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Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
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Virginia Woolf made me feel like a drunken gardener, a diver on the verge of the bends, a foot stamping child, a foal tripping over its own legs trying desperately to get to its mother. And you know, I really don’t like feeling like any of these things. What is worse, she set up a buffet of champagne, mimosas, fruit and jam, white table cloths fluttering on a patio in the sunshine and light breezes, let me settle myself down to watch a perfectly civilized game of tennis between old pals from Eton, and then walked up and punched every last one of those versions of me right in the face.

She then had the utter nerve to sit herself down right next to me (us?) and proceed, in the manner of one who can say “my dear,” all the way down your spine, to tell me all the layers and shelves and depths of everything that I am about in a language that she knew I could only half understand with how fast she was speaking it. Moreover, she was talking in a personalized dialect that she just knew I would love and that I would hate to be left out of. On.. and on.. and on, talking to everyone I love and respect as they walk on by, smiling in perfect accord with them as they waved back and responded to her in the same language that she kept me prisoner listening to.

A great chunk of this book was like (to go with my resentful gardener) seeing a light under the ground of a frozen over garden, faintly, but unmistakably there, and spending all day hacking at that damn spot, needing to see what’s under it, trying with spades, hoes, kitchen knives, fucking machetes if I have to... and the ground just staring right back as solid as ever while I swore at it and called its mother names. It seemed as though I merely glazed over the spot rather than dug into it. I felt some warmth from the light, but never anything I could really keep ahold of. Nothing seemed to work.

Then, suddenly (to shift to my impatient child), little lights started to appear through the cracks, in short, isolated bursts, in a language that I could fully understand, relate to, delight in, without any translation and right away. Just little things: like how the housewife Clarissa Dalloway describes a man as being “perfectly upholstered,” when she approves of his looks, the way anyone around you becomes “people,” when you’re not at home with your own situation, and Peter Walsh’s changing and intimate relations with the tolling of a clock that suit his own wandering, uncertain mind. I finished the book once, getting no farther than this. I felt curiously exhausted, bewildered, overwhelmed, like (to shift to my diver) it was my first dive and I’d come up too fast, on the verge of giving myself the bends in my need to reach the surface, to be done with the dive, to say I’d completed it.

I put it down for days, trying to figure out what I thought of it, coming up with only confusion. I didn’t know what to say about it- I wasn’t sure I had anything to say except things about ribbons and lace, flowers in bowls, birds of paradise clustering in the windows. Stupid things, surface things- a picture of England after the Great War, an upper crust lady and a solider with PTSD before they knew about PTSD, the character of the English, the effect of Empire, lesbian overtones, the overbearing presence of the past: The Way We Were. And yet, I really thought there was something else there. I kept reading those sentences over and over again because of something.. more.

So I decided to start over again, and see what I could see. I read more slowly, tried to take pressure off of myself… and this time around, the cracks opened far wider. I felt like I could take a wobbling step without laughing at myself and I was able to see this:

”Take me with you, Clarissa thought impulsively, as if he were starting upon some great voyage; and then, next moment, it was as if the five acts of a play that had been very exciting and moving were now over and she had lived a lifetime in them and had run away, had lived with Peter, and now it was over.

Now it was time to move, and as a woman gathers her things together, her cloak, her gloves, her opera-glasses, and gets up to go out of the theatre into the street, she rose from the sofa and went to Peter.”

And, gloriously, this:

“One might fancy that day, the London day, was just beginning. Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress and white apron to array herself in blue and pearls, the day changed, put off stuff, took gauze, changed to evening, and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes, tumbling petticoats to the floor, it too shed dust, heat, colour; the traffic thinned; motor cars, tinkling, darting, succeeded the lumber of vans; and here and there along the thick foliage of the squares an intense light hung. I resign, the evening seemed to say, as it paled and faded above the battlements and prominences, moulded, pointed, of hotel, flat and block of shops, I fade, she was beginning, I disappear, but London would have none of it…”

