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Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

by Virginia Woolf

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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16,558288207 (3.87)1 / 1033
Fear no more the heat of the sun.' Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's fourth novel, offers the reader an impression of a single June day in London in 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative member of parliament, is preparing to give an evening party, while the shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith hears the birds in Regent's Park chattering in Greek. There seems to be nothing, except perhaps London, to link Clarissa and Septimus. She is middle-aged and prosperous, with a sheltered happy life behind her; Smith isyoung, poor, and driven to hatred of himself and the whole human race. Yet bo.… (more)
  1. 211
    The Hours by Michael Cunningham (PLReader)
  2. 101
    The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (KayCliff)
  3. 41
    In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (caflores)
  4. 20
    Ulysse I by James Joyce (caflores)
  5. 10
    One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (shaunie)
    shaunie: The subject matter is quite different but the writing style is similar, it's a shame One Fine Day is much less well known.
  6. 21
    Five Bells by Gail Jones (fountainoverflows)
  7. 10
    The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair (DanLovesAlice)
    DanLovesAlice: As much as Clarissa Dalloway is a product of a constrictive society, Sinclair's Harriet Frean is even worse. Severely psychologically affected in later life by her parent's rules, her individuality and freedom is ruined by always 'behaving beautifully'.… (more)
  8. 11
    Ulysses by James Joyce (Othemts)
  9. 12
    The Hours [2002 film] by Stephen Daldry (TheLittlePhrase)
  10. 05
    Great Books by David Denby (Anonymous user)
1920s (7)
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English (263)  Spanish (6)  French (5)  Dutch (3)  Italian (2)  Swedish (2)  Catalan (2)  Norwegian (1)  German (1)  Portuguese (Portugal) (1)  All languages (286)
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Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of just one day, as the titular Clarissa Dalloway prepares for and throws a party, but its scope is really her whole life and the choices she's made. Most importantly, the summer when she rejected the suit of her friend Peter and instead chose to marry Richard Dalloway, a minor politician with whom she has a daughter who's now a young woman herself. Peter is suddenly back in town, in pursuit of a divorce for the younger-but-married woman he's been courting, and comes by Clarissa's home that morning, spurring her to think about that time of her life, when she was more passionate and free-spirited.

There's a parallel story going on as well, that of Septimus Warren Smith. Once an idealistic student studying Shakespeare, he joined up to fight in World War I without really thinking about what he was getting into. He ended up with what we'd probably now diagnose as PTSD, and when he was sent to the villa of an Italian hatmaker to recover from his shellshock, impulsively married Lucrezia, the hatmaker's lively daughter. Although the pair has been married for several years by the time the book takes place, they have not yet had children, much to Rezia's chagrin. Septimus' mental state, always delicate, has taken a turn for the worse and his wife is desperately trying to find him adequate help. Although the stories at first seem disconnected, it becomes obvious that Clarissa and Septimus are foils for each other. Each is reflecting back on their lives and choices and the consequences of decisions long-since made, and teetering between hope and despair.

This is one of those literary classics that I'm glad I came to outside of the typical "high school English" setting. Like The Great Gatsby (which I hated when I read it in high school, but loved once I read as an adult), it's steeped in themes of remembrance and regret and reflecting on the choices made or not made that have shaped your path. And I'm sure I would have been disgusted that Clarissa had decided to marry steady, boring Richard who struggles to even just tell her he loves her because he's so uncomfortable with feelings instead of Peter, who struggles to contain his wellsprings of emotion and with whom she clearly has a more natural chemistry. But adult me understands that sparking passion isn't the same thing as love, and that Peter has not been able to make a steady relationship last, while Richard and Clarissa are still married, indicates that her instincts had merit.

