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Mrs. Dalloway (thoughts)

January 15, 2010

I just finished my second reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and I find myself as enchanted as the first time. I’ve loved Woolf since I first met her when I was 16 (via Orlando, which I’ll be rereading next month!), and for me the opening pages of Mrs. Dalloway felt like floating on a current. I could give myself up completely to the prose and just bob along, relaxed and dreamy and full of thoughts. I realise that’s a mildly tasteless metaphor for Woolf, but I couldn’t think of a substitute…air is too thin for what I felt, and riding in any kind of transport too inorganic. A great many of my fellow book bloggers also read the book and are posting about it today, as the first part of Woolf in Winter (Sarah is the host for this book), and I’ve loved reading all of the posts. It amazes me how differently we can all react to the same book, and I think that says a lot for the richness of Woolf’s writing.

As for myself, I find Mrs. Dalloway to be a wonderful little book, one that validates the odd internal monologue I know I have going almost constantly, and I always finish it feeling hopeful. I think Clarissa has a wonderful life…she’s a character I’d happily become, since she finds joy in the little things, she’s well off materially, she has a good man as a husband, and a daughter who, while being troublesome in the way all teenagers are, is good as well. Moreover, Clarissa herself doesn’t seem to want more (which I think is the key to happiness)…the only real times she seems dissatisfied with her life is when Peter is there, making her feel petty. I think she looks back with nostalgia on her youth, but we all do that, and it’s not a sign that her life is pointless or wasted.

I was surprised how much I loathed Peter this time around. The first time, I found him mildly annoying, but this time, I was really angry with the way he seems to want to make Clarissa has dissatisifed with her life as he is with his. And he’s such a snob! But he really has no right to be a snob…it’s not as if he’s devoted his life to art or anything marvelous. Nope, he’s a civil servant whose hobby appears to be random love affairs with inappropriate women. I fail to see where he gets off judging Clarissa for anything! And I don’t think he sees her as she truly is; I think he’s projecting himself on to her. Since he wants more to life than a comfortable existence among the British upper class, she must to. After all, she was the great love of his life, and if she’s happy being conventional, what does that say about him? And whenever he’s around, Clarissa finds herself acting, which is as far from ‘being her true self’ as it’s possible to be. I want to banish Peter back to India, sending his self-righteousness with him.

While, for me, Clarissa is the heart of the book, I think that the Septimus bits are just as important. First of all, Woolf demonstrates her real power as an author; her way of capturing Septimus’ thoughts feels just as convincing as Clarissa’s, and the two couldn’t be more opposite. I love how I always know exactly whose viewpoint I’m reading, simply from the shifts in tone and focus Woolf makes. That being said, while Clarissa feels like a real person, Septimus feels more like a symbol to me. He represents the bits of England that were destroyed by the war, all of the young men that never came home, or the ones who always carried memories of the trenches. Whereas Clarissa and her circle are an older generation, Septimus seems to embody the dashed hopes of the younger one. They’re the ones who saw that earlier way of life break down, and they’re struggling to find a new value system. So while I appreciated Septimus and what he brought to the book, I couldn’t empathise with him as I did with Clarissa, and I didn’t really care when he launched himself out the window.

On the other hand, I felt so much for Rezia, his wife. I can’t imagine loving someone and watching him decline into insanity, desperately trying to help, but never knowing what could make it worse or better. Woolf further isolates her by making her Italian, an outsider in London, which makes her situation even more precarious. I often wonder what happens to Rezia at the end…I imagine her travelling back to Italy, to trim hats with her sister again. I hope she finds a new husband, one to have children with, since she seems to want to be a mother. But nothing can make her the light-hearted girl that she was before.

It’s funny…I find it difficult to blog about a book like Mrs. Dalloway! There’s so much I want to say, so many different aspects I could focus on. But I think I’ll save something for the next rereading. :) Now I’m off to read more of what my co-participants had to say!

