Szplug's Reviews > Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
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's review
Aug 05, 2012

it was amazing

Beyond the opening sentence, rightly considered amongst the best fictive beginners ever, the entire first page of Mrs. Dalloway gets at what are, for me, its two pervasive strengths. After that classic first line and a slightly more fleshed out, light-hearted follower, the reader breezes into this:
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen.
Virginia Woolf wields the comma and, especially, the semi-colon throughout with a vibrant flourish, as grammatical adhesives for the prodigious chain of words and phrases conjured forth from the vast interior warehouses of her richly endowed vocabulary. First and foremost, her writing is a thing of beauty, aesthetically potent enough to garner five stars from its intensely pleasurable ingesting. But there's that final line, the abrupt pivot from larks! and calm and wave kisses to a deeper, unsettling presence of a more pervasive, more perduring character—that something awful was about to happen. The undercurrent of dread, sprung forth from the recollections of a young girl's summering within the sun-drenched, bucolic charms of the English countryside, can perhaps be attributed to the state of unease that had become entrenched even within the (alleged) victors of the Great War; or that postwar unease, that permeating sense that nothing could be as it was before the lights went out, may have been superimposed upon a more purely existential, primevally sedimentary core understanding: that every human life is a progression of lived-in moments in which anything good or pleasurable or joyous can be extinguished within the blinking of an eye; perhaps should be expected to do so, as it is an inevitability that, at some point, that lived-in moment will encounter death, when all that we are, all that we know and have come to learn about ourselves will simply cease to be. Virginia Woolf is fully aware of this, and even more so how our memories, brought into play at a future point when we are that much closer to the terminal point, are tempted to incorporate the chills and fears and more broadly spread shadows that have accumulated with the passing of the years. She grasps, with the steely strength of her writer's genius, how any person's existence in the world, within nature, is ever in a process of change, of movement, of flux.

Mrs. Dalloway is not a plot-driven novel. The story, such as it is, and utilizing the theme of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder as an umbilical cord connecting that horrific, early-century conflict to the debilitative disordering that it spawned, serves primarily as a canvas for Woolf to paint her exquisitely realized, psychologically deep and intensely human characterizations upon; to present us with the variegated inner perspectives of a number of English (and one Italian expatriate) citizens over the course of one particularly warm June day in London. Though Clarissa Dalloway's youthful country haunt of Bourton features in the recollections of her and a number of her closest companions, London is the central locale for the enactment of these personality presentations. Indeed, there is even the sense, brought most forward in the wending textual clips that conjoin the point-of-view shifts between different personages, that our individualized human lives have a breadth within our natural environment that may imprint our being beyond the merely physical, matter-delimited bodies in which we reside. As a mist spreads its way throughout the sky-striving boulevards and blocks of the English capital, as an odor attaches itself from within its invisible, airborne carrier, perhaps some part of our essence remains, even after we have ceased to live, as a constituent of those closest to us, those who knew us, the places we habited. A locative haunting to add to the mental specters we become within the living memories of our kith and kin who survive us and stretch our once breathing-selves forward via the interior visualizations and exterior discourses we inhabit.

But what are these memories? Who are we as individuals? This is the most perfectly executed and satisfying element within Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf does not allow any of her characters a moment of rest, any stasis that would allow the definition of who they are to settle in any manner of permanence. As with our active consciousness, our lives and the conceptions we bear of ourselves, which we are continuously reforming, reworking, regenerating, reconfiguring, reshaping, remembering, are living, evolving things. And this very mnemenic morphology, this reiterating identifying, in which lost loves are mourned and then justified, fondness twists into loathing, generosity into selfishness, a charming personality into prickly remove, seems to be a vital, compulsory part of what allows us to continue with an existence otherwise pointless, despairing, and bearing down with grim and unyielding obviousness towards death. It is what drives us to interact with each other, renew old acquaintances, set goals and achievements for ourselves. Whatever the suffering and anguish and pain we have endured from previous relationships, rejections, decisions, mistakes, as we evolve our self-understanding from moment to moment, there is always the hope of the future, the potential for redemption or renewal. Indeed, it is when Septimus Warren Smith, mentally fractured from the lingering, concussive effects of the First World War—and, perhaps, a repressed homosexuality?—perceives that he has become fully and finally removed from the possibility of human contact, alone in the deserts into which he was scourged by the proportional and conversionary demons of Human Nature, that he makes the only (ir)rational decision: to embrace a death that was preserved, as Clarissa understood it, as a final defiance.

