Mrs. Dalloway


The first time I read Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's prose sprang upon me as an revelation, and also a profound recognition. Here, I felt (sophomorically perhaps), was someone portraying a truth about how I experience the world - about how "people" experience the world. It seemed amazing to me, back then, that nobody had written like this before, because in a way it was so common-sense. Woolf's interweaving of action and thought, for example: it's only reasonable to acknowledge that when a person walks down the street, thinking thoughts, her manner of walking, of glancing around, of holding herself, are all affected by the thoughts she is having, the way she feels about them, the memories that are present to her - and that, conversely, her interactions with those around her, and the things and people she observes in the here and now, set off other trains of thought within her, so that she may be suddenly distracted and diverted to a completely new mental tangent, or a subtle change in the light may just modify her train of thought ever so slightly, without her even realizing a change has taken place. That's only everyday life; I can't imagine that any modern person has failed to experience it.

But that a writer could so fully realize that experience in prose, that her very sentence structure would reflect this interwoven reality...well, my mind was blown. I was intoxicated by the depiction of how people simply walking down the street are all constantly re-inventing, re-imagining themselves, conceptualizing the person they are at the given moment, telling themselves the stories of their lives as they walk along - so Peter Walsh sees himself one moment as a failure and the next as a bold adventurer. I was captivated by Woolf's evocation of the liminal space between subjective and objective reality - how Septimus says, for example, "the sun became extraordinarily hot because the car had stopped outside Mulberry's shop window," which is logically false and yet completely true to the reality of subjective experience. We all experience as causality things that may "really" be only correlations, and yet that perceived cause and effect is vital enough to us, influencing us as we go through our days, so that it is true in some meaningful way, despite logic. So I stayed up all night in college, reading Mrs. Dalloway, absorbed in Mrs. Dalloway and all its inhabitants - Septimus and Rezia and Peter and Elizabeth, and even Lady Bruton and Richard and Miss Kilman, and Sally Seton with her five enormous sons, and Clarissa Dalloway, with her profound superficiality and her atheist's religion of human connection, and her perverse satisfaction in giving parties. I tried to write about all this, and failed miserably.

And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?
      An offering for the sake of an offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense; and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know.
      All the same, that one day should follow another, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that how unbelievable death was! - that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all, how, every instant . . .

I was overpowered by the tangible, physical presence of human connection - Clarissa and Peter's "queer power of communicating without words," and the conceit that "one's friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread," and the way in which a simple hat, laughed over by a husband and wife, can become a gem of everyday beauty in the midst of tragedy - and I had to go and read it again, immediately, out loud, with someone I love. So David and I read Mrs. Dalloway together, and that second reading more or less swept me along in my initial flush of infatuation. How there are anger and cynicism and hard truths - from the arrogant domination the medical profession shows Septimus, to Richard Dalloway's pathetic failure to tell his wife he loves her, to the pointless class-bound animosity between Mrs. Dalloway and Miss Kilman - and yet, unlike some Modernists, Woolf also portrays exquisite moments of true human connection. Never perfect, often fleeting, but, crucially present, nonetheless, which seems to me to make all the difference. I tried to write about this, too, and failed.

But there was nothing terrible about it, he assured himself, looking a second time, a third time at her face, her hands, for what was frightening or disgusting in her as she sat there in broad daylight, sewing? Mrs. Peters had a spiteful tongue. Mr. Peters was in Hull. Why then rage and prophesy? Why fly scourged and outcast? Why be made to tremble and sob by the clouds? Why seek truths and discover messages when Rezia sat sticking pins into the front of her dress, and Mr. Peters was in Hull? Miracles, revelations, agonies, loneliness, falling through the sea, down, down into the flames, all were burnt out, for he had a sense, as he watched Rezia trimming the straw hat for Mrs. Peters, of a coverlet of flowers.
      "It's too small for Mrs. Peters," said Septimus.
      For the first time for days he was speaking as he used to do! Of course it was - absurdly small, she said. But Mrs. Peters had chosen it.
      He took it out of her hands. He said it was an organ grinder's monkey's hat.
      How it rejoiced her that! Not for weeks had they laughed like this together, poking fun privately like married people. What she meant was that if Mrs. Filmer had come in, or Mrs. Peters or anybody they would not have understood what she and Septimus were laughing at.