69 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2010 1:27 pm

    Oh, how I relate to your difficulties getting everything down, Eva! It’s such a difficult novel to write about, isn’t it? But you do a great job here. I share your love of Woolf’s prose, and your appreciation of Clarissa, although I think I’m a little easier on Peter. ;-) He’s struggling with disappointment, in himself & in Clarissa, but I still love many of his passages – and i think it’s good for her to have someone around who recognizes something different in her than other people tend to see. Not that what Peter sees is more real or valid, but just that it’s different. Anyway, I loved your post!

    • January 16, 2010 5:28 pm

      Last time, I was much nicer to Peter. :) And I’m sure when I reread it again, my thoughts will have changed completely!

  2. January 15, 2010 1:44 pm

    Orlando was my first experience with Woolf’s fiction and I enjoyed it. This book not so much. But I’ve read all the reviews now and most have said it’s not their first read of Mrs Dalloway. Seems I will benefit a lot from a reread. I liked the other characters more than Clara, but only felt sorry for Peter. And I felt that Rezia and her husband were a more important part of the story even than Clara and her party. That whole generation had lost so much in that war-it never really recovered fully. I hope I can come to love the book as much as you do. Great review, as always. You write with such enthusiasm. I look forward to your thoughts on the next book.

    • January 16, 2010 5:30 pm

      I’m skipping To the Lighthouse, since I just read it for the first time last year, and it feels too soon for a reread. But I’m doing Orlando and The Waves! :)

      You know, I don’t think the book would have worked without Septimus and Rezia. But I also think Clarissa and Peter were just as important…the contrast seems to be where the heart of the novel lies. For some reason though, reading it this time, I identified so strongly with Clarissa that everything else felt secondary.

  3. January 15, 2010 1:46 pm

    This is my first Woolf novel ever, and I was surprised by how beautiful the language was! It just flowed along while I enjoyed every last word. I feel like I want to reread it immediately, but will try To The Lighthouse first.

    • January 16, 2010 5:31 pm

      I hope you enjoy To the Lighthouse! I read it for the first time last year, and I can’t say it’s my favourite Woolf, but it’s definitely worth a read.

  4. tuulenhaiven permalink
    January 15, 2010 1:50 pm

    Excellent post! Your take on Peter is so interesting – something I love about group reading of course, is the variety of impressions that become apparent! I didn’t feel very interested in Rezia beyond simply simpathy during my first or second reads, but as I read various people’s posts I find myself more intrigued!

    • January 16, 2010 5:31 pm

      Thanks Sarah! I love how we all got different things out of the book too. :)

  5. January 15, 2010 1:52 pm

    I’ve not read Orlando yet, but I’ve read this twice and loved it both times. I’m sure I still didn’t catch 90% of what Woolf is saying, but I understood more the second time, which makes me think with each reread I will learn something new.

    • January 16, 2010 5:32 pm

      I think you’ll love Orlando, since it’s all about gender-bending. :D

  6. January 15, 2010 2:02 pm

    One could write on and on forever, yes? Someone this morning (maybe Lu or JoAnn, I have to look back) said that it was difficult to excerpt quotes because how can one possibly choose? Can’t very well type out the whole book as is the temptation. :)

    And the wonderful thing about shared reads is getting to see the variety of viewpoints. I have to admit that I am also much more sympathetic to Peter. He holds on to an ideal of Clarissa from their youth so strongly that what she has become strikes him as a betrayal of a happier time for him. A possible rejection of a self he may see as his best self.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on To the Lighthouse hosted by the ever-insightful Emily.

    • January 16, 2010 5:33 pm

      I agree! That’s why I ended up not excerpting any passages, lol You know, I’m sure the next time I reread it, I’ll care more about Peter. He just struck me as such a snot this time, lol. I’m skipping To the Lighthouse (although I’ll be reading another Woolf, Between the Acts, in the same time period), but I’ll be back for Orlando and The Waves!

  7. January 15, 2010 2:17 pm

    I haven’t read anything by Virginia Woolf, though I do own To The Lighthouse. I suppose I have been introduced to Mrs Dalloway through the book ‘The Hours’, but I would like to read this one.