That may all sound very hoity-gloomy, but it resonated with me, and I believe that Woolf—without overlooking the sustainedly beautiful manner in which she has composed the story of these human interactions, masterfully set the memories and predetermined conceptions of these characters as held by others against those in sometimes contrasting, ofttimes more deeply-traced operation within each individual's own consciousness, effecting a rich palette of traits and idiosyncrasies that reveal themselves in actions both present and past, and that impress themselves upon the reader's mind by means of their emotional waypoints, shared memorial recesses and tended relational shrines with which we can all find some measure of commiseration—has achieved a wonderfully convincing psychological effect with this. It is ably assisted by the use of the chimes of Big Ben, which leaden circles dissolved in the air, as the temporal (and technical) marker of existential progression, and the presence of flowers, afloat within water and blazing in the ripeness of their colours kissed by the rays of the sun, to serve notice of nature's unending cycle of bloom and renewal; each individual an entity, radiantly hued and flowering in the moment, bound within the pace of time's daunting, sometimes dirgeful key signature. It also allows Woolf to delineate how there is no falser belief than that which holds that we suffer alone; for no matter the character's wealth, status, upbringing, employment, intimate relationships, all are plagued with recurrent doubts and torments and regrets, ofttimes within a heart's span of thrilling with the joys of belief, pleasure, or attainment. We are creatures of egotism, of mood, of emotion, of deeply-driven irrational roots; but this seesawing interior workshop ever allows us the means to continue striving with life, an otherwise pointless and loomingly fatal life ever rife with the potentiality of delivering some measure of happiness, even atonement, as long as we have not isolated ourselves—the grim detritus of our mastery of the techniques of mass slaughter and other means of cracking the fragile mind—to the degree that all potential further contact with others has been removed. That we cannot effect a finalized version of ourselves will prove painful, but also salvational. In stasis, another version of isolation, perhaps death's proffered embrace becomes an irresistibly stronger surety.

Of course, this wouldn't matter nearly as much if the characters themselves weren't so interesting or proved so movingly etched, enfleshed within their vibrant and relatable stories. And it cannot be overstressed how beautifully Woolf writes; every word, every abundant semi-colon a measured and necessary component of a golden whole. You could harvest a supportive quote upon every single page; at regular intervals emerge phrases of such pure aesthetic force that you are stunned, forced to withdraw from the page to contemplate what you were privy to. That's not to say the text isn't difficult, because her precise block-building and interior layering demand concentration on the reader's part. But rhythm ensues and, there's no getting around it, her prose is simply uplifting. It's a testament to its power that such a legion of readers, across a great span of years, have clung to this book that, in the end, simply traverses one day in the life of a moderately wealthy and well-connected female Londonite. It also shows how Woolf truly understands that one single day can be revealed as containing a lifetime of memories and reminiscences and existence; and, at an even deeper, more fundamental level, that it could require a lifetime to adequately convey all that might be contained within the memorial matrices of a single day.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 54) (54 new)

Kelly So you are taking the plunge with Woolf again! I am excited about this. I hope you love it as much as you did Lighthouse.

Szplug She's simply extraordinary, clearly in a league of her own. Difficult, but in the best, most exuberantly resonant of ways.

Kelly I like "exuberantly resonant". I think that that sums up my experience of her once I felt like I broke through the wall. I think what makes it so wonderful is her ability to have her subject be deep emotion... but approached in the most cerebral of ways. Extraordinary is the right word. I'm thinking about reading The Waves for my next Woolf, which I've heard is far more experimental, but I can't think of any author's thought experiments that I'd rather read.

message 4: by Szplug (last edited Aug 03, 2012 09:56PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug I'm going to race against the sleepiness clock and see if I can't lay this beauty to bed ere I do the same for myself...

I would probably read The Waves next too, though I'm also interested in Orlando or even Jacob's Room—and for that matter, it was so long ago that I sprouted over The Lighthouse that maybe that would prove the ideal follow-up. Really, though, I've been hit with so many utterly fantastic suggestions from GR friends lately that I don't know which direction to turn. It's an absolute abundance of riches.

What you said about Woolf's ability is exactly what I was trying to get at—impassioned intuition and cool intelligence, wielded with the skill of a surgeon, to uncover the emotions, irrationalities, habits, and other un- or subconscious strains that comprise a human life—and how its surface appearance can be so varied from what is energetically roiling subdermally. It's startling and satisfying to observe how Woolf allows seemingly-settled character traits to shift or extend or alter under the perception of another; how initial assessments of a person are subtly defined and/or expanded when in that character's mind, or, in the obverse, a determined personality takes on different hues when probed or reminisced upon by others; everything is continually in flux, just as in life, but in glorious connexions related to the story in its entirety.

