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on 10 February 2011
The name Virginia Woolf likely conjures the image of an important cultural figure, a significant writer, but one with an intimidating reputation. As such, readers may either stay away from her work or approach cautiously, expecting something wilfully obscure and deliberately difficult.

The truth is that, yes, Woolf's writing can be a challenge and the reason for that is mostly because it's so unique. We're used to plot- or character-driven novels, where things happen in some semblance of order, where there's narrative resolution, and often where you can dip in and out with ease. The stream-of-consciousness style that Woolf employs in "Mrs. Dalloway" (1925) shirks conventions and as a result it can be a disorientating read.

But that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable. The thing to remember with "Mrs. Dalloway" is that it is not a plot-driven novel. As other reviewers have accurately stated, this is not a page-turner, not something to marvel at all the ingenious plot twists and turns. So why read it? The main thing I took away from "Mrs. Dalloway" was how much about the interior it is, and consequently how personal and intimate it feels. It's not "Mrs. Dalloway went up the stairs and sat down." It's all about inner thoughts, inner feelings, and as such this stream-of-consciousness style works wonders. We don't think in ordered sentences most of the time; our thoughts flit from one thing to another and we set off trains of thought and memory and memory association. The same is true of the writing in "Mrs. Dalloway"; there will sometimes be unexpected interjections and abrupt changes of thought process, which mimics our real human thought process.

Of course, action does take place - there are walks in the park, collecting flowers, sewing - but it's all filtered through the interior. It can be confusing to determine who is "speaking," as Woolf jumps between characters and they rarely have clearly-defined voices of their own, but that way it does feel more natural somehow. One moment we could be "in" Mrs. Dalloway, then she thinks of Peter Walsh, and suddenly we're "in" Peter Walsh, so to speak. It's a unique approach; much has been made of the revolutionary style. Whether it's relevant as 'revolutionary' today is immaterial - it simply works, regardless of whether Woolf originated it or not, and regardless of when it was written.

The other main element to note is Woolf's writing style itself. Her use of language is rich and beautiful, and she articulates feelings in a vivid, imaginative way that the reader can fully comprehend and relate to but still marvel at the imagery she is using. There will be occasional metaphors or sentences that stop you in your tracks for a while because they're so well-drawn and creative, yet entirely in keeping with the mood and feel of the novel. (It also must be said that Woolf does have a sense of humour, and some of her observations and interjections here are softly funny and sometimes wonderfully absurd.)

It's a book really to lose yourself in. By that, I mean: don't come into it with expectations, and certainly don't come into it looking forward to something exciting and plot-based. The power is in the writing style, the intimacy, and the accurate portrayal and evocation of human thought process. One can read into the symbolism and exploration of WWI, mental illness, sexuality, and human disappointment, and they're intrinsic, but even if you don't consider the symbolism or the cultural context it's still a novel that weaves a spell, slowly but powerfully.