My third and fourth readings, in second and third college courses, brought more nuance to my appreciation of the novel, and maybe smoothed it out a trifle. I learned little tidbits, interesting in themselves although not, in the final analysis, all that important. I learned about Woolf's struggles with mental illness, and her discomfort, so unlike Clarissa Dalloway, with managing servants. I read her phrase about dining with Lytton Strachey - "It is an exquisite symphony his nature when all the violins get playing" - and found that it described perfectly my own feeling about reading her books. I read and argued passionately with literary critics who made claims I disagreed with - that Woolf is glamorizing death, for example, when I still feel that Mrs. Dalloway is an argument for the beauty and vitality of life in all its imperfection. I wrote about this, although not very satisfactorily.

And now, after my fifth reading of Mrs. Dalloway, the novel has been transformed from a passionate new lover to an old, dear friend. I found, reading it through this time, that it was sometimes difficult even to experience the language as something external: it has become so familiar to me that my mind begins to race ahead, looking forward to favorite passages, anticipating lovely transitions. Peter says of Clarissa:

There was a mystery about it. You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain - the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding; after years of lying lost. [...] She had influenced him more than any person he had ever known.

And this is how I feel about Mrs. Dalloway: it has influenced me more than any book I have ever known. Reading it again, after a passage of time, I find that so many moments from it have become absorbed into my brain and my way of life, and I carry them with me always, referring to them at odd, unexpected times. Miss Kilman's assertion that "when people are happy, they have a reserve"; Clarissa's exquisite theories about her spirit being held aloft, stretched wide like a mist over trees among all the people and places she has known; Septimus and Rezia's one last moment of communion with one another (the hat); the way that Peter and Clarissa can inadvertently summon the moonlit terrace at Bourton back into existence forty years later; even the simple image of Clarissa plunging like a knife into a busy London intersection - it is literally hard to imagine my life without these passages, they strike such a deep chord. Mrs. Dalloway is no longer, perhaps, the electrifying novelty it was during my college years, but it's now something more meaningful. My relationship with this book has become an integral part of who I am.

So, maybe it's gotten to the point where I can only really write about it like this - in a form closer to a personal essay than a book review. I haven't given any notion of plot or even intention, I realize. It's still unsatisfying; I'm sitting here tinkering with it when I should be in bed. It does though, at least, start to express what Woolf's novel has meant to me so far. However much more time I have, I'll have it with Mrs. Dalloway.


Thanks to Sarah for hosting this first installment of Woolf in Winter! Join us right here at Evening All Afternoon on January 29 for the second segment. It will feature Woolf's To the Lighthouse, about which I am likely to be more coherent.

And be sure to visit others' posts!

  • Our lovely host Sarah at what we have here is a failure to communicate
  • Amy at New Century Reading
  • Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed
  • Becca at Bookstack
  • Belleza at Dolce Belleza
  • Care at Care's Online Book Club
  • Christy at Lil Bit Brit Lit
  • Claire at Kiss a Cloud
  • Eva at A Striped Armchair
  • DS at Third-Storey Window
  • EL Fay at This Book and I Could Be Friends
  • Frances of Nonsuch Book
  • Jason at Moored at Sea
  • JoAnn at Lakeside Musings
  • Julia at A Number of Things
  • Karen at BookBath
  • Kaye at Kaye's Book Review Page
  • Kristine at BasBleuBookshelf
  • Lena at Save Ophelia
  • Lindsey at Sparks' Notes
  • Lu at Regular Rumination
  • Nicole at Bibliographing
  • Rebecca at Rebecca Reads
  • Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
  • Sandra at Fresh Ink Books
  • Simon at Savidge Reads
  • uncertainprinciples at anothercookiecrumbles
  • Victoria at Views from the Page and the Oven
  • Violet at Still Life with Books


  • And here's to the personal essay instead of the book review. I loved this, Emily. I'd hoped to reread Mrs. Dalloway in time for Woolf in Winter (and to find where my old copy of To the Lighthouse has wandered off to!), but maybe I should simply move on to Orlando and The Waves since those are ones I've never read, and reward myself later with a return to favorites and a rereading of this delightful post.