Plus, her use of repeated tropes, like the floating flowers and bells of Big Ben, those allusive, almost primordial passages that connect point-of-view shifts, the compassion and humor for the foibles of human existence in the face of...what, exactly; it's just perfectly done, nary a misstep to be found. Absolutely rewarding at every level.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Review, review! Woooooooooo!

message 6: by Szplug (last edited Aug 12, 2012 09:40AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug This will be a tough one. I'm kind of flummoxed about how to begin—and then I've got the guilt of that unfinished George Steiner review weighing on my Goodreads conscience. You know, your review so nicely captures the book's essence and your own enthused connexion with it that I'd be happy to come near managing such a combination myself. But it is tricky trying to conceptualize those bits of fat what need trimming...

Which is all a wordy way of saying that I need a spell of Megadeth riffing on my guitar to clean out me 'ead and get it proper, Dave Mustaine and Ginny Woolf being kindred souls 'n such. And maybe some sun.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Megadeth! It's the first thing that comes to me 'ead when thinking about Virginia Woolf. Play your guitar, then write that review! You can do it, you can do it, you can do it...chant, chant, chant...

Kelly It's startling and satisfying to observe how Woolf allows seemingly-settled character traits to shift or extend or alter under the perception of another; how initial assessments of a person are subtly defined and/or expanded when in that character's mind, or, in the obverse, a determined personality takes on different hues when probed or reminisced upon by others; everything is continually in flux, just as in life, but in glorious connexions related to the story in its entirety.

If you're having trouble thinking of how to get started on your review, I would point to this as a great jumping off point. I think this is very well expressed and gets at a lot of the great avenues to explore within the novel. I think my favorite aspect of this is what she does with Clarissa and Peter and the multiple lives that a person lives within a moment, an hour and a day. There's some wonderful language about the power of the brain to create a whole world and put it away, and how vulnerable that ability is to the outside. She has a great concern with physicality, movement and the mundane and how it both leads people upwards and strikes down castles in a minute. The part with Peter and the clock is one of my favorite bits. I also think she's great about creating thoughts with the materials that these characters would have had. Upholstery and flowers for Clarissa, for example.

Anyway, this is your review not mine, but anyway. Good luck with the riffing! :)

message 9: by Szplug (last edited Aug 04, 2012 10:44AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Thanks, Kelly. That's actually does make for a pretty good starting point, and that phrasing of leads people upwards and strikes down castles in a minute expressly captures the way character's moods pivot on happenstance. One epiphanic moment that set the Sastrean bells to clanging within was Peter's understanding, whilst in Regent's Park, of his inherent proneness to those dramatic, instantaneous shifts:
This susceptibility to impressions had been his undoing no doubt. Still at his age he had, like a boy or a girl even, these alternations of mood; good days, bad days, for no reason whatever, happiness from a pretty face, downright misery at the sight of a frump.
But Peter is hardly alone, it being pervasive wherever not superseded by the alternating elevation and oppression of those twin post-Edwardian gravitational forces of proportion and conversion...

There's just so much to try and work into this; I guess, when you get right down to it, you might as well follow the riffs wherever they lead!

Kelly I agree, and I think that "riffing" as a concept is particularly appropriate for a stream of consciousness novel. You're never going to capture it all, but if you can get a few people on each variation, then you've accomplished more than most. I'm always intimidated when I write Woolf reviews. What can you say she hasn't already said herself? But the answer is within the novel. It's all about perspective. Look forward to the review when it appears!

message 11: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu Excellent as usual, Chris.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Dang, Chris. Dang. You done did that review up real proper-like.

Kelly We are creatures of egotism, of mood, of emotion, of deeply-driven irrational roots; but this seesawing interior workshop ever allows us the means to continue striving with life, an otherwise pointless and loomingly fatal life ever rife with the potentiality of delivering some measure of happiness, even atonement, as long as we have not isolated ourselves.

Yes. This. This is why its called Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf is great about bringing out how hard it is to get through every moment of the day and come up swimming. Clarissa has figured out how to do it honestly and keep most of herself intact, and that's why she is heroic.

(Yay, you did it! Woolf is intimidating, but she brings out wonderful stuff in reviews, this one being no exception.)

Esteban del Mal Great review, Chris.

message 15: by Szplug (last edited Aug 05, 2012 09:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Thank you very much, Mars, Matthieu, Paquita, Kelly, and Esteban (just caught you!). You're never really sure how these things will turn out when not filtered through your own perceptions, and man, did I ever want to try and do this classic work of art justice.

