the second Modern Library dust jacket for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway

  • Author:  Virginia Woolf  (1882  –  1941)
  • Rank:  #68
  • Published:  1925
  • Publisher:  Hogarth Press
  • Pages:  194
  • First Line:  “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
  • Last Lines:  “It is Clarissa, he said.  For there she was.”
  • ML Edition:  #96  (two dust jackets – 1937, 1948)
  • Acclaim:  All-TIME List
  • Film:  1997
  • Read:  Spring, 1996

The Novel: When the Modern Library released its list in 1998 of the Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century, one of the oddest omissions was Mrs. Dalloway.  It was widely admired by critics and was by an author who appeared elsewhere on the list (To the Lighthouse by Woolf ended up at #15).  Perhaps if Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which was to be released later that year and would win the Pulitzer the next year, had been released earlier, it would have revived interest in one of the great 20th Century novels and it would have ended up on the list.  Instead, it ranks with Look Homeward Angel, Beloved and The Rabbit Tetrology as one of the strangest exclusions.

Virginia Woolf is one of the great novelists of history, ranking just behind Joyce and Faulkner in her modernist approach and stream-of-consciousness style.  Mrs. Dalloway was the first of her two masterpieces (published four years before her other, To the Lighthouse).  It is one of the great examples of stream-of-consciousness, that style that depends on internal thought process and allows us to truly dive deep down within the character rather than simply listening to their straight-forward narration:  “It rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster! to hear twigs cracking and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encumbered forest, the soul.”  But this is just a snippet of the sentence, which goes on for another eight lines.  Woolf’s prose follows directly in the footsteps of Joyce, but explores the depth of a woman’s soul in a way that no other modernist writer was capable of.

All of the action of the book takes place in one day (again, following in the footsteps of Joyce’s Ulysses and something that would be returned to again in her Between the Acts and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano).  It is the day of a party being thrown by Clarissa Dalloway and concludes with the party itself.  It also travels back through much of her life, including the important decision to abandon a youthful lesbian love and the man she strongly loves in order to marry steadfast, reliable Richard.  The day has also seen the return of Peter, her former love and the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of the Great War who is facing commitment.

We see Clarissa remembering Sally: “But nothing is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?) as the complete indifference of other people . . .  All this was only a background for Sally . . . She and Sally fell a little behind.  Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it.  Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips.”

It is one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway.  She leaves the day alive (better than Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano or George in A Single Man), better off than poor Septimus, who “flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.”  When Clarissa hears about the death at the party, she thinks “Oh! in the middle of my party, here’s death.”  But then, as she ruminates on what she has been told, we get a haunting reminder of the mental illness always in the background of Woolf’s writings: “Death was defiance.  Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone.  There was an embrace in death.”