  • I recently read this for Woolf In Winter for the first time. It was the first Woolf I read, and to be honest, I did find it challenging at times. I did enjoy the book, and am glad I read it. I'll be looking forward to re-reading it sometime in the future, and maybe after a couple of re-reads, I'll feel the same as you.

    I feel like that about Catcher In The Rye and Fountainhead right now - two books I can always pick up, and just feel a familiar surge of familiarity, as I lose myself in my favourite fictional worlds. All in good time...

  • My feelings on my first read, just now for Woolf in Winter, are very similar to what you describe in this post. I know a re-read would be great because I went through the first dozen or so pages again last night and felt completely overwhelmed with the strength of the images in Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts.

    One reason I'd shied away from Woolf in the past was because I had always had a hard time relating to books that purported to put me in touch with the thoughts of the characters--I never seemed to quite understand them properly. But Woolf does it so differently and so much more authentically, it was really a bit of a revelation.

  • Your passion for this book is contagious! I definitely loved it, but now you are making me want to go back and reread it again and again! This is a really wonderful post that has opened my eyes to a lot of the beauty of Mrs. Dalloway. Thank you!

  • It's interesting that you notice and point out so many of the themes of the novel (well theme might be the wrong word - connection to the outside world?), because reading it, I found myself ignoring pretty much every single one of them. I know there IS an 'outside' to the book - that is, a real, palpable Virginia Woolf, using situations to point out things like the absurdity of class relations or the ridiculousness of some of our gender constructs, or the ways in which the world is cruel to the mentally ill. I know this intellectually, and I look back and can rather clinically pick them out. But reading through the book, not a one of them struck me. The book struck deeper than any specific issue, you know? I agree with you, there are pieces of this that wind themselves into daily life and will persist now - I think that's it, is that the book is so human that I'm remembering it less like an experience (which I might dissect and analyze), and more like a very intimate friend (which I simply love, and miss).

  • Wonderful post. I'm now convinced that I must read it again, I didn't get nearly enough out of it. I've posted my thoughts on the book for the Woolf in Winter reading group too, but I'm such an amateur compared to you:

  • I agree: here's to the personal essay. What a wondrous paean to Mrs. Dalloway. I envy your long and articulate relationship with the novel. You have captured the essence of it somehow, which is really something very slippery-- In reading your post and a couple of others, I see something that I sensed when I tried to write about it: you're never really finished with Mrs. Dalloway. There's always more there.

  • SFP: Yay, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. We'd be excited to have you for any of the novels - Orlando and The Waves are both fantastic reads.

    anothercookie: That's totally understandable - it is a challenging book. I'm glad you ended up enjoying it, though, and really the most valuable thing is just having some book(s) one feels that way about, regardless of which they are...thanks for dropping by!

  • Nicole: Ooh, I envy you that first time through. ;-) It can be overwhelming, for sure, but I'm so glad you loved it!

    Lu: And yours is beautiful as well - a little more together than I managed to be! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book and my post. :-)

  • Jason: Well, like I said, I did read it in three different college courses, so I've had time to dwell on those "paper-ready" themes! :-) I totally know what you mean, though - the human-poetic aspect of it is really what distinguishes the book, and makes it sing.

    Sandra: Give yourself time, lady. :-) And also, I'm seeing a theme among many posters, that nobody feels up to the task of really reviewing or encapsulating this book. But we can try! :-)

  • I just finished the book today on my lunch break. I'll start my post when I get home. I love your personal essay and will leave a better comment later.