That theme of interactive potential in the moment, in addition to Woolf's own stimulative story, has been present in my mind for the past months in which I've had such rewarding experiences with the smart, giving, and generally amazing people at this place—I mean, I hardly even delete my comments anymore (though that profile page will remain a tribute to spartan living). When you are a recluse, the dysfunctional perils of isolation become much more obvious, and the pleasures (and vital necessity) of contact that much more apparent; so while the motif I traced above might be somewhat forced from my current inclinations, I do believe it's a prevalent part of the novel's theme. In any event, I can't see beyond that at this moment.

Or, to put in other words, this place, Ginny's diamantine pen, and those Mustaine riffs are combining to make me an old softie...

s.penkevich Incredible review!

message 17: by Kelly (last edited Aug 05, 2012 10:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly I think one of the great thing about Woolf's work is that whatever mindset you're in, you'll probably pull out at least one moment that feels like that. Especially since her characters go through so many changes. But yes, I would agree that it isn't just your perception that connection vs. isolation is a major theme of the novel.

message 18: by Szplug (last edited Aug 05, 2012 11:27AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Thanks, SP! I appreciate that.

And Kelly, first off I have to say that your updated review of Anna Karenina is just massive. I have the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of Tolstoy's major works now, and I'm glad to hear that they were a prime element in getting you to that first-name basis with the Russian giant. A superb and wonderful read, and even more so in that you seem to generate some of the most thoughtful and enriching comment exchanges of anyone here—so I'll happily follow this one as it develops over the next few days (or weeks!)

And thanks for the Mrs. Dalloway support. I think you've gotten to the heart of it there—such a standard element that connects a disparate array of reviews is that sense of connexion with Woolf and the way she presents the inner processes of lived life. It's a remarkable skill to be able to craft sentences that perdure in form but are still eminently adaptable to so many different personal understandings of them. Part of why she'll always be in print.

Another, though, is finding those human components of the story, too. I wonder why I so felt for Peter Walsh, so wished that he and Clarissa had made that commitment to each other, to sear each other within that oxygen rich love they had mutually combusted, though it does seem to come through that Richard was no obviously inferior choice for her to have made. That feeling of wishing for, and ruing the refusal to make, a senseless, gay abandon within a more pure form of love is so well done by Woolf, though she avoids making it definitive. Plus, of all the characters I perhaps felt the strongest for Lucrezia Warren Smith. Her simple and plaintive love, her steadfastness in the face of the urge to pull away in anguish, was touchingly achieved in comparatively brief appearances. A fabulous inset of emotion within the whole...

message 19: by Kelly (last edited Aug 05, 2012 01:45PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Sorry, yeah, I have a major problem with editing, I can't get things down to a halfway reasonable length. Maybe this is another reason I'm into Tolstoy. :)

I'm interested that you felt the most for Lucrezia Smith. Which one is she again? The daughter's friend, or?

message 20: by Szplug (last edited Aug 05, 2012 12:34PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug By massive, I wasn't meaning the length of your review, but rather using it in its colloquial sense of outstanding! Which it is.

Lucrezia was the Italian wife of Septimus. That kind of earthy soul whose love for her thoughtful, quiet, deeply-structured husband is of a fierce strength, though they met in rather unromantic fashion at the close of the war and married almost matter-of-factly. She also exhibits that core spiritual strength that, IMO, women, as an aggregate, possess to a greater degree than men; finding a way to prevail, or at least carry on with living, where men tend to reach the limits of despair and throw in the towel.

Stephen M This is written so well that I have nothing to express but admiration and jealousy. Great work, I feel like I did Woolf a serious injustice by not reading this book nearly as closely as I should have. I'll chime in on The Waves by saying that I thought it was brilliant and beautiful. I definitely recommend it for any Woolf fans.

message 22: by Szplug (last edited Aug 07, 2012 11:20AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Thanks, Stephen M. This book has garnered a slew of outstanding reviews. You could lose yourself in going through them, reliving certain parts of the book, discovering different ways of interpreting passages, reading those gorgeous quotes direct from the pages.

I think The Waves will be my next Woolf experience, though there's always that gender-swapping Orlando beckoning from the shelves. And, of course, an overdue reappraisal of To The Lighthouse, to see if it has maintained its cyclopean properties...

Paquita Maria Sanchez Chris! I have all three of those options as well! Let's buddy read!

Yes, I am bullying you to "buddy read." I am full of all kinds of silly ideas.

message 24: by Szplug (last edited Aug 07, 2012 12:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug I've still got Twin Peaks on my conscience, you know. I feel like a welcher.

Doesn't mean, of course, that you won't get my lunch money once again...

I'd be happy to.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Sweet! Which do you want to read, Chris? I'm thinking To The Lighthouse. Thoughts?