… more and more passages started to stick out for me, to give me the gifts they were meant to the first time around. Virginia talked to me in the kindest way possible now, finally, about the way the world could be experienced, if you only looked hard enough. She showed me what it was all about, making every part of life special again. She told me things about what it was to continue to live and live all those years, and the marks that it leaves on your soul- the space that it takes up in your brain- and how could it not? I saw these people living in the present, past, future all at once, trying to take it all in with all of that in mind and still to make it down the street without stopping dead. (“Nonsense, nonsense, she cried to herself!”) I just loved her depiction of the interruptions of life- the curbs, the traffic, the needs in a shop, the entrances, the too soon exits, the car backfiring, and of course, those splendid, gloriously depicted clocks that won’t leave you alone in London. I’ve always loved parentheses- I’ve always been a person who couldn’t get by without them (declarative sentences never say it all, do they?), and Virginia understands me, she knows how that is- sometimes the parenthetical is the most important.

Virginia understands. She always knows how it is, she knows it for every possible person that you are or could want to know, and she’ll tell you, even if maybe at first the way she expresses it makes it seem like something you can't understand. For instance, poor Septimus. I found his sections too flowery, too clichéd and lofty the first time around- his phrases about beauty shut down my ability to receive it. I just couldn’t get past it then. Then I tried again, and Septimus became anything but frou-frou- the tragedy of his perception of the world, the depth of his feeling felt like it was choking me to death.

Virginia wasn’t trying to insult me- she was trying to show me what I was missing. She got under my skin, did Virginia. I decided that I was willing to make a fool of myself again to try to get something out of it- and I am incandescently happy that I did. It was 200 pages of her telling me “Only connect,” over and over again. She showed me once again how beautiful the idea of the tapestry of life really is- how we’re all interconnected, the idea that something of ourselves reverberates on forever. I saw the Fates spinning, sewing, snipping- sometimes using the same piece of string to form, to inexorably connect the unlikeliest of people. We should never try to tear out the threads the Fates give us. The people who do will only end up creating a bloody battle out of what should have been a party scene to be hung in the drawing room.

Clarissa Dalloway is an unlikely heroine, but thus she is nonetheless. She is shallow, uneducated, vain, even “cold” as many of her detractors claim. And yet, she goes down to the underworld every other moment and manages to surface and visit her mother with a smile upon her face, not caring to trouble her in her old age with her silly worries and sorrows. She said “no,” once to life, all those years ago- and it is all she thinks about. She lives her life running in the other direction, within the bounds that she can, if only people could see it. I loved her fiery loathing of what she believed Miss Kilman represented, her ultimate rejection (if understanding) of Septimus’ chosen ending, the ‘offerings’ of her parties. She is Molly Bloom writ in everyday language: Yes I will yes…. I finished the book again in utter awe with her. Perhaps it is that I am towards the beginning of my own life, and I see Clarissa as having passed over a stretch of land that is still an unknown country to me- a country I still believe I haven’t the map to.

This book might be streamofconsciousness but don’t be fooled into falling in and trying to swim the river forever. I felt like I was drowning, numb, deprived of depth perception after attempting to swallow this whole that first time. This is a book best taken in small samples when you feel you're truly ready for more- pieces that won't fill you up too much to appreciate just what it is that you’re tasting.

Trust me. Virginia will take care of you. Just let the woman speak.
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Quotes Kelly Liked

Virginia Woolf
“An offering for the sake of 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 . . .”
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Reading Progress

May 30, 2008 – Shelved
March 25, 2010 – Started Reading
March 26, 2010 – Shelved as: 20th-century-early-to-mid
March 26, 2010 – Shelved as: fiction
March 26, 2010 – Shelved as: brit-lit
March 31, 2010 – Finished Reading
April 1, 2010 – Shelved as: examined-lives
April 16, 2010 – Shelved as: vita-virginia-violet-and-kindred
April 15, 2011 – Shelved as: favorites
June 8, 2011 – Shelved as: grande-dames
June 14, 2011 – Shelved as: mawwiageiswhatbringsustogethertoday
September 6, 2011 – Shelved as: londonreadinglist

Comments (showing 1-50 of 55) (55 new)

