Thursday, 11 February 2010

Book Review: Mrs. Dalloway


Mrs. Dalloway  by Virginia Woolf

Category: Classical Fiction

Challenges: Women Unbound Challenge, GLBT Challenge

Synopsis: Mrs Dalloway tells of a day in life of Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Warren and Peter Walsh. Clarissa and Peter have a past, Septimus is a troubled young man. The novel explores class and gender differences through Clarissa’s and Peter’s recollections of their past, their thoughts on their present and Septimus story.

My Thoughts: I was assigned this book for my grad school class on Theory of Literature. I say this because some of my opinions of this book come from before class and some from after class(I prefer it after class).

I found this book to be a bit hard to get into. The many names at the start were confusing and the sentence structure had my head spinning. As I mentioned in my Sunday Salon post last week I have some issues with assigned reading. This is a book I would have like to take my time with but I felt I had to rush through it in order to have it done in time for class (yes I could have started earlier but I am the kind of person who is grateful for ‘last minute’). 

All that said, now that I have read more about the book, Woolf’s thoughts on writing and such and discussed it with my classmates and teacher I have a much greater appreciation for the story and the writing.

I have a tendency to write either long rambly sentences that can benefit from punctuation or short simple subject-predicate sentences. I found her sentences difficult at first because she makes use of semicolons and commas. Now I use commas but I think the only time I have used semicolons in my writings was in the grammar class I took a couple of semesters ago. It took me a while to get used to them. Reading for class I realised that Woolf was trying to create a female style of writing. She was trying to do something different from the distinctly male cannon that was the status quo. In addition there is something inherently beautiful about sentences like this one:

It was precisely twelve o’clock; twelve by Big Ben; whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London; blent with that of other clocks, mixed in a thin ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke and died up there among the seagulls—twelve o’clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed, and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street (104).

Just the idea of time wafting in the air fills me with awe. Time in and off itself is as fleeting as smoke and to use the imagery of it as such paints such a beautiful picture.

Much of our discussion in class centred around feminist critique and if there are traits that are essentially female or essentially male. Personally I find it hard to believe that. I am pretty postmodern in my world view (see my post on White Noise for more on my views on postmodernism) so for me who we are is a bit floaty. This was something I greatly appreciated about Mrs Dalloway, she mixes the “typical” gender traits. No one (apart from the two doctors perhaps) are given stereotypical traits. I am sure we are all aware of traits that are often employed in order to make a woman more or less feminine in books and that just wasn’t the case here.

I found myself to feel the most for Septimus, I felt that he was the only character who had not had the opportunity to make himself his own. He had not been given a choice in following the rules of society and these rules broke him down and then could not deal with him afterwards. Clarissa on the other hand had a choice, she might not have had the choice she would have had today (when she would probably have chosen Sally) but she did have a choice between Peter and Richard and she chose Richard because he seemed safe. Richard symbolises society and safety. One of the articles we read for the class says:

Jean Wyatt argues that society insists on a rigidly defined and compartmentalized self because this formation of the self ‘reflects the pretense to permanence of the social institutions in which it is embedded…Society requires that people be circumscribed individuals so they can play the singular parts designed for them by social systems’. The powers controlling societal demands are determined to cast people into roles, regardless of individual needs or differences, in order to continue the stable stable system supporting their society” (Taylor*, 370).

This quote to me symbolises the trap in which many women find themselves in. Society expects certain things of women (this was even more true in Woolf’s time) and often the choice is narrow and the cost great for not choosing it. Clarissa was forced to choose, that is undoubtedly true, but the choice that she made might have seemed the lesser of two evils at the time, but ultimately it forced her to give up that which made her herself.

When I first read this book I found it difficult to follow but the more I think about it the more this book sticks with me. I would definitely want to read more of Woolf and if I had time I would join in Woolf in Winter, unfortunately the following months will be very hectic for me. If you want to read other peoples thoughts on Mrs Dalloway I suggest you head on over to Sarah’s and see what was said for the first Woolf in Winter book.

I normally like to have the cover picture of the book I actually read as the cover picture at the start of my posts, but the copy of Mrs. Dalloway that I read was the Penguin Popular Classic edition and they all have lime green covers with white text. Not so fun to look at but it is cheap and since I 1) am a poor gradstudent 2) like to write in books it is great to have cheap copies and I thought I would link to the cheap copy this time.

*Taylor, N. “Erasure of Definition: Androgyny in Mrs. Dalloway”, Women’s Studies, vol 18 (1991). 367-377

Copyright ©2010 Zee from Notes from the North.clip_image001This post was originally posted by Zee from Notes from the North. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.


Amanda said...

I find Woolf very difficult to read but worth it to take the time with. I'm sorry you felt rushed. I've read Dalloway twice now and I'm sure I still missed 85% of what Woolf was saying, but I really do enjoy the experience. I hadn't realized that about the making a female language. I use semi-colons pretty regularly to connect two full clauses...

Zee said...

I think part of my problems with the semicolon is that we don't use them that often in Swedish and that is the language I learned to write in. I think that she wrote about the female language in A Room of One's Own (I don't have my notes here). I will definitely read it again.