Although it's only about 200 pages long, Mrs. Dalloway is a dense novel that I read at about half of my usual pace. The narration skips around, following mostly Clarissa and Septimus but also Rezia, Richard, Peter, and others. As a book focused on memory, it's presented in a more stream-of-consciousness style and demands close attention. It's one of those books that you read and immediately know you're going to get more out of every time you go back through it because there's a lot there, and I'm sure this is a book I want to revisit. Woolf's writing is lovely, not flowery or excessive but still packed with powerful themes and emotions. Since I wasn't an English major, this is actually the first time I've read her work and I walked away wanting to read more. I'd recommend this book to everyone. ( )
  GabbyHM | Jun 24, 2020 |
I knew this was not going to be to my liking as I'm not a fan at all of the stream of consciousness. The only thing more boring was the 20 page introduction and the 20 page forward as well as the long, minute, detailed timeline of Clarissa's life. Thankfully, all the aforementioned accounted for 40% of the book so the actual slog was less! ( )
  Tess_W | Jun 9, 2020 |
oh r we back
no one here tho
  EmBot | May 17, 2020 |
Well wow, that was pretty wonderful. Calling something a tour de force sounds so pretentious, but Woolf was breaking new ground then and it still feels fresh and surprising with every sentence. I love how she accomplishes that POV that swoops and darts, alighting on first one person and place and time and then another, and making it all work narratively. It's both extremely cinematic and also just impossible to imagine as an actual film—I know it's been done, though I've never seen it. And that wonderful weight given to things, objects, without giving them agency—just existence and primacy. "Admirable butlers, tawny chow dogs, halls laid in black and white lozenges with white blinds blowing."

The setting resonates too, in these strange social distancing days—not London, but the fact that the characters have just emerged, somewhat shell-shocked, from a World War and a pandemic. They've changed from their ordeal, and at the same time the world has changed out from under them. They are working hard to preserve their respective status quos, yet under the surface they’re stunned, appreciative but disoriented, slightly breathless. And there but for the grace of 100 years go we, I think.

I'm kind of surprised I haven't read it before this, but maybe that's reasonable in context:
When one was young, said Peter, one was too much excited to know people. Now that one was old, fifty-two to be precise (Sally was fifty-five, in body, she said, but her heart was like a girl's of twenty); now that one was mature then, said Peter, one could watch, one could understand, and one did not lose the power of feeling, he said. ( )
1 vote lisapeet | Apr 5, 2020 |
Essay on book

Clarissa, Septimus, and Virginia: Mental Health in Interwar Literature
Joseph G. Spuckler, Jr

The aftermath of World War I created significant changes in society. The industrialized war not only left the continent in tatters, but it also shook society. Virginia Woolf captured the post-war changes in society in her work. Although Woolf does not write about the war itself, its effects are felt. In Jacob’s Room, an idealistic young man goes to war and does not return. In To The Lighthouse, perhaps Woolf’s most experimental work, war is mentioned in the section titled “Time Passes.” Although in this section two main characters die in parenthetical information, the soldier, Andrew Ramsey, gets slightly more attention although also parenthetical:

“[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]” (To The Lighthouse, 111)

In addition to the “merciful” death of a character, the death toll from the shell is inexact. What difference is there between twenty and thirty men when millions have died? The senseless slaughter of a generation changed people's views. After the war, words like “duty” are mentioned with sarcasm. Many of those who returned home alive, returned home broken.

Perhaps the best example of the effects of the war in Woolf’s writing is in Mrs. Dalloway. Written six and a half years after the war the consequences are still felt. As Mrs. Dalloway is picking up the flowers on Bond Street people are looking up at a skywriting airplane:

As they looked the whole world became perfectly silent, and a flight of gulls crossed the sky, first one gull leading, then another, and in this extraordinary silence and peace, in this pallor, in this purity, bells struck eleven times, the sound fading up there among the gulls. (Mrs. Dalloway 20-21)

Eleven is significant because the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. November 11th is Remembrance Day and at 11:00 there is traditionally a two minute period of silence. It marks the silence in a war that nearly destroyed Europe. The silence on Bond Street is also symbolic of the war’s end. The white underbelly of urban gulls in Britain may be close enough to give the illusion of doves or peace. Later in Between the Acts, Woolf would use a similar passage but with planes as a second war raged in Europe.

