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Mrs. Dalloway (Review)

great-works-4

Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf, 1925
~100-150 pp. (varies by publisher)

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
October 2006

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? A lot of us. Despite her fragile elegance, Woolf is no quaint Edwardian. She's very much of the 20th-century: a writer who can be ferociously intellectual and sometimes downright intimidating.

Fortunately, we don't have to be all that intimidated by Mrs. Dalloway. On one level, it is accessible as a novel about class, unrequited love, and madness.

On another level, though, the book is a more adventuresome read. It deals in merging realities, shifting time frames, and stream-of-consciousness. Count these as Exhibits A, B, and C for literary modernism.

Modernism is an intellectual and artistic movement that emerged at the end of the 19th Century and gained momentum in the early 20th. The cataclysm of World War I and thinkers like Sigmund Freud threw much of life's certainties out the window. Artists and writers (James Joyce with Ulysses, especially) reflected that sense of uncertainty.

Woolf follows Clarissa Dalloway throughout a single day in London (as Joyce does with Bloom in Dublin). During the day, Clarissa's thoughts continually revert to the past and to two friends, Peter Walsh, who had loved her, and the sexually-liberated Sally Seton. Both characters will turn up in person during the day.

A second story woven into the plot concerns Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war hero suffering from severe depression and mishandled by an obtuse medical system. At the end, the stories merge, tangentially, causing Clarissa to ponder Septimus's courage and her sense that she is responsible for his fate. Two worlds converge.

Many know Mrs. Dalloway best through Michael Cunningham's novel, The Hours, a modern send-up of Woolf's classic. Cunningham's book became a 2002 film with Meryl Streep (Clarissa) and Nicole Kidman (Woolf). I like the film a lot; nonetheless, for the true adaptation see the 1997 version with Vanessa Redgrave.

See our Reading Guide for Mrs. Dalloway.

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