by Virginia Woolf
Fiction: Modern classic
Paperback, 194 pages
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not me, anymore! I really struggled with To the Lighthouse when I had to read it in high school, so I was a bit nervous when I drew Mrs. Dalloway for the Classics Spin. I wondered, will it be impenetrable and confusing? Was I simply too young to appreciate Woolf before? Have my tastes matured to a point that I will understand and enjoy this book? I shouldn’t have worried. I LOVED this book, and I am so glad I challenged myself to give Woolf another shot.
Mrs. Dalloway is a portrait of a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged, upper-class British woman. On this particular day, she is preparing for the party she will host in the evening — buying flowers, readying her house, etc. Although on the outside a charming woman with a talent for bringing people together, on the inside Clarissa is an endless stream of memories, longings, and doubts about the choices she has made.
We are also transported, at times, into the psyches of some of the people she comes into contact with, including her husband Richard Dalloway, who can’t verbally express his love for his wife, and her old flame Peter Walsh, who has just returned from India. Reading these perspectives and their thoughts about Clarissa give us a deeper, more complex understanding of her – who she is now and who she used to be. We see her horror of death, the joy she takes in throwing parties (a joy considered petty by some), the way she has sacrificed passion for conventionality, and how the passage of time has changed her. Parallel to Mrs. Dalloway’s story is the narrative of Septimus Smith, a suicidal, insane ex-soldier who is unable to translate his experiences into words.
I really, really loved the language in this book. There were times that I didn’t even care about what was going on in the plot — just absorbing the lyrical, rhythmic prose was more than enough. I can’t tell you how many passages I underlined, either for their poetic beauty or the way they conveyed a tiny, shattering truth.
“The sun might go in and out, on the tassels, on the wallpaper, but he would wait, he thought, stretching out his feet, looking at his ringed sock at the end of the sofa; he would wait in this warm place, this pocket of still air, which one comes on at the edge of a wood sometimes in the evening, when, because of a fall in the ground, or some arrangement of the trees (one must be scientific above all, scientific), warmth lingers, and the air buffets the cheek like the wing of a bird.”
Mrs. Dalloway made me feel all the feels. I felt the beauty of a hot June day in London, the vibrant but unsettling mentality of the mentally ill, the melancholy sadness of seeing a wild life become small, the doubt over the value of the life one leads, the impossibility of ever really knowing anyone, the fear (and conversely, the embracing) of death, and the way experience/age deepens feeling.
“For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, “This is what I have made of it! This!” And what had she made of it? What indeed?”
I loved this book, but I don’t feel like I fully understood it. I can tell that some of the symbolism went over my head and that there were many connections I failed to make. And I’m okay with that. This is a book I will definitely return to, and I will enjoy digging deeper in future reads. I really want to read more of Woolf’s work and more about Woolf, herself. I want to know about her life and her themes so that I can understand her writing more fully.
I’m really excited to have finally overcome my fear of Virginia Woolf! This book was beautiful and incisive, and I am so glad the Classics Club made me read it!