Sometimes, it's a taste thing: some people will 'get' the book and enjoy it, and some won't, and one person is no better for 'getting' it and vice versa. But what I would say is that if you just allow yourself to get into the novel, and allow the novel room to breathe, and don't compare it to other, more conventional texts, it might just surprise you. I was surprised sometimes how much I was enjoying it. Woolf certainly requires more concentration and effort on the part of the reader than some other authors, but the ultimate rewards can be very satisfying.
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on 16 December 2002
My favourite of Woolfs novels and also, I think, the most acessable to readers new to her work. It is the least complicated example of her style and the one where her stream of conciousness achieves its best synergy with characters and plot. Two central plotlines interweave, Mrs. Dalloway fighting submerged demons below a perfect veneer, while elsewhere in London Septimus Smith is overwhelmed by his. His character as a metaphor for the struggles in her mind works very well. Woolfs prose is on wonderful form here; with a clarity and beauty rarely matched it touches the heart, while opening a Bloomsbury cavern filled with class divide and false appearance. It is a very human, humane novel with a private, fragile quality that echoes it's themes - the mind, the life and marrying the two without harm.
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on 8 February 2002
Virginia Woolf's fourth novel (1925) can be regarded as her first real approach to maturity, since she experiments with time and mingles present experience and past memories in an artistic way. Apart from the formal innovations, Woolf does not avoid the thematic challenge either: "I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense", she notes in her diary.
Mrs. Dalloway is set on a single day in the middle of June in 1923, and we follow Clarissa Dalloway, the elegant wife of a Member of Parliament and perfect London hostess, through the course of this day which is going to culminate in the party she is going to give in the evening.
But there is much more to the novel than the superficial level of social activities: interwoven with the public world of post-war Britain is the female protagonist's inner life and her ambivalence about her other self - she wishes both to escape the social life and to enter it more fully; she feels both sheltered and anonymous, useful and trivial, committed and deluded.
Clarissa is looking for meaning in her life, primarily in her past, and we learn, among many other things, that she has chosen the safety of marriage to the rather ponderous Richard as opposed to the unpredictability of a life with Peter Walsh or the scandal of a relationship with a woman in order to preserve her own private self.
Virginia Woolf is interested in human personality and convicted of the right of the individual to possess and to cultivate their identity. Clarissa is thrown into a field of polar tensions in which on the one hand she strives for individuality and tries to distance herself from her environment; but in which on the other hand she also feels that she has to step out of her seclusion in order to take part in society.
And she proves herself capable of asserting herself in the life of society with courage and instinct. She is permanently ready to serve, to help and to support, seeing her role in society in terms of a personal task: through her parties she attempts to save people from their solitude, to establish relationships between them and make them feel the beauties of life.
Virginia Woolf has a gift to see behind people's social masks and to reveal in a very beautiful way how people live, how they love and hate, fear and long, and cope with the pleasures as well as the difficulties of everyday existence.
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on 25 August 2001
If you are looking for a novel packed with exciting events, a story that will keep you thinking 'What'll happen next?' then this is not the book for you. "Mrs Dalloway" does not have an exhilarating plot. It is not an eventful story. Neither is it peopled with unusual characters. It is, perhaps, a medium through which you might experience a 'moment of being', the sudden revelation central to Virginia Woolf's writing at its finest.
'Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day', suggests Virginia Woolf in "The Common Reader", 'The mind receives a myriad it not the task of the novelist to convey this?' In "Mrs Dalloway" the cause-and-effect narrative of the realist tradition is abandoned. The 'scaffolding' of the realist plot is taken down; there is 'scarcely a brick to be seen' in this critique of social convention. Instead, Woolf's reader follows an apparently random chain of external happening and thought-processes that comprise a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway.
Consider the two-page section in which Mrs Dalloway has left her long-anticipated party in search of privacy. Woolf's use of free indirect interior monologue grants the reader access to the protagonist's mind as the principal chain-of-events is halted, the narrative infused with a sort of psychoanalytical free-association, as memories of Boughton and the past merge into London and the present: 'It held...something of her own in it...this sky above Westminster'. Woolf's prose concentrates on minor events and descriptive details that are insignificant in the context of linear progression, unable to be twisted into the 'realist' tradition of a causal plot. Look at how Mrs Dalloway's thought-process is snapped by a sudden interjection ('Oh, but how surprising!') as the old lady in the house opposite glances across. The emotional flux of Woolf's narrative refocuses Mrs Dalloway's outlook as the old lady's quiet independence is contrasted with the pseudo-vitality of the party. Moreover, the motif of the striking clock is placed in immediate juxtaposition, representing not only the passing of the years for Mrs Dalloway but contributing to the unity of the novel. The sound of the clock striking evokes an earlier narrative event as Mrs Dalloway recalls the suicide of Septimus and strives to connect her own experience with that of others: 'The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two three, she did not pity him with all this going on'.
Woolf, like many of her contemporaries, employs self-conscious literary allusion as a means of unifying a text. For the schizophrenic Septimus, incessant mental echoes of a refrain from Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" ('Fear no more the heat of the sun') had indicated a terror of life and the ultimate social defiance of his death. The same refrain drifts across Mrs Dalloway's mind as, having defied the social whirl of the party, she recognizes in this 'moment of being' her parallel with the insane youth she never met: 'But what an extraordinary night! She felt glad that he had done it'. However, Mrs Dalloway's sense of exaltation is paralleled by recognition of her essential difference to the schizophrenic, her capacity for life, her ability to transcend social convention, and to survive 'the heat of the sun'. 'The clock was striking': the image recalls the power of chronology that continues to dominate the tradition of the realist novel. Nevertheless, the dissolution of its 'leaden circles' emphasizes Woolf' s concern with time as much more than a linear structure, as an inter-weaving of past and present containing a multiplicity of potential futures. Whereas Septimus's mind fell apart, Mrs Dalloway 'must assemble' and become 'Clarissa', become herself, a point of being.
This is a beautiful novel, scripted out of what its author called 'incantation and mystery', in which a social message is communicated via rhythmic repetition, metaphor, 'moments of being'.
Readers seeking to deepen their understanding of Virginia Woolf, her novels, and wider literary world would do well to invest in Hermione Lee's superb critical biography.
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on 3 September 2000
A book totally without airs and graces; unusual for literature stemming from early last century. Presumptions that the book is ragingly feminist are thrown out the window as soon as you begin to read. It is, however, very much a woman's world, and the psyche of many a female charcter is delved into - though the thoughts and emotions of males are also successfully explored and expressed.
A thoroughly modernist book, superbly written. Woolf engages the reader by investigating the power of an integral modernist device: the inner voice. Also, by dint of following a day in the life of various people who are simply trying to survive in the throbbing heart of the capital, the book is fast-paced and leaves the reader with the sensation that he/she is in London too. The characters are subtly and cleverly linked to one another, and the chief protagonist is intensely likeable - despite AND because of her flaws.
This book is brief, exciting, exhilirating and leaves one's head in the clouds for days afterwards. It is excellently structured and uses modernist literary methods cleverly and quietly. Very refreshing.
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on 17 November 2009
I loved this book, but have limited it to 4 stars because my appreciation may be partly that it begins with Clarissa Dalloway stepping across Victoria Street and walking to St James's park, which I do regularly and got me excited from the outset. However, I don't think it is that alone that made her seem so real. I do not particularly like the main character, but Woolf's writing makes you want to work her out; why she behaves as she does and made the past decisions she did. The stream of consciousness style in some sections does hurt your head a little, but she is using it to describe madness and doing so very effectively, and never goes on for so long that you simply want to give up (*cough*JamesJoyce*cough*). I have almost never felt such a sense of satisfaction at the final line of a book.
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on 27 October 2010
Virginia Woolf is growing on me at an alarming rate.
This novel uses the most beautiful of poetic language to describe the emotional landscape of it's main protaganist through the prism of a single day.