  • Julia: You are so sweet to call this post articulate. I feel like it was just a disgorging of my love for Mrs. Dalloway, with no rhyme or reason. :-) But I agree, certainly, for myself - I don't anticipate ever being "done" with this novel.

  • And what a love letter you write to this old friend of a novel! Just gorgeous. I think we both agree that something with this novel just resonates with us (and it appears from today's posts and comments, quite a few others). What I have especially enjoyed about reading around today is the extent that Mrs. Dalloway prompts self-revelation in its readers. Critical hats thrown to the corners, personal connections revealed. Loving this!

  • Really lovely piece of writing Emily! It articulates so much of what I feel about the book, but more completely. I can't wait to re-read the book already. It seems like something I could read every other week and still find amazement in the pages.

  • I loved your post Emily! :) This was only my second time reading Mrs. Dalloway, but like you I've been amazed by Woolf since I discovered her writing.

    And I agree that Mrs. Dalloway is about the beauty of life, not death. In fact, the banality of prose when Septimus actually jumps seems to be doing quite the opposite of glamourising it!

  • EL Fay: I'm looking forward to it, lady!

    Frances: I agree, it's so interesting (but "interesting" isn't really enough of a word - affirming, eye-opening) to read about all the different things that people are taking away from this novel. It's so rich!

  • Sarah: Aw, thanks! And thanks for hosting this round. I know what you mean about re-reading; even this time around, for me, certain things hit me really differently than on previous readings.

    Eva: Thanks! And I'm glad to have an ally with my anti-death-glamorization crusade. I went off on quite a tangent about it one day in my Woolf class in college; I think it may have been a little scary to behold. :-)

  • I tried reading (still have not seen the movie) "The Hours" by Cunningham a couple years ago, couldn't get into it, and felt even less inclined to ever try Woolf. Now your post and other ones participating in the read-a-long has me really wanting to try "Mrs. Dalloway"!

  • Valerie: A lot of people love The Hours, and I liked it okay, but I wouldn't want people to form opinions about Woolf based on Cunningham. I'm glad these posts are convincing you that you might want to give Mrs. Dalloway a try!

  • "Mrs. Dalloway is an argument for the beauty and vitality of life in all its imperfection." What a perfect sentence to describe the book! The ordinariness of daily life IS what beauty of life is about, and it is in this that Mrs Dalloway radiates. I hadn't thought about this while reading, but as I continue to read posts and contemplate, find that life is what it is, and the less we expect of it the more we get out of it, the more we actually "live."

    I had such a rewarding experience reading this for the first time with all of you. Thanks so much for the insightful posts, Emily (this and the one before). It certainly is a revelation, her writing. I was smitten with the prose, but still a little hazy with the rest of it, having missed a lot of the nuances, especially near the beginning. I cannot wait to reread and make this an old friend, too. :)

  • What a perfectly beautiful homage to a well loved novel. This was only my second read of the book,and I can see how it could easily become like a dear friend with whom one wants to become reacquainted every so often.

    I too was absolutely amazed by the way Woolf captured the reality of every person's thought process. I somehow couldn't find the words to express that amazement - so thanks for doing it so well for me :)

  • Claire: Yay, I'm so glad your first Mrs. Dalloway experience was a good one, and that having so much reading company enriched it for you! I agree, agree, agree with everything you say in your first paragraph - the beauty of the everyday deserves so much to be celebrated. Thanks for helping to spur this readalong into being, Claire!

    Becca: Thank you so much for your nice words. The capturing of thought processes is indeed a highlight of the novel - among many others! I loved your post as well; thanks for adding your voice. :-)

  • Since it's often virtually impossible to write something interesting about works of art one is really close to, props to you, Emily, for handling the challenge with such flair! And although I greatly enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway, I have to confess that I'm prob. somewhere in between you and the glamorization-of-death school after my first encounter with the novel: at least, it's hard to see the upside of the positive message when so many of the depressing moments are so forceful. By the way, that moment when Peter Walsh crosses paths with Septimus and Lucrezia in the park is so full of (misunderstood) ache that I'm still shaking my head in awe!