Kelly I enjoy Virginia Woolf. I loved reading Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando. I hope you find Mrs. Dalloway enjoyable as well when you get to it as I did. :)

message 2: by Jude (new)


dalloway is one of my favorites of hers. and the movie is a delight as well.
i wanted to love Orlando but i couldn't stick it long enough to acclimate. perhaps later...

message 3: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Can't wait to hear what you think. I haven't read this one either, but I fell in love with To the Lighthouse when I read it recently.

message 4: by Kelly (last edited Mar 26, 2010 06:19AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Yes, I read your wonderful review on it here, which definitely made me want to revisit it! I feel like I was robbed of my proper To the Lighthouse experience- one of those high school class reads that sort of ruined the whole thing.

message 5: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Oooh, I hope you both you do that!

message 6: by Kelly (last edited Mar 26, 2010 07:04AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Hey, that would be awesome! But aren't we supposed to be reading Shirley soon? Would you be cool with swapping out that read for Lighthouse?

Kelly I feel like I've managed to give my vegetables to the dog under the table or something. But done! Let's do!

message 8: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Review, review! Please?

message 9: by Kelly (last edited Apr 01, 2010 11:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly I'm trying to come up with something that expresses everything I felt about this book- as you guys might know, that's proving hard!

Plus, you guys wrote such awesome reviews of VW recently, I feel like I have to live up to your example!

Kelly Okay... reviewed, gave it my best shot!

Kelly Thank you both very much! I always get nervous that I go overboard when I really like things.

Elizabeth- I really wanted to resist the river imagery with this book, because my experience of reading this had nothing to do with the flowing aspect of it people usually ascribe to it. But it was like I couldn't get away from it in trying to feel everything in this book. I felt like I got some small insight into the suicide reading this book- if for no other reason than I gave up time and time again trying to feel like Virginia did for too long.

The Fates are among my favorite figures in mythology, and your amazing ribbon focused review really got me thinking in terms of the feminine imagination on an Epic scale. Really helped me get through parts of this, so thanks!

Virginia made me feel pretty insecure, but I realized that was mostly my hangup, not anything she was writing. She's really very welcoming once you get to know her.

message 12: by Miriam (new)

Miriam (declarative sentences never say it all, do they?) is the best parenthetical remark ever!

message 13: by C. (new) - rated it 4 stars

C. So you write this amazing review and then think that To the Lighthouse is just 'eh'?

message 14: by Kelly (last edited Apr 01, 2010 07:50PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly I wrote that review from my memories of reading it in high school English. I had sort of a crappy class reading of it- as I recall it was mostly eye-rolly discussions about feminism, and I was deeefinitely too young to see a lot in there without help. As I mentioned, her fiction isn't easy for me- I've gotta work harder than normal! As I've found out however, it's completely worth it!

Elizabeth's gonna read Lighthouse with me soon, though! I'm pretty positive my review is gonna be very different this time. :)

message 15: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I don't get why English curricula are so set on having kids read stuff that is over their heads or so alien as to be incomprehensible to them.

message 16: by Kelly (last edited Apr 02, 2010 07:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly I don't know if I agree about not giving teenagers challenging books. Perhaps "alien" is a better word, though. I'd say that at that age you definitely need a way into things- I loved Love in the Time of Cholera, Hamlet, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for instance, all other books we did the same year. But I happened to be able to relate to those- I wasn't ready for Woolf yet.

Elizabeth- I'm down for Lighthouse early next month if that works for you?

Kelly Score! This is good to wait a bit anyways. I think that after my Summer Tree re-read, I'm gonna have to re-read the other two books. In for a penny...

Moira Russell This is lovely. And I'd love to reread Lighthouse, too.

Kelly Oooh, that would be fun. But whether we do the group thing or not, Moira please feel free to join our read!

Moira Russell Elizabeth wrote: "Anyone else up for a read in May? There's a VW group. I know the organizer. :-)"

//joins group //sees The Hours is being read //bites tongue

Moira Russell Kelly wrote: "Oooh, that would be fun. But whether we do the group thing or not, Moira please feel free to join our read!"

Aww thanks! I shall.

Moira Russell Elizabeth wrote: "It hasn't been updated since 2009. I think The Hours killed discussion.