    • January 16, 2010 5:33 pm

      I saw the move The Hours before I read Mrs. Dalloway. :) I think I read the book The Hours after I read Mrs. Dalloway though. lol

  8. January 15, 2010 2:34 pm

    I’ve stayed away from Woolf because I thought she would be too difficult to read. I think I will have to give her a try! Do you recommend “Mrs. Dalloway” as the first Woolf to read?

    • January 16, 2010 5:35 pm

      Hmmm…my first Woolf was Orlando, and that worked perfectly for me! If you prefer more traditional narratives, The Voyage Out is her first novel, and it’s a good way to get a taste of her when she was still taking baby steps into stream-of-consciousness. :)

      If you’re already a fan of prose, character-focused books, I’d say jump right in w/ Mrs. Dalloway! But I’m not a Woolf expert by any means.

  9. January 15, 2010 2:51 pm

    I have been meaning to read this book since December… I need to get cracking!

  10. January 15, 2010 3:02 pm

    Oh, I did care when Septimus launched himself out the window! It was because I had seen the movie, “The Hours” (when it first came out), and that scene was powerful. As I recall, in neither Mrs. Dalloway nor the movie do you see the man actually launch himself; the next minute he is just gone. When I came to that scene in the novel I had to put the book down for a while. It’s amazing how different everyone’s impressions are–as I expected they would be when I joined this challenge–I think the moment of Septimus’ plunge was pivotal for me. I’m not sure exactly why.

    • January 16, 2010 5:36 pm

      I saw The Hours before I read Mrs. Dalloway (or read The Hours, for that matter). I agree in the movie, the window scene is incredibly powerful. But it also took me by surprise. Perhaps because I was rereading the book, the inevitably of Septimus killing himself made me become less attached to him? I don’t know.

  11. January 15, 2010 3:16 pm

    I love your post, and it’s nudging me to re-read the book. After reading so many posts, I found that I missed a lot in my first read, and maybe didn’t dig deep enough.

    I did love Clarissa’s character, and like Emily, am a little more sympathetic towards Peter. Despite judging Clarissa, I think he does still love her, and is trying to either find reasons not to, or, trying to figure out why he’s better off without her.

    Septimus, for me, was the most powerful character, but, maybe that will change on a re-read?

    • January 16, 2010 5:37 pm

      Thank you! I agree; I think Peter does still love Clarissa (all of those desperate parentheticals to the contrary seem the best evidence). And I find Septimus powerful as a symbol, but I couldn’t relate to him as an individual. As I mentioned above, though, I might have been holding myself back since I knew how his story would end.

  12. January 15, 2010 4:06 pm

    I love your thoughts about Peter, as I found him to be mildly annoying too. He must have loved Clarissa a great deal–maybe idealized her when they were younger, and then she disappointed him by choosing a more “conventional” or easier path in life. I’m glad you enjoy Mrs. D as much as I do, I’m finding this “challenge” very interesting.

    • January 16, 2010 5:38 pm

      I’m loving all the discussion that this read-a-long has generated too! I agree; I think Peter put young Clarissa on a big old pedestal, and is still annoyed with her for staying up there and being a beautiful statue.

  13. January 15, 2010 4:15 pm

    I’m sorry that my copy wasn’t with me so I couldn’t join in on this reread! I’ve loved reading these posts. I adore Mrs Dalloway although it remains my only experience with Virginia Woolf (yet another fault I intend to remedy this year) and I have read it twice, the second time in a college class where I discussed it and even wrote a paper about it. So I’ve picked it apart a fair bit and very much enjoyed doing so! I too love the fluidity of Woolf’s writing and how it synchronizes with what real life thought processes feel like to me. I think my favorite scene is when everyone sees a plane in the sky and we’re treated to all of them noticing it, breaking their thought patterns.

    I didn’t care much about Septimus the first time, but I definitely did the second time. I think I had more sympathy towards Peter than you, too, but for some reason that I don’t remember as clearly. I definitely need to make time for Woolf!