Woolf chooses to examine the issue of mental illness in returning veterans and the hidden problem of mental illness in society as well as possibly writing about her problems. The cheering crowds that sent the soldiers to war were less receptive to those coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder at the time called “shell shock.” War is as old as civilization and people have come to deal with the death that accompanies it. Although death is difficult to deal with on a personal and societal level, it is part of the reality of war. Shell shock, however, was completely unexpected. Artillery barrages in the war were unlike any before it. Hours and days of bombardment wore on men’s sanity. The command, who was not in the bunkers, treated shell shock as cowardice, malingering, and termed it hysteria, a “female disease,” to shame the men. It was a significant problem for survivors. When the dead are brought back home, they are buried, and the process is straightforward. What to do to men who come home alive but broken?

Septimus Warren Smith is a veteran of the Great War; although he survives the war physically, he is damaged mentally. Septimus’ doctor told his wife to take him out to notice things. Perhaps stimuli would snap him out of his melancholy or funk. In Mrs. Dalloway, the reader is introduced to Septimus with the sound of a car’s backfire. His wife has to break him away from his lock on the vehicle. He responds angrily and announces, in public, that he is going to kill himself. She remembers Septimus as a man who fought and was brave and is now worried she has lost her husband to the war. In the war, Septimus served well and was promoted. He became close with his officer, Evans, and when Evans is killed in the final days of the war, Septimus prides himself on remaining stoic in the face of his friend's death. He is determined not to let the war destroy him. Although he can feel himself slipping away at times, he tries to control it by being cautious. However, he cannot control the voices and the hallucinations. It is now Evans, his former officer, who haunts his hallucinations. He sees and hears his old friend from beyond the grave.

Lucrezia, Septimus’ wife, also sees the change in the soldier she married in Italy and the changes in herself. She was a fun loving woman who has been worn down after years of taking care of Septimus. Stress has caused her to lose weight, her wedding ring slides off her finger, and she has no one to share the burden. Like Septimus, she too feels alone. She was an Italian war bride and has no friends or family in England for support. She is an outsider in English society. It is not that she is unsympathetic but she is overburdened, but she cannot be happy without him. He, however, is haunted by madness:

“He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death.” (Mrs. Dalloway 23-24)

How does Woolf present a realistic picture of madness? Most at the time had no idea of the experience of insanity; it was something locked away and out of sight. Returning veterans presented a large scale problem that was unexpected, and no one knew how to help. Treatment varied from stimulation of the senses to isolation and even tooth extraction. Woolf experienced tooth extraction and a “rest cure.” When her mother died, Woolf, who was thirteen at the time, fell into a period of madness where she also heard birds sing in ancient Greek. When Septimus does speak to Lucrezia, it is in bursts of mostly nonsense. Leonard Woolf described one of Virginia’s episodes:

“She talked almost without stopping for two or three days, paying no attention to anyone in the room or anything said to her. For about a day what she said was coherent; the sentences meant something though it was nearly all insane. Then gradually it became completely incoherent, a mere jumble of dissociated words.” (Beginning Again 172-173)

Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, is the title character and the story is about her party. How does Septimus fit into the Mrs. Dalloway story? The two characters never meet although Septimus’ death is mentioned at Clarissa’s party. He is someone not in Clarissa’s circle, yet he takes up a large number of pages in her story. Woolf, in her 1929 introduction to the book states she, created the Septimus character as a twin to Clarissa. She describes both characters as having a birdish looks, a hooked nose, pale complexion, and a love for Shakespeare. This description also fits Woolf herself. Although Clarissa seems to have everything, she does feel a loss of self. She is no longer Clarissa but now Mrs. Richard Dalloway. Her life seems to be defined by her husband. Septimus is also no longer Septimus. The war defined his life. Septimus should be entering the prime of his life. Instead, he is numb and distant. Clarissa sees her life slipping away. She rethinks her past and her old boyfriend. She remembers a kiss from Sally Seton. She has constructed a fortress around herself to protect her mental well being where Septimus’ fortress has crumbled and fell with the death of his friend and officer, Evans. Clarissa, like Septimus, has lost her youth -- his to war and hers to time. Both come to recognize that their lives are shallow or empty.

