Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ turns 85


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Virginia Woolf’s iconic modernist novel “Mrs. Dalloway” was published 85 years ago this week. Considered by some to be Woolf’s most accessible work, I nevertheless haven’t read it, for no particular reason. But I do know that it takes place in a single day and moves in and out of the consciousness of several characters, primarily Mrs. Dalloway, who is preparing for a party, and Septimus Smith, an ex-soldier who can’t shake World War I.

Ann Fernald, a Woolf scholar and professor at Fordham University, has posted about the book on her blog, focusing on what it says about war.


You might not notice it at first, but Mrs Dalloway is an anti-war novel. Woolf was a lifelong pacifist and all of her sympathies are with the veteran, Septimus. Furthermore, Woolf herself suffered from occasional but severe bouts of mental illness, and knew, too well, the cruelty and inefficacy of early-twentieth-century mental health care. One of the novel’s key insights is that war has ongoing effects, years after its conclusion, on both veterans and civilians. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa thinks “in the middle of my party, here’s death,” Woolf means us to hear more than just the shallow concern of a hostess; she also means us to hear Clarissa’s empathy.... Mrs. Dalloway shows that music and literature can as easily be brought into the service of violence as of peace. The lessons Elizabeth and Isabel Pole draw—and teach—about music and literature feed the culture of war. However, the lesson Woolf asks us to draw, is far different: in a world at war, as animals full of violent impulses, we must refuse to be complicit in encouraging young people to martyr themselves. In 2010, as the United States continues to fight two wars and as each season brings us a new young person, inspired to do violence in the hope of martyrdom, we would do well to reread Mrs. Dalloway, and look again at what we teach and how it can work on behalf of peace.

If I were cramming for a test, I suppose I could watch the “Mrs. Dalloway” movie, which starred Vanessa Redgrave; I have seen the movie version of the Michael Cunningham book that derives from it, “The Hours.” But I’m not cramming for a test, and I’m guessing the consciousness-tracing is most engaging on the page -- looks like it’s time for me to read this classic.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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