    • January 16, 2010 5:39 pm

      I love the plane scene too! And how it follows from the car scene. :) As I’ve said above, I think much of my reaction towards the characters this time was just because of where I am personally right now…I’m sure when I reread it, I’ll feel differently!

  14. January 15, 2010 4:37 pm

    I found Septimus tragic and his shell-shock so well-realised but, yes, the unfortunate victim of his illness is Rezia.

    I need to reread this as it has been eight years. I am so excited to be reading To the Lighthouse for the first time this month! I’m loving reading everyone’s Woolf in Winter posts.

    • January 16, 2010 5:39 pm

      I agree: I think Woolf did a tremendous job at depicting his shell shock. Enjoy To the Lighthouse; I’m skipping that one! :)

  15. January 15, 2010 5:04 pm

    I’m a huge Woolf fan too. In fact, I have that poster of the first edition of Mrs. Dalloway on my office wall. Interesting how you felt about Peter on this reading! It makes me want to re-read it.

    • January 16, 2010 5:40 pm

      I imagine that’s a beautiful poster. :) I’m curious to see how I’ll view Peter on my next rereading! lol

  16. January 15, 2010 5:14 pm

    I loved the writing and prose. I wasnt the biggest fan of the book overall but am definitley pleased that I had read it and am very much looking forward to reading To The Lighthouse

    • January 16, 2010 5:41 pm

      I’ve felt that way about books-pleased that I’ve read them, admiring even, but not head-over-heels in love. I’m curious what you’ll think of To the Lighthouse, since it’s my least fave of the Woolf I’ve read. ;)

  17. January 15, 2010 5:43 pm

    Picked this up the other night at Borders. I swear I cannot remember if I ever read it. But, apparently, if I did it will be worth reading again.

    • January 16, 2010 5:41 pm

      I bet you’ll remember a few pages in if you’ve read it before! :)

  18. January 15, 2010 6:01 pm

    I have had this book on my shelf for a few years now, but have not yet read it. Perhaps this year is the year.

    • January 16, 2010 5:42 pm

      I love how the read-a-long is inspiring so many people to give Woolf a try!

  19. January 15, 2010 7:10 pm

    …I am still afraid of Virginia Woolf. Very. :P

    • January 16, 2010 5:42 pm


      If you’re afraid that she’s too experimental, try The Voyage Out. It’s much more traditional! :)

  20. Bellezza permalink
    January 15, 2010 8:07 pm

    You helped me like her better, Eva, with your apt description of her here. I, too, have loved going around to see all the different points of view from those of us who have read Mrs. Dalloway and posted on it today.

    I find myself feeling so like Rezia, especially after reading the end of your post here: like her, I’m Italian; like her, I watched my first husband decline into mental instability before he died. Who would think that I’d have something in common with a fictional character from 85 years ago? It just shows how timeless Woolf’s writing truly is.

    • January 16, 2010 5:43 pm

      I’m so sorry to hear about your first husband. :( I agree; my ability to identify with Woolf’s characters is incredible. I think that’s part of what makes a classic a classic…we still see ourselves in the books decades or centuries later.

  21. January 15, 2010 8:26 pm

    It’s interesting that we have such different views on Clarissa! To each his own. Peter did annoy me as well, although I mostly just seemed to ignore him, and didn’t even write about him in my review. Funny how we respond so differently to the same work.

    • January 16, 2010 5:43 pm

      I know-it is interesting! I think that’s what makes this so fun. :)

  22. January 15, 2010 8:33 pm

    Ms Eva –

    I know it’s very common to hate Peter – but honestly, I just can’t manage it. It’s not that I don’t think he’s a faulty person. He definitely is. But I DIDN’T think that Ms Dalloway was entirely happy, or at least, entirely fulfilled, and that something in Peter signifies that to her. I don’t think the two were meant to be, not at all, I think Peter is incapable of permanently loving a woman. But that’s not because Peter is a terrible human being – in the right story, he could be a hero, and a very good one. That’s the interesting thing about the book altogether, though, to me. Every character could have been a hero, and none of them get to be.