I just emailed the moderator. She'll fix it. :-)"

Hurray! thank you!

message 23: by Kelly (last edited Apr 02, 2010 09:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Ok, that's it! I've been successfully scared off ever reading the Hours- even though I already own it. I would never be able to hold my head up again! I'll be sure to handle it with toxic waste proof gloves when I cart it off to the used book store. :)

*goes to join group as well*

Thanks for faciliating the group fixing, Elizabeth!

message 24: by C. (new) - rated it 4 stars

C. I'd totally join! It's been way too long since I read any Woolf. And I maintain that The Hours wasn't too bad. It got me into Woolf all right.

message 25: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant One of the best reviews I ever read. To the point where I now have to reread Mrs D myself, and I wasn't planning to.

message 26: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Do it, Elizabeth. You'd be the perfect moderator for a VW group.

Moira Russell Elizabeth wrote: "Would the Lighthouse reading folks be interested in another VW group if I set it up? "

OMG YES. And Ben is right - you so would!

message 28: by Kelly (last edited Apr 03, 2010 07:18AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly One of the best reviews I ever read. To the point where I now have to reread Mrs D myself, and I wasn't planning to.

Thank you, Paul! That was a lovely thing to read to start my morning! I hope you enjoy meeting up with Mrs. D again as much as I did. :)

Also please do start another group Elizabeth! I'm SO down for that. I'm planning on devouring a bunch of her books this summer before I start school in the fall, so it would be great to have a forum for general discussion even after the Lighthouse read.

message 29: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I don't even like VW but I'm still somehow offended that her To the Lighthouse is not the top, or even in the top 5, returns when I search "to the lighthouse" on GR. How is A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose the best match for that search?

Also, you fans may be pleased to know that my library has a waiting list for Lighthouse.

message 30: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I'm going to make a good-faith effort. The first chapter at least!

message 31: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Thanks! I have to join the wait list... which means I have to wait for the books I already requested to come and then return them... Are you starting reading right away?

Jesse Wonderful stuff, Kelly. So glad it won you over, and impressed you reread it again--every once in a while I come across a book that inspires that type of reaction in me (Nightwood was the last, I think), but I've never actually allowed myself to actually do it. Now I wonder what I missed because of it...

My own first experience with this novel (which was also my first with Woolf) is that through the entire novel I didn't even really glimpse the light under the ice, but I forced myself onto the bitter end, and it was the moment that Clarissa connects with the invocation of Septimus at her party that the cracks of light appeared and I made the connection, and was kind of blinded by the beauty and unexpectedness of it. In a lot of ways, I've been attempting to recover from that moment ever since...

message 33: by C. (new) - rated it 4 stars

C. Jesse wrote: "My own first experience with this novel (which was also my first with Woolf) is that through the entire novel I didn't even really glimpse the light under the ice, but I forced myself onto the bitter end, and it was the moment that Clarissa connects with the invocation of Septimus at her party that the cracks of light appeared and I made the connection, and was kind of blinded by the beauty and unexpectedness of it. In a lot of ways, I've been attempting to recover from that moment ever since..."

That's such a beautiful way of putting it! I had a sort of similar experience: the whole way through Mrs Dalloway I could tell that there was something there, some source of light beneath the ice, but I didn't make the connection until I read To the Lighthouse, when I was completely blinded and have never recovered.

message 34: by Kelly (last edited Apr 05, 2010 06:40AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly I'm really glad to hear (EDIT: not glad, but you know, relieved, I guess) that you guys had a difficult time accessing VW as well. From the reviews around here it often seemed like it was all pure joy and fireworks and bliss and happily ever after with those who liked her. So yeah, I feel at least a little less stupid now...

Jesse Thank you Choupette, and Kelly, my own Mrs. D review here came after several (four?) readings of that novel (to say nothing of reading most of her novels and spending a concentrated year researching her for a thesis). But it took a while and more than a bit of effort to get going at all--and I'm just eternally grateful I forced myself to get to the end of that novel!