The perspective on life, the impact of decisions made in early adulthood, the development of characters over many years - all of these things(and many others) will make me read and re-read this book with great pleasure.
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on 12 July 2008
Having finished `Mrs Dalloway', I was left unsure whether I actually enjoyed the book. I can clearly see why it has received so much praise as Woolf's excellent use of language truly envelopes you in the psyche of Clarissa Dalloway and the thought processes of her other dramatic devices, particularly the visionary Septimus. However I was, as I am sure Woolf intended, irritated by many of Clarissa's flaws and despite some of her redeeming characteristics, I found part way through the book that I no longer wanted to continue following her train of thought. Luckily there was also plenty of substance to be found in the other characters that made me want to continue reading and by the end I felt I had a thorough understanding of each of every one of them. I would, on consideration, recommend this book but I do not see myself returning to it in a hurry. It certainly stayed with me for days after completing it but purely because I just couldn't decide how I felt about it. Try it and see for yourself...
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on 1 February 2009
Mrs Dalloway is critically regarded as one of the quintessential exemplars of both stream-of-consciousness writing and the ethos of the Modernist era. Stylistically stunning, the innovative narrative follows a day in the life of protagonist Clarissa Dalloway, an aristocratic socialite struggling to find meaning and contentment in post-war London. Juxtaposed with her, Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked combatant attempting to readjust to life after war, struggling with the difficulties of a fractured mind and a creeping madness which threatens to destroy him.

The narrative voice flits effortlessly between the many characters, blending their thoughts, memories and perceptions in order to provide an insight into the psychological processes of a disillusioned generation attempting to restore normality after fundamental assumptions about reality and human nature have been shattered by conflict.

This is a beautifully crafted novel, a deceptively quick and easy read despite the rich narrative structure and content, and a must-read for all those interested in Modernist literature.

Everyone will enjoy this book: for its characters, its story and its vivid descriptions of post-war London. Moreover, for Modernist scholars it provides an exquisite example of the narrative innovation which characterises early 20th century writing.
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on 17 December 2010
Virginia Woolf was influenced by Joyce's "stream of consciousness" as seen in such works as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, but is somewhat more accessible than the latter and more complete than the former. Clarissa Dalloway is a wistful, reflective character, who spends the majority of the novel reminiscing about her youth and planning a forthcoming party. A few miles away, and unknown to Clarissa, lives Septimus Warren Smith, a former soldier of the Great War attempting to cope with the debilitating effects of shell shock. Woolf's masterful depiction of Warren Smith and his wife, Lucrezia, were, for me, the most rewarding aspects of the novel, containing pathos, desperation and even hope. But as everything here is of such a high standard that is not to say that there is nothing else of interest, because Mrs Dalloway herself is a fascinating individual in her own right, and other characters have charm and warmth also. It is, however, the plight of Septimus which elevates the novel, making it much more than a high quality musing on the internal struggles of the middle aged middle classes. Mrs Dalloway is both a wonderful read and an important milestone in modernist writing.
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