  • Richard, it truly is brain-bustingly difficult to write about a favorite book, isn't it? I'm not sure if what I wrote is interesting, but it kind of feels good to at least have articulated my relationship with the damn thing.

    Re: glamorization of death, you have some very good company in that view. Having mellowed a little since the first flush of my passion with Mrs. Dalloway, I can see both sides - and what this readalong is helping me appreciate, is that different people really do gravitate toward different facets of the book, and so take away widely different impressions - almost different books. For me it's the moments of connection that shine through and make up for the darker moments, but I can totally see how the opposite would be true for another reader (btw, I did NOT accept this during college - see how far I've come!).

  • Well, you've convinced me to reread Mrs. Dalloway already! I did enjoy my first reading of it for this read-a-long, even though I found it depressing. The language is beautiful though, and I agree with you that it doesn't glamorize death, even though I think it's depressing. I can see how one could argue that though. My post on it is here.

  • Lindsey: Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you enjoyed your first Mrs. Dalloway experience, despite the issues it may have raised for you. Thanks for reading along!

  • What a beautiful, poetic and revealing post Emily. I loved hearing about your personal reading journey with Mrs Dalloway and the connection that has been made for you. As this was my first reading of a Woolf novel I am looking forward to reading many more.

  • Aw, thanks, Karen. I'm psyched that you and so many other readalong people loved the novel - reading all these posts today has been quite a treat for me! :-)

  • Emily, I am so glad that I had this chance to not only read Mrs. Dalloway with all of you, but to read your review in particular. As this was my first time through, your fifth time provided a good foundation on which I could sort my thoughts. I'll be thinking about what you wrote for a long time...

    In college (many years ago) I had a double major in education and psychology, but I've always wanted to take more literature courses. I took many Russian literature classes, because that is one of my very favorite genres, but my classics in English are sorely lacking. So, it is with relish that I read now what I've always wanted to read, and that I have the chance to read everyone's thoughts as well. You so enriched my experience with your review.

  • I love reading how you feel about this book! How I wish I could get there with so many of the books I love. I do love the idea of reading it with my partner: I wonder what my husband would think of that idea? And I hope I get to read this one many more times so I can approach it on such a personal level as you have.

  • Thank you for a wonderful post. I enjoyed reading what this wonderful novel has meant to you at various points of your life.

  • This type of personal essay meant so much more to me than a traditional book review would have. I loved the story of your life reading Mrs. Dalloway. That you have managed to read this book five times makes me wonder what in the heck I've been doing. I'm so jealous. I had hoped to join the Woolf in Winter read, but I have my hands full at the moment. I'll look forward to reading all the posts. Thank you.

  • "Mrs. Dalloway is an argument for the beauty and vitality of life in all its imperfection."

    Yes, yes! That's what I'm trying to get at too. I actually thought of the "butterfly effect" as I read it. The whole book is about how people affect one another whether they realize or not. Clarissa Dalloway never meets Septimus Smith or learns his name but hearing the news of his death mentioned so casually at her party - by two people who met him briefly and never cared for him - nevertheless has a significant impact on her.

    I know Woolf was mentally ill (I think it was bipolar disorder?), but I still don't understand how someone who wrote so beautifully about the "vitality of life in all its imperfection" could have killed herself. I mean, I'm scratching my head here.

  • This was beautiful, thank you. I quoted the same passage about not knowing the Armenians, etc. during my ramble--which is very very late, and very rambly. Your personal essay approach is brilliant, and most appropriate. Somewhere I believe Mrs. Woolf is smiling at you.

  • What a beautiful post, and one that reminds me of everything I love about Virginia Woolf. I didn't re-read Mrs. Dalloway this time, though I have read it four or five times - I hope to join in on To The Lighthouse. The idea of reading it aloud is brilliant - I have trouble slowing myself down when I read, and Woolf really deserves slow, indulgent reading.

