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Mrs. Dalloway Hardcover – October 28, 2002
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As Clarissa Dalloway walks through London on a fine June morning, a sky-writing plane captures her attention. Crowds stare upwards to decipher the message while the plane turns and loops, leaving off one letter, picking up another. Like the airplane's swooping path, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway follows Clarissa and those whose lives brush hers--from Peter Walsh, whom she spurned years ago, to her daughter Elizabeth, the girl's angry teacher, Doris Kilman, and war-shocked Septimus Warren Smith, who is sinking into madness.
As Mrs. Dalloway prepares for the party she is giving that evening, a series of events intrudes on her composure. Her husband is invited, without her, to lunch with Lady Bruton (who, Clarissa notes anxiously, gives the most amusing luncheons). Meanwhile, Peter Walsh appears, recently from India, to criticize and confide in her. His sudden arrival evokes memories of a distant past, the choices she made then, and her wistful friendship with Sally Seton.
Woolf then explores the relationships between women and men, and between women, as Clarissa muses, "It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together.... Her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?" While Clarissa is transported to past afternoons with Sally, and as she sits mending her green dress, Warren Smith catapults desperately into his delusions. Although his troubles form a tangent to Clarissa's web, they undeniably touch it, and the strands connecting all these characters draw tighter as evening deepens. As she immerses us in each inner life, Virginia Woolf offers exquisite, painful images of the past bleeding into the present, of desire overwhelmed by society's demands. --Joannie Kervran Stangeland --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
--Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours
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Top Customer Reviews
Every character in 'Mrs. Dalloway' appears to be in much turmoil over domestic concerns and their overarching urban society, and their place in their small acre of social Earth. They are seemingly temporarily distracted and heartened by beauty, only to be swept away repeatedly by nagging interior fears, anxieties, shames - social duties vs. doing something that matters, pursuing being 'in love' vs. comfortable stability, having a simple nature (which seems to represent a sedated obliviousness) vs. a complex nature (which seems to mean having a nervous sensitivity people are cautioned to control by whatever means they have - family, duty, rituals, religion, parties). Woolf's characters are so frustrated, unhappy or uncertain with their choices or conduct, or upset about the decisions of others, I wanted to step in and tell them the issue was not as huge as they felt (except Septimus who, I think, has lost all ability and resources for self-control - not his fault). However, as we all know, it is easy to diagnose the solutions or wonder at the worry of other people; not so easy when actually the person living behind the eyes!
Circumstances definitely trap us into lives we uneasily embrace. Problems overwhelm real joy, so people settle for a mask of joy. People can protest, but protest is often a pyretic option, as poor Septimus thoughts show. (He cannot accept the horrors of war he remembers, so he is conducting an interior struggle to reject reality - the worst response, and unfortunately involuntary because of traumatic war events.)
'Mind' is functionally solipsistic, despite any fact of social community or reality. It is a sad thing. Was this the point of the novel? I don't know, but it's my conclusion about the insularity revealed by the characters in Woolf's stream-of-consciousness representation in this novel.
Some reviewers saw, as I did, that Virginia Woolf's underlying theme, because of the era she lived, of exploring how thinking, although maneuvering over and managing the usual unruly desires and needs of life, was starting to spin off course from the old usual rutted paths in a post-WWI British world. The Vietnam War was also an American social earthquake. The same disturbances of truisms, tropes, customs and beliefs occurred here as a result. I lived through it, and I still come up snarling over certain perceived injustices or mores which used to be either ignored or papered over by traditions and customs. I see no difference in how WWI is beginning to subtly undermine the certainties of English society as the characters reveal their startled doubts and sudden new patterns of judgement in 'Mrs. Dalloway' and in how the Vietnam War affected American society in the 1970's. The upheavals in politics, social classes, religion and expectations of a predictability to the 'permanent' Universe are the same.
Not everyone will be as admiring as I and many other readers are when they read this book. It is an experimental (and a very successful one, polished and mostly complete) Modernist genre, utilizing a stream-of-consciousness architecture. It is one of the most accessible of its kind, which has been noted in other reviews, and I agree. I could find some resonances between myself and the characters, which isn't always true when the literary requirements are that the characters be written to serve more as symbols than they are expected to be fleshed out.
I will be re-reading this novel again in the future. It is a keeper.
Conceptually at least, Woolf's work could be considered derivative of James Joyce's classic Ulysses which was written several years earlier. Each concern the daily lives of a range of characters, living in the British Isles, on a single day, and in each novel, that day is in the middle of June. The stream-of-consciousness technique is used in each. Woolf's work is much shorter, and in ways, more intense as a result. And Woolf's work concerns the "gratin" of society, the "ruling class," as they socialize, making and reinforcing connections, and largely ignoring the catastrophe that overwhelmed Europe, ending only five years earlier, casting its "short shadow" on current events. Where Woolf has the clear edge is in her depiction of that always fascinating subject: how women and men interact.
Clarissa Dalloway awakes, and throughout the day will be preparing for the party she will hold that night to help her husband's career. Sometimes she is reduced to a single "s," as in the third letter of Mrs. Richard Dalloway. Her role as wife and supporter is a key theme in the novel. They have a daughter, Elizabeth, 18, who, as many daughters of that age do, yearn for some independence. Peter Walsh, who once courted Clarissa in her youth, 30 years before, and is six months older than her, is just back from a few years "managing" things in India, and immediately races to see her, in part to report the news that he is in love with the young wife of a British major in India, who has two children. Hum! Why, oh why, indeed? The "backdrop," central London, Mayfair, Oxford Street, et al. is repeatedly referenced as an integral part of the work.
Woolf depicts "minor characters" with deft strokes; so much so that they are so memorable that the adjective "minor" does not do them justice. There is Septimus Warren Smith who "...went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square." He returned with what we now call PTSD caused by the loss of a friend; he also returned with an Italian wife, Lucrezia. There is Miss Kilman, of the frayed cloth coat, around 40, who knows that life has passed her by, and is the tutor of Elizabeth. Miss Kilman has found solace in religion. Perhaps four generations later, I became acquainted with the "Harley Street" doctors, and their clients (patients), and so I was most impressed with Woolf's depiction of one of their antecedents, Sir William Bradshaw. Woolf says: "Sir William said he never spoke of `madness'; he called it not having a sense of proportion." Hum, again. And they always seem to know this quiet place in the countryside where the "client" will not trouble or embarrass the family. Or, as Woolf put it: "He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up. It was this combination of decision and humanity that endeared Sir William so greatly to the relations of his victims."
Much more laconic that Joyce, as I have said, and equally so compared to Proust, but Woolf novel ends with the party - will it be "successful," and yes it will be if we don't mention unpleasant things like death - that is worthy of Proust's descriptions of the "gratin" across the channel. I foresee reading To the Lighthouse in the next six months. As for Mrs. Dalloway, 5-stars, plus.
Virginia Woolf is like a bee going from flower to flower, resting on them, and describing a marvellous arabesque of one day in Westminster that ends at a party held at Mrs. Dalloway house in the evening.