Woolf draws from her life in this book. She drowned herself as her exit from the madness she knew she would never escape. In many of her books water plays a role and also forms the part of the title of three books. Water offered her a solution and water brings realization to Septimus on what he must do. Woolf fills this realization with watery imagery:

Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting-room; watching the watery gold glow and fade with the astonishing sensibility of some live creature on the roses, on the wall-paper. Outside the trees dragged their leaves like nets through the depths of the air; the sound of water was in the room and through the waves came the voices of birds singing. Every power poured its treasures on his head, and his hand lay there on the back of the sofa, as he had seen his hand lie when he was bathing, floating, on the top of the waves, while far away on shore he heard dogs barking and barking far away. Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more. (Mrs. Dalloway, 139)

Septimus knows that he will kill himself and he is no longer afraid of death. He will receive his closure, and for a short time, Lucrezia sees a happier Septimus. He found the way out of his “funk,” and before he was taken away for his rest cure, he chose his exit. Septimus finds the courage to act and is ironically called a coward by Dr. Holmes who witnesses the aftermath. The phrase “Fear no more” is used eight times between Clarissa and Septimus.

Clarissa first hears of Septimus at her party. The news of his suicide is making its round through her party and affects her:

Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

But this young man who had killed himself — had he plunged holding his treasure? “If it were now to die, ’twere now to be most happy,” she had said to herself once, coming down in white. (Mrs. Dalloway, 184)

Woolf writes about mental illness and society in a way that presents the issue without making it the apparent theme. Septimus was a conspicuous example of a mental health problem although he did not fit into the circle of elites. The length and scale of the war made the issue too significant to hide. Woolf uses this recognition to show that it is a problem throughout society. Clarissa Dalloway had the resources to hide her problems from view. She and Septimus are doubles and perhaps even copies of Woolf. One would probably have been a bit more shocked if Clarissa took her own life as Woolf originally planned to write. One would not expect that. However, the same can be said about many suicides. Some people build better fortresses than others but it does not mean they suffer less; the effects are just less visible. Although Mrs. Dalloway seems to be a simple story of the modernist period, one that even the basis of a Hollywood movie, the story is involved, and the characters provide a detailed study of the period. Characters like Elizabeth Dalloway, Doris Kilman, Peter Walsh and Sally Seton present additional in-depth portraits of the period and people. What is a simple story of planning for a party develops into a statement on the state of society deeper than most novels of the time. Mrs. Dalloway is perhaps the easiest of Woolf’s books to read and the one that offers more insight on each examination.


Joseph Spuckler holds a Master of Arts degree in International Relations and a Bachelor of Science degree in History. His interests center mostly around World War I and modernist writers, notably Virginia Woolf.

—————————————————————————————————​


A dinner party in the works; flashbacks to the past; people from the past returning to the present; a soldier who finds society evil; and the decline of an empire all combined into a wonderful and image filled novel with several themes including some thoughts on a relationship (which may have been a direct reflection on the author). The book tackles several temporary controversies and most characters represent a particular issue.

Update from 8/25/2014

I really enjoy Virginia Woolf's writing and am just going to stick to a few points with this years reading. First there is poetry in her prose. Although Woolf believed prose was her calling but her words tell a different story:

"But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand's-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth."

That is from the scene when near the opening when Mrs Dalloway goes into town for flowers for her party. There is a black car with curtains drawn in the passenger compartment. It causes quite a stir among the people. Who could it be in the car, the queen, the Prince of Wales, the prime minister. The scene is interesting because people clamor about and wonder and hope that it is someone of importance, so that the common person would be with in a hands breadth of greatness. There seems to be almost a circus effect for the people on the street. There almost seems to a bit of mockery in the writing concerning those whose greatness comes from birth.

There is a serious message on post traumatic stress disorder in the character of Septimus. He is a veteran tortured by the war. He lost a friend before the Armistice. Among the very sad aspects of WWI was the rush for commanders to make a name for themselves. With the date and the time of the armistice made official many allied commanders used that last bit of time to risk their troops in land grabs, even though the war for all practical means was over. The eleven hours of November 11, was a needlessly bloody event. Britain honored its dead, but really had no idea what to do with the mentally damaged men when they returned home. Locking them up and isolating them in quiet was the treatment. It was not a cure, but it kept them out of public sight.