And looking back now, my original comment makes it sound like a "St. Paul on the road to Damascus" conversion, and I guess in a way, that's really what it was, lol. But I do think it's interesting that when it comes to Woolf's work there really does seem to be an epiphany moment involved on the reader's part, one very much in line with those experienced by characters throughout her fiction...

message 36: by Kelly (last edited Apr 06, 2010 06:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly But I do think it's interesting that when it comes to Woolf's work there really does seem to be an epiphany moment involved on the reader's part, one very much in line with those experienced by characters throughout her fiction...

And 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished! It must be, or none of us would ever get to the end.. but for that sense of something being there that's worth it. I wonder if the experience of these unique moments is a part of VW's process of trying to encompass everything she can in her tapestry- consequently, it can often be awhile before she works her way around to the part of the cloth you're cut out of. If that's not too tortured a metaphor to work. Definitely highlights why this novel being structured and painted the way it is is so perfect and amazing.

I'm curious, what was your thesis on her about?

Kelly Thank you, Abigail, and yes I hope you do join the Woolf group! We're not starting until May 1, so there's plenty of time!

... in case you do want to get your pirate fix first. :)

Jason Kelly wrote: "...the overbearing presence of the past..."

I love that, Kelly.

Kelly Was that your experience of it as well? It's haunting, isn't it?

Jason It was almost like what Mrs. Dalloway wasn't saying that I thought was interesting. Like she kept saying she was so glad she married Richard instead of Peter, but there seemed to be a huge undertone of regret there.

Kelly I'd agree with that. Peter was her "no". Her parties are so important because they are the "yeses," that try to make up for that as much as possible.

Jason Those parties are all she has, poor thing. She's so engrossed in their success that she ends up valuing that over spending time with Peter and Sally Seton. It's very sad.

Kelly She is a very sad person in theory, but I think she seems to work her way through to a place where she isn't anymore, actually. She rejects what Septimus does at the end and pulls back, after all.

Jason ...even while looking upon Septimus as admirable for having "conquered" death, so to speak. I might need to read that last bit again, though, because I didn't pick up on the fact that she was contemplating suicide.

message 45: by Kelly (last edited Jun 10, 2012 04:30PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Hmmm. I'd need to re-read myself, its been awhile. But my impression was that she understood the reasons behind why Septimus did it, but made the choice to turn away from the window to go back to her "yes," in her party. I don't think she consciously contemplated suicide herself, but the book is a whole long argument about why she would never do it even if she felt she had reasons to, or so it seems to me. Her reaction to Miss Kilman supports that, I think, as well.

I could totally be wrong though. You just read it, so you might have a more accurate memory than I do!

Jason Nah, the whole thing's a blur already. :)

I dunno, I just went back and read that part where she was alone in the room after hearing of Septimus's suicide. Obviously people can read into it differently but I don't think I picked up on her even thinking about it. At first she is disturbed about hearing of his death (even though she didn't know him) and complained of its intrusion on her party, but then she isolated herself and became contemplative about her life overall and came to the conclusion that he had conquered death in a way and preserved his life in it as if death were the hitting of some "pause button" and so she came to admire him. I like how she felt a connection to him through his death somehow.

I didn't even touch on the Elizabeth–Miss Kilman sitch because I don't like my reviews getting too long (who would ever read them?) but there must have been some parallel there to her own relationship with Sally Seton years earlier.

Kelly Oh, I definitely think she feels a connection to him, for sure. Their lives run parallel through the whole thing, but one makes one choice and one doesn't. I think it comes back to Peter why she doesn't. Like I said, I don't think she is thinking about suicide consciously, but I think her whole day is a process of her making an argument about why she wouldn't do it nonetheless.

That's interesting about conquering death though. I hadn't remembered that. Hmm. I'll have to re-read it more precisely.

You are too kind to not want your reviews to get long. I obviously have some work to do on that. :)

Jason I actually highlighted this quote on my Kindle, so it was very easy to call up:

This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

message 49: by Matt (new) - rated it 5 stars

Matt I think this is the second time I've read your piece on this and I've gotta say, it's eloquent and well-thought-out and covers so much insight that it (and yourself, of course) should really start to publish it...somewhere

message 50: by Kelly (last edited Sep 11, 2012 09:20AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Well thank you Matt, that's so kind! Woolf is so great. I'm reading the Waves soon, so excited!

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