In Defense of Mrs. Dalloway

In Defense of Mrs. Dalloway

By Allie Skalnik

“Mrs. Dalloway” is a book that I absolutely adored. Both in the initial reading and subsequent pondering, I was struck by how modern and thoughtful it is, even while keeping in mind it was written in the 1920s. That being said, I am well aware of its faults and shortcomings. 

Virginia Woolf is not someone to be idolized or romanticized. She has often been described as a troubled soul. She struggled with bipolar disorder most of her life and commited suicide at the age of 59. What’s important to note, I believe, is that she’s an author whose story is distinct from nearly all other prominent authors of the time. 

Woolf was a woman who wrote about women’s issues, a feminist, she struggled with her mental health, and she had several sexual and emotional relationships with women. Woolf is so different from the Fitzgeralds and Hemmingways and Eliots of the time. Additionally, she writes candidly. Virginia Woolf’s snark never fails to make me fist pump embarrassingly (internally, of course, but it’s embarrassing nonetheless). Funny how a woman’s story is told with more care and authenticity when told by—wait for it—a woman. Shocking, I know. 

Perhaps I love it even more because it does what I felt “The Great Gatsby” failed to do. While set in different times and different countries, both books attempt to assert that society has become too distant, that people have become far too caught up in how things look rather than how things are. Only one of these books does this well. Not to say I didn’t like “The Great Gatsby,” but to be quite frank, I didn’t care much about Gatsby’s story. I didn’t care that he loved Daisy or threw parties, and I certainly didn’t care when he [spoiler alert] died. To put it simply, I despised Gatsby as a character, and so I was far too distracted by his immaturity and flippancy to appreciate the book as a larger whole. But Clarissa. Clarissa is someone whose story I actually find valuable. Woolf explores the complexities of intimacy, more specifically Clarissa’s aversion to it. And Woolf doesn’t shame her for it. On the contrary, she celebrates Clarissa’s independence, romanticizes the image of the solitary old lady, and closes with the image of Clarissa standing alone, powerful and empowered in her isolation. 


With that being said, I’m well aware that not everyone loves this book, so it’s time to do what I always do when I love a book with my whole heart. I’m off to Goodreads to look at negative reviews and then rant about how unbelievably wrong they all are.

Here’s the general consensus:

  1. There is no plot
  2. Her style sucks/is hard to follow
  3. Overall the most boring book known to mankind
  4. When Woolf attempts to be artistic, it comes off childishly 
  5. Clarissa is self-centered/unlikeable  

Let’s start at the end, shall we? I must admit, Clarissa certainly has her faults. Her treatment of Ellie Henderson, for example, her own cousin who she scorns because of her social status, speaks volumes and should under no circumstances be ignored. However, like in everything else she does, Virginia Woolf is saying something. Clarissa didn’t always care about status. Back at Bourton with Sally Seaton, she had no regard for decorum. On the contrary, she was a bit wild under Sally’s influence. Forty years later, Clarissa looks back on those days at Bourton with nostalgia, longing for simpler and freer times. Woolf points out that the world has screwed everyone up. Septimus has been hurt more obviously, traumatised by WWII, but Clarissa is collateral damage, as well. Clarissa has lost the capacity for intimacy and become consumed by a fixation on status. 

So why is Clarissa redeemable where Gatsby is not? In “The Great Gatsby,” Nick is the most normal character. We see everything through his eyes, but he is by no means perfect. He is, however, far more redeemable than Gatsby. Clarissa is similar to Nick. She is the most normal of the major characters. Her flaws should not be excused, but as a whole, she is far more redeemable than Dr. Bradshaw. You don’t have to like Clarissa—in fact, you probably shouldn’t—but it’s important to recognize the point Woolf is making. 

Next comes the complaint that Woolf is “trying so hard to be artsy.” Well excuse me for believing she pretty much accomplishes it. She did pioneer the stream-of-consciousness-style novel, did she not? I do admit it would be quite obnoxious if these stylistic changes had no rhyme or reason, but that could not be further from the truth. Woolf is making a point. Having chapters or a linear timeline in a novel about how traditional structure in society has failed us would be wildly out of place, and they would undercut the themes of the novel. Woolf identified that traditional conventions for storytelling weren’t going to work in this situation, and she pioneered a new way. 

Now I understand that Woolf’s style of writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I fervently believe that while “Mrs. Dalloway” can feel tiresome to read, it can also be exquisitely beautiful. Here is a prime example:

“But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoke to, some women in the street, some man behind a counter – even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps – perhaps.”

One of the reasons why I chose this quote is because it may be many things: trite, self-centered, far too philosophical to be taken seriously, but it is anything but boring. Of course, I love a good swashbuckling, swords-crossing, adventure as much as anyone, but I’m also a big believer that if someone has something different and profound to say, it’s our duty to listen. Virginia Woolf certainly had things to say, and reading “Mrs. Dalloway” gives us a more complete understanding of post-WWII England and all the reasons why Woolf felt it was fraught. It also gives us an insight into the birth of Feminism and a completely different mode of storytelling. “Mrs. Dalloway” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is no denying its importance as a piece of literature.


Image courtesy of These Little Words

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