Once you finally watch Twin Peaks, you will come back to thank me.

Szplug Provided I can muster up some safety goggles, sure, that will work for me. What kind of time were you looking at? Are you going to finish Nana first?

And I'd say the same for Sunshine, except that, upon further reflection, maybe that wouldn't prove to be the case.

Paquita Maria Sanchez I have no trouble reading multiple things at once, so I'm ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry! If I told you everything I'm in the middle of right now, you would laugh at me and think I'll never manage to finish them, but I WILL.

s.penkevich Paquita Maria wrote: "Sweet! Which do you want to read, Chris? I'm thinking To The Lighthouse. Thoughts?

Once you finally watch Twin Peaks, you will come back to thank me."

Yes, spread the good word on Twin Peaks. That was amazing. What did you think of the presequel film though?

Paquita Maria Sanchez 'Tis great. Speaking of which, do not watch the movie first, Chris!

message 30: by Szplug (last edited Aug 07, 2012 02:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug I gotta admit, I'm having a tough time reconciling Kyle MacLachlin and the term amazing. He's my primary reservation to giving the Peak its due. Showgirls has retroactively ruined my filmic memory of him...

Give me tonight and tomorrow morning to wrap up my current short book—unlike you, I'm not a good juggler (and do I know four letters that would fit perfectly after that juicy setup)—and we can start, arms-linked in Woolfian comradeship, Wednesday nightish. Does that work for you?

Paquita Maria Sanchez Indeed, it does! I'll start it after church on Wednesday, then. Oh, I'm a Vacation Bible School teacher now.

Heh. "Juicy setup."

Paquita Maria Sanchez Kyle is reason enough to watch Twin Peaks, by the way. Seriously, he will pleasantly surprise you. Promise.

Szplug Oh, I'm a Vacation Bible School teacher now.

How long have I been asleep?

Paquita Maria Sanchez 20 minutes.

message 35: by Szplug (last edited Aug 07, 2012 03:38PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Zing!

Well, I guess a lot can happen when you shut 'er down for a full hockey period.

Do you teach in the church? Or just take service after class? Or are you just joking and I've not clued-in to that fact? Congratulations, if not!

Paquita Maria Sanchez Me? Church? C'mon, Chris! You know me better than all that, right?!

Szplug Oooooh, I feel remarkably stupid right now. For some reason, I was stunned enough to think it might be true...


message 38: by Matthieu (last edited Aug 07, 2012 04:00PM) (new)

Matthieu Twin Peaks will make you want cherry pie. I missed quite a thread, eh?

Paquita Maria Sanchez I feel like I've accomplished something by making you think, if only briefly, that I am a religious sort. Also, I totally want some cherry pie. Like, right now.

message 40: by Szplug (last edited Aug 07, 2012 08:13PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Hey, I love cherry pie.

But forget the thread, Matthieu—I was freaking caught up in a crazy thunderstorm while out blading an hour ago. You know how you do that second count between the sizzling, forking, ozone-shredding chains and that rumbly, bowling ball sound? I just got to one-miss- and them BA-BOOM!!! Scary and wild at the same time. And not all that smart.

But, yes, this thread was a good one. And did I get played at the end. I should be setting up to read Gullible's Travels...

message 42: by Bill (new)

Bill  Kerwin Sorry I got to the party late, but I love this review! One of your best--which is saying something.

What memorable phrases: "a locative haunting," "hoity-gloomy," "unyielding obviousness," "memorial matrices of a single day."

Thanks for the privilege of reading this.

Szplug Thank you, Bill.

Jason This is a great review. I agree, too, that the story is so uplifting! For all the regret and self-doubt, the mental anguish and (view spoiler), there is something very life affirming about this book. I had a very similar response to it.

Szplug Thanks, Jason. I'm going to be rereading To The Lighthouse shortly, and then start with her first novel and go through them all. Mrs. Dalloway really moved me in the moment, which doesn't happen enough in the fiction I'm reading these days.

Jason Chris wrote: "Thanks, Jason. I'm going to be rereading To The Lighthouse shortly, and then start with her first novel and go through them all. Mrs. Dalloway really moved me in the moment, which doesn't happen en..."

It moved me, too. I look forward to more Woolf, and To the Lighthouse will be my next endeavor, as soon as I can find the time to squeeze it in.

message 47: by Fahd (new)

Fahd hi

Paquita Maria Sanchez Fahd wrote: "hi"

Best comment of all time.

message 49: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu It really is.

Szplug Hi, Fahd.

And yes, that comment cannot be touched for simple awesomeness.

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