    • January 16, 2010 5:44 pm

      Really-it’s common?! Because I seem to be the only one that doesn’t like Peter.

      I think Peter reminds me of people I’ve had to deal with in my own life, and that’s why I wanted to smack him. But I’ll probably feel kinder towards him on my next rereading. ;)

      I don’t think he’s a terrible human being, but I think he treats Clarissa terribly. :p

  23. January 16, 2010 12:00 am

    Eva, you made me look at Clarissa in a more positive light, as she wasn’t one of my favourite characters here when I started. Peter, on the other hand, I really liked. Clarissa’s feelings of inadequacy that surface whenever Peter’s there must be the result of Clarissa’s own doing, being that she places so much importance on him and the memory of him, without admitting it.

    • January 16, 2010 5:46 pm

      I see that Clarissa wouldn’t feel bad when Peter was around if she didn’t care for him, but I think him oozing disapproval at her doesn’t help matters. ;)

      I don’t think I liked Clarissa nearly as much the first time around; it’s funny how rereading a book at different points in my life makes me see it so differently!

  24. January 16, 2010 1:17 am

    I found it really hard to write a post about this book too (although I think you did a fantastic job Eva!). This was my first reading of a Woolf novel and I loved every moment of it – so different in style to what I would normally enjoy reading.

  25. lena permalink
    January 16, 2010 2:31 am

    I really found Peter to be quite strange. Both times that I read this. Hearing him talk about the time when Clarissa MET her husband and how he “knew” they’d be together. It was so odd for me. Both times I wondered if it was his own insecurities – seeing her with someone else who she seemed to like and was male – or if he wanted to be rid of her as he seems to want the reader to think later on in the novel.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds him just a tad unlikable.

    • January 16, 2010 5:47 pm

      Yay! Finally someone who agrees with me on Peter! lol He struck me as rather like Woolf and her circle (at least, the impression I got from them by reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf), but I didn’t want to say that in my post. hehe

  26. January 16, 2010 9:17 am

    I read this completely differently than you.

    I HATED Rezia with a passion because she was so self-centered and selfish. I really felt for Septimus. Because I’ve gone through depression in severeity throughout my life, I really related to him: no one really “got” it. And he lived in an age where there was no hope to treat his depression. Thankfully, I live in an age where serious mental illness is recognized as such and people aren’t expecting me to just rest it out, like those in his world were expecting. I seriously felt for him and didn’t blame him for wanting to escape his horrible wife. I didn’t care at all what she decided to do after he died. She was so selfish.

    All that said, I didn’t see the point of that part of the book, and I would rather have read more about Clarissa, who I didn’t think was happy. I need to reread it to get more about the Peter-Clarissa thing. Not sure what I thought about Peter. But on my one read, I got the impression that Clarissa was not satisfied — even before Peter came in, she was thinking about her past, thinking about how she’s always trying to please someone else (like what I quoted on my blog about trying to please others). I thought she was quite complex and I really related to her.

    So anyway, I find it fascinating that I really saw the people in a completely different light than you did. I hated who you liked and found complex and sad those that you found happy. I’ve only read it once thus far, so I obviously need to reread it!

    • January 16, 2010 5:49 pm

      I’ve gone through depression too, and it made me feel completely alienated from everyone around me. But my experience of depression wasn’t like Septimus’, and perhaps that’s part of why he felt more like a symbol to me than a real person. I don’t see how Rezia was selfish though!

      From the very first page, Clarissa knows that Peter is coming back to England, so we don’t ever see her without Peter coming in. I agree that she’s always trying to please others, and she sees that as a problem, but I’m not sure it’s enough of a problem to ruin her life. I don’t know. I agree-I found Clarissa complex as well. I don’t think she’s a simply, happy Pollyanna. But I think in her complexity, down at the bottom, she’s satisfied with the big choices she’s made in her life, and from that satisfaction comes a kind of contentment and happiness.

  27. January 16, 2010 11:45 am

    This is the second review I’ve read on Dalloway and I think it’s about time I gave Woolf a try, don’t you? Thanks for the review.

