For a long time I’ve been interested in reading a book by Virginia Woolf. However, I became more aware of her literary importance after taking the online course “How to read a novel“, where her novels were mentioned during discussions about flashbacks / flash-forwards and pace. That’s how I found out that she is most known for capturing day-to-day experiences, illustrating the “thrill and drama of living in the 20th century” (The School of Live video).

Stamps_of_Romania virginia woolf readers high tea
Stamp from Romania illustrating Virginia Woolf (2007). Image from Kiddle.co

In a nutshell, “Mrs Dalloway” follows Clarissa Dalloway throughout her one-day preparations for a high-society party she is going to host that night. But there is more to the story than the life of Mrs Dalloway – a second narrative line tells the story of Septimus Smith, a war veteran who suffers from the posttraumatic stress disorder.

Even though the book is framed in only one day (from morning ’till evening), we get more insights than what happens on that specific day. Using streams of consciousness and flashbacks as main narrative methods, the writer reveals many important aspects of the characters’ past. The story travels back and forth in time, diving deep into the characters’ thoughts and memories.

When it comes to my reading experience, there are two main ideas I want to share with you regarding (1) blurry boundaries and (2) lax structure. Let’s take it one by one.

First of all, I found it intriguing and challenging at the same time that the time and person boundaries are very blurry. Talking about time boundaries, even though the “action” takes place in a single day, the flashbacks and reminiscences create the impression of dilated time. While reading I felt that I was “following” the characters for a longer period of time, as the narrator reveals many details from their past.

When it comes to the persons’ boundaries, here I refer to the fact that the narrator “jumps” abruptly from one character’s thoughts to another’s – sometimes even in the same paragraph. This approach enabled some very powerful moments, when for example the reader was aware of what two characters were thinking while talking to each other.

Secondly, after reading the first few pages I realized that the book is not split into chapters – it is rather like a long essay. For me, this was an important drawback, as I prefer having a modular structure (chapters, volumes, etc) to help me feel I am making progress during the reading process.

Catenary Sys
Beautiful illustration by Kate Forster

To conclude, “Mrs Dalloway” is a complex book that touches upon themes such as the passage of time, stress and mental illness, and contemplation of own life. Even though it is a book I appreciate, and I understand why it is considered a masterpiece, I personally did not “click” with it.

Did you read any novels by Virginia Woolf? What’s your opinion on her books?

‘Till next time … happy reading!

Georgiana


PS: For someone who loves books with action and excitement like I do, reading “As I Lay Dying” and “Mrs Dalloway” in a short time span can be a bit overwhelming … I think I need a break from reading books that have streams of consciousness as main component 🙂


Images from LitHub.com | Kiddle.co | KateForster

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4 thoughts on “Reflecting on one’s own life while preparing a party: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

  1. I loved Mrs Dalloway but even better is The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I read the 2 as companion pieces – and preferred the Hours. Cunningham’s novel won the Pulitzer. It takes a day in the life’ approach to 3 women. The first, is Virginia Woolf herself, as she struggles with mental illness and inspiration as she begins writing the book that will become Mrs. Dalloway. The second, is Mrs Brown, in 1949 Los Angeles, as she is reading the book and plans her husband’s birthday party. The third is Clarisa Vaughan, as she plans the party for her friend and former lover; Richard, who is dying of AIDS. It’s brilliant.

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    1. I’ve never heard of “The Hours”, and it sounds so interesting! 😀 I find so intriguing books that use as inspiration already existing novels …
      “The Hours” is also using streams of consciousness, or is it more from a separate narrator perspective?

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  2. I’ve just re-read To The Lighthouse and see why it is one of the peaks of twentieth century literature. The themes cover, aesthetics, meaning, and loss of faith amongst others. Lily is the artist who has her small epiphanies and various characters show how experience can be interpretated by using different ‘perspectives.’

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