Woolf again is not afraid to take on social issues. She does this with the main character Mrs Dalloway too. Atheism is brought up:

“To see your own sister killed by a falling tree (all Justin Parry's fault--all his carelessness) before your very eyes, a girl too on the verge of life, the most gifted of them, Clarissa always said, was enough to turn one bitter. Later she wasn't so positive perhaps; she thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness”

Doing good for the sake of goodness has a very positive ring to it, rather than doing good from a fear of eternal punishment. As in Day and Night when, Katerine suggests to her mother that she may just live in a cabin with Ralph instead of getting marriage. Woolf, here too, pushes social norms with Clarissa Dalloway’s love for Sally Seton. Coincidentally, too Catherine's mother makes an appearance at the Dalloway’s party, at least in name.

I wrote much more than I intended. I also wanted to mention:

1. Age: Fifty is both considered old and the prime of one’s life by different characters.
2. How friends change Sally and Peter
3. Doris Kilman… I want to write more about this particular character.

That will have to wait until next years re-reading of Mrs. Dalloway.

3/23/15

I really can't say enough about this book. One of my all time favorites.

5/29/16

Continuing thoughts on the novel:

Septimus suffering from PTSD is in the park and hears birds speaking in Greek. This is the same thing Virginia Woolf describes in her diary during her first breakdown.

Big Ben, throughout the novel, not only tells the reader the time but separates the scenes. I have heard it compared to the choruses in Greek plays. ( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (67 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Woolf, VirginiaAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bell, VanessaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bening, AnnetteNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brunt, NiniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cunningham, ValentineIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Duffy, Carol AnnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hämäläinen, KyllikkiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Howard, MaureenForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mathias, RobertCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McNichol, StellaEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pawlowski, Merry M.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Risvik, KariTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scalero, AlessandraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Showalter, ElaineIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stevenson, JulietNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
La signora Dalloway disse che i fiori li avrebbe comprati lei.
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… aveva l'anima tutta arrugginita da quell'astio che vi si era conficcato dentro: …
Chi ha coraggio di mettere figli in un mondo come questo? Non si può perpetuare il dolore, né aumentare la razza di quegli animali lussuriosi, i quali non hanno emozioni durature, ma solo capricci e vanità che li trascinano alla deriva.
«E basta, per ora. Più tardi…», e la frase morì sgocciolando, clop clop clop, come un rubinetto soddisfatto d'essere rimasto aperto.
Si sarebbero mummificati giovani.
… (in grigio e argento, la dama si dondolava come una foca sull'orlo della sua vasca, affamata d'inviti, tipica moglie di un professionista riuscito) …
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"Mrs. Dalloway," "Mrs. Dalloway's Party," "The Mrs. Dalloway Reader," and "Mrs. Dalloway" in combination with other titles (e.g., "The Waves" or "To the Lighthouse") are each distinct works or combinations of works. Please preserve these distinctions, and don't combine any of the other works with this one. Thank you.
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Book description
s Clarissa Dalloway walks through London on a fine June morning, a sky-writing plane captures her attention. Crowds stare upwards to decipher the message while the plane turns and loops, leaving off one letter, picking up another. Like the airplane's swooping path, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway follows Clarissa and those whose lives brush hers--from Peter Walsh, whom she spurned years ago, to her daughter Elizabeth, the girl's angry teacher, Doris Kilman, and war-shocked Septimus Warren Smith, who is sinking into madness.

As Mrs. Dalloway prepares for the party she is giving that evening, a series of events intrudes on her composure. Her husband is invited, without her, to lunch with Lady Bruton (who, Clarissa notes anxiously, gives the most amusing luncheons). Meanwhile, Peter Walsh appears, recently from India, to criticize and confide in her. His sudden arrival evokes memories of a distant past, the choices she made then, and her wistful friendship with Sally Seton.
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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141182490, 0141198508, 024195679X

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