Rebekah O'Dell's Reviews > Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
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Aug 08, 2010

it was amazing

”What a lark! What a plunge!”

My students dared to choose Mrs. Dalloway as our third read of the summer. Actually, ONE student dared to choose Mrs. Dalloway. The thing is, it is a particularly clever and perceptive student, and with the pressure of a one-on-one conversation about Woolf’s thoroughly modernist novel, I felt compelled to re-read it lest I should embarass myself with my less-than-recent knowledge of the book.

At her party at the end of the novel, a character reflects that every year one is alive, he or she feels more and more — that we actually grow in our capacity to process emotions. That sums up how I feel about reading and re-reading Woolf. Every time I read it, my capacity for wonderment at the feet of Virginia Woolf increases tenfold.

There is a plot to this book. The novel takes place over the course of a single ordinary day in a middle-aged woman’s life. However, the day becomes extraordinary as it is the day her long-lost almost-fiance returns to London after five years in India. And, of course, she’s throwing a party that evening. Clarissa Dalloway’s day is juxtaposed against that of Septimus Warren Smith, a war veteran struggling through a depression so deep that it has led him to hallucinations and suicide threats. This extraordinarily ordinary days turns out to be Septimus’ last.

It sounds depressing, but it’s not. It’s glorious and exhilarating. Woolf’s third person omniscient narrator helps the reader soar above London on a breathtaking June morning, lighting upon the consciouses of Londoners important and unimportant. While Mrs. Dalloway does tell a story complete with a beginning, middle, and end, Woolf creates a sense of life more than anything. Details combine and build until the joy of living and dying that is so native to Clarissa (and even Septimus) fills the reader to the brim. We, too, shout, “What a lark! What a plunge!” It’s a book packed with the thrill and beauty of living.

This is one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers. It’s the kind of book that keeps me flipping back and forth, back and forth as I read, furiously jotting notes in the margins. I don’t want to miss anything that Woolf poured into it. It’s a book that makes me glad to be alive and glad to be a reader. It rings with the power of words to actually breathe life into living. High praise, I know, but I don’t think it’s exaggerated for Woolf.

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