Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, New York (USA), ???? (1925)
296 pages

I acknowledge I may have approached this book from the wrong angle, and that may have been the ultimate source of my disappointment. I viewed The Hours some time ago, which got me interested in the book in the first place. Yes, of course, I had heard of Virginia Woolf before, but had never read any of her books. Well, I did now and, to be honest, I am not sure what to think of Woolf's literature from what I read here. Before anyone reaches a quick conclusion and blames it on me, the reader, I must warn that I generally could not care less for the typical easy best-selling literature that chugs out books with the cookie-cutter. Let me clarify. I can see how Mrs. Dalloway can be considered a clear precursor of the modernist tradition in literature, and it should definitely be praised for the innovative use of certain tecniques such as the deep study of the emotional lives of its characters, the so called stream of consciousness and the fractured narrative that allows the author to describe the many events (both external and internal to the characters' minds) that happen during the less than 24 hours covered in the book. I can praise the artistic achievement, but it still leaves us with the feeling that Woolf miserably fails at what some would consider the main goal of a work of literature: tell us an entertaining story. Undoubtedly, the same could be said of Marcel Proust or James Joyce, among others, and in this sense I agree with the statement that Virginia Woolf deserves a place next to such literary giants. In the end, it could very well be that the significance of Woolf's books is not so much in their intrinsic value as entertainment but as innovative breakthroughs that helped shape our contemporary world.

Mrs. Dalloway tells us the story of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper middle-class English woman who is preparing for a party that will be taking place in the evening of the very same day where the story starts. The book, therefore, spans less than 24 hours of Mrs. Dalloway's life, which should not be interpreted as superficial since the author takes us back and forth into her life to provide some context. Woolf also follows other characters that surround Clarissa in one way or another: Peter Walsh, her former lover who just returned from India; Sally Setton, an old friend who used to be full of life and feelings of rebellion but ended up marrying a much older rich industrialist; Sir William Bradshaw, a doctor who is treating Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of First World War with some psychological disorders. Interestingly enough, the book does not tell us all these stories from one single point of view, but rather chooses to leap from one to another character, following the stream of experiences, feelings and thoughts that surface during that day in their lives. There are times when this causes some confusion in the reader, especially since the book has no chapters whatsoever and there is no easy way to distinguish when the author switches from one character to the other. As a matter of fact, the first 50 pages or so are extremely hard to understand, partly due to this tecnique, making it very difficult to get into the book. After one gets used to the story, it becomes far more readable and intriguing as long as the reader does not expect to experience dazzling adventures and hectic chases. It is, after all, a psychological novel.

But how does Woolf accomplish this? Here is a good example.

The grey nurse resumed her knitting as Peter Walsh, on the hot seat beside her, began snoring. In her grey dress, moving her hands indefatigably yet quietly, she seemed like the champion of the rights of sleepers, like one of those spectral presences which rise in twilight in woods made of sky and branches. The solitary traveller, haunter of lanes, disturber of ferns, and devastator of great hemlock plants, looking up, suddenly sees the giant figure at the end of the ride.

By conviction an atheist perhaps, he is taken by surprise with moments of extraordinary exaltation. Nothing exists outside us except a state of mind, he thinks; a desire for solace, for relief, for something outside these miserable pigmies, these feeble, these ugly, these craven men and women. But if he can conceive of her, then in some sort she exists, he thinks, and advancing down the path with his eyes upon sky and branches he rapidly endows them with womanhood; sees with amazement how grave they become; how majestically, as the breeze stirs them, they dispense with a dark flutter of the leaves charity, comprehension, absolution, and then, flinging themselves suddenly aloft, confound the piety of their aspect with a wild carouse.

Such are the visions which proffer great cornucopias full of fruit to the solitary traveller, or murmur in his ear like sirens lolloping away on the green sea waves, or are dashed in his face like bunches of roses, or rise to the surface like pale faces which fishermen founder through floods to embrace.

Such are the visions which ceaselessly float up, pace beside, put their faces in front of, the actual thing; often overpowering the solitary traveller and taking away from him the sense of the earth, the wish to return, and giving him for substitute a general peace, as if (so he thinks as he advances down the forest ride) all this fever of living were simplicity itself; and myriads of things merged in one thing; and this figure, made of sky and branches as it is, had risen from the troubled sea (he is elderly, past fifty now) as a shape might be sucked up out of the waves to shower down from her magnificent hands compassion, comprehension, absolution. So, he thinks, may I never go back to the lamplight; to the sitting-rooom; never finish my book; never knock out my pipe; never ring for Mrs. Turner to clear away; rather let me walk straight on to this great figure, who will, with a toss of her head, mount me on her streamers and let me blow to nothingness with the rest.


Indoor among ordinary things, the cupboard, the table, the window-sill with its geraniums, suddenly the outline of the landlady, bending to remove the cloth, becomes soft with light, an adorable emblem which only the recollection of cold human contacts forbids us to embrace. She takes the marmalade; she shuts it in the cupboard.

"There is nothing more to-night, sir?"

(pp. 85-87)

And so the rest of the book goes. Stylistically and technically quite ellaborate, Mrs. Dalloway could be insufferable to the contemporary reader, the one who absolutely cannot stand so many words with no action whatsoever, the one who swallows literature ready-made for Hollywood. Woolf's style revolves around two elements that have been out of fashion for a long time now: a careful attention to words and a commitment to the deep inner lives of a book's characters. In these hurried times, only the exhausted descriptive approach, with its syncopathic cadences, short sentences, abuse of dialogue and relentless action can succeed in the bookshelves.

So, what is it that disappoints me in this book? As I said, it may very well be that I read it while trying to find out an explanation for my puzzled reaction to The Hours. Back then, I did not understand why life was so unbearable for one of the main characters in the movie and now, after reading Mrs. Dalloway, I still fail to understand it. Yes, Clarissa leads a very boring life where a simple party becomes a central event. So, what? How does this justify such radical measures as suicide or escaping from home leaving one's husband and kids without even leaving a note? Woolf does manage to portrait a Victorian society where women are sentenced to live their husband's lives, and a boring bourgeois existence is all they can dream of. Still, some would say that taking into account how much poverty, abuse and hunger there is in the world, this is just... well, a very bourgeois concern itself.

Entertainment factor: 4/10
Artistic factor: 7/10