  • Whoa, guys. I've never come back from my no-internet day to 12 comments before!

    Belleza: I'm so glad you found my entry thought-provoking! It is such a blessing to be able to read what one wants, isn't it? Thanks for joining us for Mrs. Dalloway!

    Frances: That's rad!

    Rebecca: Reading out loud was a very special experience, and one I was reminded of when you mentioned that you read the beginning out loud to yourself to get yourself into the rhythm. Orlando was also a key part of our courtship - we're just a Woolfy couple. :-) So glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Anthony: Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. :-)

    Cynthia: Oh, I don't know - maybe you've been honing your craft, getting stories published, and being accepted into an MFA program? ;-) None of which I've done. Thanks, though, for your kind words, and I'm so glad you enjoyed the post.

    EL Fay: Woolf's suicide is hard to come to grips with, I agree. As I mentioned on your blog, reading Lee's bio of her really helped me to get a handle on it, put it in context (and introduced me to my now-favorite biographer!). I love that you bring up the butterfly effect - very apt, and one of the things I most love about this novel.

  • DS: Oh! how I love the idea that Woolf is smiling at me. Thanks for stopping by, and for the nice words.

    Simon: Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I look forward to your thoughts on To the Lighthouse. I agree, reading aloud is a great way to approach Woolf, especially (I think) once you already have a handle on the general outline of a book.

  • I feel the same kind of devotion and excitement for this novel too, although I haven't read it as many times -- twice maybe. I fell in love with To the Lighthouse first and then was thrilled to discover Mrs. Dalloway. You capture Woolf's style wonderfully, and also the sense of excitement I felt at finding someone who captures the mind so well. I love the little moments she describes and the beautiful language she uses to do it. I also love what she says about women's experience, especially in To the Lighthouse.

  • Dorothy: I agree, she speaks eloquently about the human experience in general, and also the specifically female experience. I'm glad you liked the entry, and am pleased (but unsurprised) to find in you a fellow Woolf-ite! :-)

  • Oh lovely lovely lovely! Now you make me really really regret that I missed this part of the group read :(

    I've always been in love with that style of writing often referred to as stream of consciousness. I like to call it reality. I've always said that this is how it simply is in real life. No person ever walks in a street (interesting how we both relate it with walking and thinking, hehe) and thinks of only one thing or only the things that appear in front of him. Thought is such a highly dynamic process. So for you to say that Woolf captured this reality so evocatively, it just gets me A LOT CURIOUS about her works.

    I'll be catching up for To The Lighthouse! :)

  • I love how this book evolved for you and how you remember every time you've read it. I can't wait to build up that relationship of my own with Mrs. Dalloway.

  • Mark David: Haha, I'm in total agreement about stream of consciousness = reality! I look forward to your thoughts on To the Lighthouse - Woolf's goals are slightly different in that book, but I think it's equally beautiful. And thanks for the nice words!

    Lena: Thanks, lady. :-) I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.

  • Having been away most of the weekend, I'm just beginning to catch up on the Mrs. Dalloway posts. This was absolutely beautiful - thank you so much! After three attempts over 25 years, I finally made it through Mrs.D. and was simply carried away. I look forward to rereading it soon, but want to try To The Lighthouse first.

  • JoAnn: Aww, thanks! I found your post really touching, and I'm so glad that you were willing to give Mrs. Dalloway a third chance. See you soon for To the Lighthouse!

  • I know I left a comment on this post last week but it must have been eaten. I don't remember now what I said, but your post is so beautifully written it doesn't really matter what I said.

  • I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book, Emily. I hadn't thought of the fact that even her sentence structure reflects the characters' subjective experiences - so true, and so absolutely brilliant. I cannot believe I stayed away from Woolf for so long.

  • June 2012

    Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
              1 2
    3 4 5 6 7 8 9
    10 11 12 13 14 15 16
    17 18 19 20 21 22 23
    24 25 26 27 28 29 30


    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography