the Artist? I thought it necessary (or at least useful) to have that information first.

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    • I remember reading “Araby” in high school, but nothing about it stands out in my mind. I glanced through Portrait in the bookstore the other day and noticed the name “Stephen Dedalus”, and also saw a little discussion about Bl. Newman which piqued my interest. After Kristin, I will probably read a few short books, but I thinking that Ulysses will be my next big one (it just arrived in the mail today!). If I keep lurking around bookstores, I might find someone else who would be interested in reading it at the same time, or maybe I’ll wait until I see Silvia has started it.

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      • What an honor that you consider reading it close to my reading it. I’m also willing to wait for you, as I too want to enjoy a few short books myself. This year I have not started a long book yet. I have many authors with short or not that long books I want to read, but at the same time that’s no excuse. There’s something special long books have, and classics like Ulysses, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to read at the same time than a kindred spirit reader. I believe I’m at a time in life when I’ll be able to glean much from it, and enjoy the time spent in it.

        I’m also thinking about reading the last of the Kristin’s trilogy, that way I will enjoy your reflections on the whole saga, Maximilian, and I will be able to read them in full without spoilers, and having the whole picture.

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