I’ve been meaning to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for ages, and I seem to recall starting several times before putting it down a few pages in. So I was very surprised to see my handwriting in the margins throughout my copy of the book. Apparently, I had read it cover to cover, and apparently, it was all over my head in those days – judging from the notes themselves (high school me wrote down a lot of “huh?” and “umm?”), and also from the fact that I didn’t remember much about the book at all.
So as I went through this time, I had two questions in mind. First, was this book really, in fact, as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? And (secondly) if so, why didn’t I remember it?
And I definitely got both answers.
What this book as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? Yes. A resounding yes. In particular, I thought it was memorable for two main reasons. First, this book is amazing because it was clearly so ahead of its time in it’s depiction of certain subject matter, like the disturbing depiction of PTSD and negligent practices used to treat it, or the dynamics of class relations in a post-WWI society.
Secondly, I’ll never forget the fresh, modernist style employed in Woolf’s writing. I’ve heard her compared to James Joyce for her use of stream-of-consciousness, but I think that Woolf doesn’t go quite as far as Joyce, and for me it was easier to follow. Mrs. Dalloway, specifically, has a cinematic quality that I haven’t encountered in a novel before (one minute, you’re behind the camera, following a character through the park, then you pass another character on the sidewalk and turn the camera to follow them… until gradually you have an idea of all the characters, all the critical places, the ways their lives intersect). And Woolf’s fantastic style leads me to my second question.
So then, why didn’t I remember it? Well, quite simply, this is not an easy read. It was over my teenage reading level (if its being compared to Joyce, you know it’s not a piece of cake to read). Following this narrative takes a lot more focus and effort than most contemporary best-sellers, and even more than other classics written in the same era. But also, as I mentioned before, Woolf takes on some very heavy and complex themes in this book (e.g. PTSD, class, love, death, time, etc.) and she does it with extreme subtly – there are no grandiose speeches that clarify character perspectives, there are no overt demonstrations of character transformation. The reader has to read closely to pick up on these themes and Woolf’s messages related to each.
All in all, this is a lovely piece of literature and it’s no wonder to me now why it is considered by so many to be an essential work within the Western literary cannon. The last thing I’ll say is that I was inspired to read this book after learning of the A.A. Knopf publishing house’s #howhaveinotreadthis book club. In February, Mrs. Dalloway was their book club pick, and the month’s book club host was Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours (my next read!), and you can still find the book club discussion on youtube!