Who’s Afraid of a Classic Novel?

Book Review for “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf.

Summary from Amazon: “In this vivid portrait of a single day in a woman’s life, Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway is preoccupied with the last-minute details of preparation for a party while in her mind she is something much more than a perfect society hostess. As she readies her house for friends and neighbors, she is flooded with remembrances of the past—the passionate loves of her carefree youth, her practical choice of husband, and the approach and retreat of war. And, met with the realities of the present, Clarissa reexamines the choices that brought her there, hesitantly looking ahead to the unfamiliar work of growing old.”

Age: Adult; Setting: Contemporary; Genres: Literary, Women, Stream of conscious; Other categories: Vintage, Classic.

Mrs Dalloway

For quite some time now, I’ve wanted to read more classics, and this is one of the books I picked up with which I hoped to challenge myself. Well, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this, that is for certain. The Goodreads blurb for this book (which you should generally avoid because it contains a spoiler) says, “Virginia Woolf’s singular technique in Mrs. Dalloway heralds a break with the traditional novel form and reflects a genuine humanity and a concern with the experiences that both enrich and stultify existence.” Well, I can’t argue with that; this absolutely is not a traditionally formed novel. This is also a prime example of her experimentation with stream-of-consciousness writing. The question is, did it work for me?

Let me state that I have no problem with reading unconventional novels. In fact, sometimes they can be very enjoyable, and often enlightening. What Woolf did here that was unique (at the time) was to tell this woman’s story through not only the thoughts of her titular protagonist, but also through the thoughts of the people that surrounded her. I’ve read many books that have obviously adopted Woolf’s internal monologues format, but none with quite the scope of what Woolf achieves here. By that I mean that what you’ll find the thoughts of not just two or three characters, but a whole slew of them, including Dalloway herself, her husband, her daughter, almost everyone invited to this party, plus several servants and a few others who aren’t invited or who just pass through on the fringes of the whole event. On top of all of this, and apparently, totally unrelated to the goings on about this party, we have the very troubled Septimus and his wife, which is a tragic story of a veteran of the “Great War,” who is obviously suffering from PTSD, although they didn’t call it that back then.

The Goodreads blurb also says “The delicate artistry and lyrical prose of Woolf’s fourth novel have established her as a writer of profound talent.” Okay, so this is where I get to the part about if this novel worked for me or not. To begin with, yes, there’s certainly a huge amount of “delicate artistry and lyrical prose” here. I can’t argue with that at all. However, what I had a problem with here was the focus. By that I mean that all of these observances and reflections seemed to meld together. I had a hard time understanding who was thinking what, except when the third person narrative used their names. Even then, the story seemed to move from one person to another and then jump to someone else and then back to one of the people from before. While the concept behind this is fascinating, I’m thinking that her attempt to try something this different wasn’t thought out as well as it could have been. Plus, with a third person narrative, all the people sound the same, because the narrator is omnipresent and speaking in their own “voice” as it were.

Remember too that I’m a visual reader, where I practically “watch” the action of books in my mind. With all these passages that describe the feelings and emotions and thoughts of the different characters, I found myself with these still-life pictures in my head, instead of quasi-movies. That’s not too bad, but it seemed to me that most of the time, before the pictures changed, we were suddenly investigating a different character, sometimes within the same paragraph and even within the same sentence. Also, Woolf likes to put in a lot of relatively long, parenthetical remarks, most of which were unrelated to the subjects of the sentences in which they appeared. That often made me have to go back and re-read that line without the part in the parenthesis, in order to understand what she was saying (this might be a dyslexia thing, so others might not have as much trouble with this as I did). All of this gave the novel an overall disjointed feeling, and I had to make an effort to connect the dots. Despite this, when Woolf did describe action or some scenery, it was very vivid and alive, which is certainly to her credit. Obviously, had those parts been less beautifully written, I would have put this book aside, unfinished.

Finally, my last frustration with this book is that I was hoping for more about and/or from the titular Mrs. Dalloway, but she got very little “air time” throughout the novel, even when we get to the party itself. That made me think that this could easily have been entitled “The Party Guests,” which might have been more appropriate. All of this makes me think that maybe I should have started with one of Woolf’s later novels instead of this one. I did like her writing style and use of expressive language very much, but in general, this didn’t work all that well for me, to be honest. Even so, it was worth reading if only because it was considered revolutionary at the time of its publication, and is therefore considered a classic. The thing is, for me, I think content was sacrificed for style here, and that’s why it was so hard to read this novel. I think I’ll give it three stars, and tick this off as a “done” reading goal.


First published on May 14, 1925, “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.

16 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of a Classic Novel?

  1. Ditto, ditto, ditto! It was not my favorite book and I too had to re-read many paragraphs to grasp what was happening. I’ve never regretted reading a classic even if I didn’t love it. But I was soooooo glad I read Mrs Dalloway when I finally read The Hours by Michael Cunningham and could see the genius of how he braided characters from Mrs Dalloway and even Virginia Woolf herself directly into his book. The Hours might still be a good book without the advantage of having read Mrs Dalloway, but oh how much more you get out of it when you recognize the parallels in the books. It made reading Mrs Dalloway that much more rewarding!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I finished reading Mrs D just recently – it was my 3rd or 4th time of reading. So I’m with Lory on the possible benefits of reading it more than once. I’ll add too that one of my later attempts was a dnf – just Could Not Get it! This persistence with Mrs D is not usual for me at all; it’s the only book I’ve found this with: either I love a book enough to read it again or I don’t. And I certainly didn’t love Mrs D first time around; I just felt that I wanted to understand more about its construction and what Woolf was aiming at. This most recent time has been my most successful effort but even so, I was struggling through the final third. My capacity to appreciate the stylistic elements crumbled in the face of woolly pretentiousness! I have a feeling that I’ll try it again eventually. Partly because it’s short – though it is indeed, the longest short book ever! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ha, sorry you found it a bit disappointing but you were much kinder to it than I was! I fear I hated Woolf’s style – so overblown – and the snobbishness destroyed any chance of me actually liking the self-absorbed Mrs D. The only bit I enjoyed was the side story about Septimus, when she wrote more plainly and therefore let the story through. All those silly long sentences in the Mrs D section where she lost track halfway through and ended up in an entirely different place from where she started – ugh! I fear I simply think she wasn’t very good at the stream of consciousness thing – heresy, I know! 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Interesting point of view. I did not get on with Woolf when I had to read her in college (To the Lighthouse). My issues were pretty much the same as you describe here. Then when I got into blogging and the Classics Club, I thought I would give her another try with Mrs. Dalloway. At first I struggled but then somehow something clicked with me, and I started to enjoy her “style over content” manner instead of resisting it. It is the longest short novel I ever read, though! No skimming possible. I think it would be really tough to read with dyslexia.

    I tried Lighthouse again subsequently and still did not like it, so Woolf has been hit or miss for me. I’d like to read Mrs. D. again and see what I think. I like your idea for an alternate title. It might help to adjust expectations to be more in line with what is really in there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, thanks for this comment. I was hoping people familiar with Woolf would say something. I’m glad to hear that I’m not far off the mark (and yes, I think my dyslexia might have played a part here with my problems with this book)! No skimming… too true!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I commend you. I read this in college – it was my first foray into stream of consciousness and it exhausted me. I put it in the pile of appreciating the sheer artistry and talent of the writer but never wanted to read again. It was definitely disjointed, just as our minds are. Great review!

    Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.