  28. January 16, 2010 11:54 am

    Great post! Unfortunately I got a little sidetracked :) with In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden and have not yet finished rereading Mrs. Dalloway. I’ll come back to comment on this post after I have finished reading Mrs. D.


    • January 16, 2010 5:50 pm

      Thanks Tiina! I’ll be looking forward to your post when you finish the book. :D

  29. January 16, 2010 4:18 pm

    Your post is the second one I’ve read that uses a water metaphor to describe reading Woolf (Frances at Nonsuch Book being the first). I agree 100% and I think that’s how Woolf wants us to react to her books.

    I love your analysis of Septimus and how he’s a symbol that contrasts with Clarissa Dalloway, as a member of the older, settled generation. I love 1920s literature and how it was often so questioning in the aftermath of the Great War. My most favorite poem of all time is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which I have half-memorized. I am so embarrassed I didn’t pick up on that aspect of Septimus’s character! Thank you for pointing it out!

    • January 16, 2010 5:51 pm

      Yep-especially since The Waves is one of my favourite Woolf novels, I noticed all the water references here. :) I think it’s one of her motifs, if that makes sense.

      I’m so glad you got something out of my discussion of Septimus! I find him more intriguing for that generation he represents than I do as an individual. :) I love 20s literature as well, for the same reasons.

  30. January 16, 2010 5:51 pm

    I read this late in 2008 and just loved it. It convinced me to seek out all Woolf’s other work, and I’ve been doing so oh-so slowly. I think you’re right about the way it validates our internal monlogues, too; Woolf does a superb job of translating thought onto the page.

    • January 16, 2010 5:52 pm

      I’ve been slowly working through Woolf’s other books too! :)

  31. January 16, 2010 6:43 pm

    I really thought I commented on this post, but apparently I did not! I must be going crazy…! But in any case, I agree that I didn’t love Peter, but he was okay. I was kind of indifferent to him, honestly. I was disconnected from his part of the story and I’m not sure why. Sometimes he would have an interesting insight, but other than that, I was much less interested in his side of the story. I was only interested in the sense that it informed the reader about Clarissa. Rezia and Septimus were my absolute favorites. I loved Rezia for her strength and her sadness and I loved Septimus for the way his brain worked. Oh, it was just so beautiful. I had so many things I wanted to say in my post as well, but just ended up letting the quotes mostly speak for themselves.

  32. January 17, 2010 2:57 am

    Eva, I had so much trouble getting my thoughts together (because you are right about how much Woolf put into this novel) that i missed the discussion altogether! Love, love your description of bobbing about on her prose. Could there be anything better? And I agree about annoying Peter. Oh, so much–beyond the scope of a comment…

  33. January 17, 2010 3:22 pm

    The denseness of her prose does force readers to reread it. Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing style requires utmost concentration, as her scenes not only shift swiftly and imperceptibly between past and present, primarily through Clarissa’s, Septimus’s, and Peter’s memories, she also combines interior with omniscient descriptions of characters and scene.

    For a very thin volume as Mrs. Dalloway, I have compiled a huge amount of notes during reading. Every sentence affords deep observations and meanings, and that in the curlicues of her phrases, I am overwhelmed that I might have missed her meanings. As a result, reading entails frequent back-tracking, negotiating back and forth the passages to ensure a full understanding.

  34. January 17, 2010 11:00 pm

    Virginia Woolf is one of those authors I still haven’t read but want to read. I’ve even checked out a couple of her books in the past but didn’t end up reading them. I think I’ve been intimidated by her, but I’m sure I would like her. Your post has me making a mental note to get on with it already. Thanks for the encouragement. :)

  35. January 18, 2010 4:14 pm

    I liked Peter very much and yes he was flawed, yes he may have been a bit harsh with Clarissa but he was in love with her and knew he couldn’t have her – that she wouldn’t have him! so I was quite sympathetic to him. He is much more alive anyway, which could hardly be said for besotted Richard. He was sweet, he loves his wife. He buys her flowers. Ah, but Peter has passion and real emotions causing trouble.


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