What I Learned from // Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway, written by Virginia Woolf and published in 1925, is the story of just one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high society woman living in London in the 1920s as she prepares to host a party at her home that evening.

We also follow the very troubled Septimus Smith, a World War I veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or “shell shock” as it was referred to back then. He comes back from the war paranoid and hallucinating trying to make sense of the loss of his friend Evans and his current feelings and memories of the war and his place in the world now.

“She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”

― Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway is a strange book. Written almost entirely from inside the minds of the characters in a “stream of consciousness” style follows their thoughts and observations on the past, present, and future of their lives and loved ones. It took me a long time to finish it despite its small size because that “stream of consciousness” style made it hard to get and keep my bearings. Once I did though I understood why Woolf might have chosen it.

Themes of relationships, time, religion, mental illness, existence, feminism and even sexuality are mulled over by not just Clarissa and Septimus but of all the characters around them. We learn quickly that the inner lives of these people are much richer and more interesting than their outside worlds.

I don’t claim to know what the moral of Mrs. Dalloway is, but what I learned was that your whole life is lived inside of you every day. Your thoughts are where you exist but we are so wrapped up in what’s going on outside us we never even realize it.

You remember things. You think about who you love and who you hate. You think about who you wish you were and who you are now. You wonder about other people and other places. You learn things and teach things. You’re happy, you’re sad, you’re angry. You see yourself as a child and wonder what you might look like when you get old. You wonder when do you will die, and if it will hurt, and who will remember you.

“It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.”

― Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

But these thoughts occur only inside of our own heads and language is a poor medium for expressing them or even describing how they come to us. So, we are isolated and perpetually misunderstood. It is impossible for a person to know another person fully. THis leads to much of our sadness and suffering. To do better, to understand and to be understood, we have to start practicing sharing your thoughts, and even before you can do that, you have to start paying attention to your thoughts, and then you have to make a point of asking people about their own.

I had no idea the novel was created from two short stories titled, “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” and “The Prime Minister,” the latter of which was unfinished. That might explain the abruptness of the ending, which is my one and only critique of the book. It felt like there was so much left to explain, not of the story, but of what it all meant. Still, I finished the book feeling once again that all the praise received for the book and for the author herself was well deserved.

I highly recommend you read it if you never have. It’s different, but if you went into it with an understanding of the style, you might have a better time of it than I did. When you do, be sure to let me know what you think!

“Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums. And it was smashed to atoms—his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought—making onself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more. But odd it was, and quite true; all this one could never share—it smashed to atoms.”

― Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

***

P.S. If you have been a long time follower of Zen and Pi you may remember my older book review posts were titled “Short and Sweet Reviews,” but let’s be honest, most of the books I read have already been reviewed hundreds of times over and my short and sweet opinion won’t mean much to many. 

So, instead, I want to start sharing what I have learned from each, hence, the name change. I read to acquire wisdom and a new way of seeing the world and so, that should be what I share, not my crappy fifth-grade quality “review.” I’m excited about this new direction and look forward to reviewing more books soon, and I hope you will learn something too.

***

Thank you for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Check out my other reviews on my “Am Reading” page or keep up with my progress on Goodreads.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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Lisa

Hello! My name is Lisa. I find the human condition fascinating and I often write stuff about that. I blog at zenandpi.com but you can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and if you like what I do, consider signing up for my newsletter. Thanks :)

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