Slow-Read Sunday: Mrs. Dalloway (to p. 331 OF THE MRS. DALLOWAY READER)

Last week I asked some questions about Mrs. Dalloway to p. 275 of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader. This week we continue reading the Woolf novel.

In this section we see the troubles of Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway set by side in this study of the two characters. We alternate between consciousnesses to see what these characters are thinking. I can’t help but think that we’re also getting a glimpse into the mind of our author, Virginia Woolf. She must have poured herself into both Septimus and Clarissa in many ways. Look for examples as you read. Are there times when the novel has a line so true that you feel it must have been lived and felt? Who’s narrating when we get that line?

1. What stands in the way of Clarissa Dalloway’s happiness?

Clarissa has wealth, she wants for nothing,  she could pursue any interest, she has hours of leisure time, no one denies her right to choose how to spend her time. What is the one thing that stands in the way of her happiness? I’d argue it’s her “self.” But, does Clarissa get anywhere by having that pointed out to her? Does that kind of self-awareness, ironically, make it even harder for her to find happiness?

2. Since everyone is talking about Gatsby this week…

As a fun aside if you’ve also read The Great Gatsby it’s worth remembering that it was set in the summer of 1922. The novels cover the same periods of time, yet the settings are different. Compare the parties. Compare the love affairs. Compare the effects of the war. Compare the wealth. Compare the excess. Compare the narrative styles. Compare the settings. Compare the British novel to the American novel.

3. Does the use of metaphor and simile take away or add to the novel?

I think you could make an argument either way, either that the language helps convey the meaning Woolf intends, or that Woolf refused to edit the novel to focus on plot and instead edited the novel to focus on the language. Think about how Woolf uses this language to remind us that not all moments in time are the same. Some are sublime, like the moments when we read or write beautiful metaphor and simile. Some moments are mundane, like when we talk of luncheons and post-luncheon naps. Which do you prefer, or do you find they work to compliment one another? Does the mixture of sublime and realistic language mimic the way we experience the world?

4. One of the thing we’re always aware of is that we will die.

Time reminds us of death, others’ deaths remind us of death, the war reminds us of death, Septimus reminds us of death. Mrs. Dalloway must make the decision, daily, to go on living. In some ways, then, this book is a meditation on a unique aspect of humanity. We are unique in knowing that we will one day die and we contemplate it every day. Can you read Mrs. Dalloway as a meditation on what it means to know you will, one day, die? Will even Mrs. Dalloway’s party be invaded by death? Do you get the sense that Woolf is making a commentary on the dying days of innocent parties like the one Clarissa is putting together?

5. What is depression?

The word “depression” appears on p. 282 and the idea is one explored throughout the book. What did the word mean, though, in 1923-1925 when Woolf was working on Mrs. Dalloway? Is Woolf exploring the idea of depression in the novel? Freud had explored the subject in 1917 with his work on Melancholia. Was psychology changing around the time Clarissa was writing the novel? If so, do you see her ideas on the front edge leading us to understand depression, or, in the background, looking to identify the problem and draw attention to it?

On p. 276 the idea is expressed that our health is largely under our control. Therefore, it would seem that doctors generally viewed illness as some sort of failure. Is that fair to Septimus? Does that attitude make it even harder on the depressed individual?

What do you think Virginia Woolf would say about where we are, today, with depression treatments? Have we made progress? Are we still in need of authors that give voices to the silent depressed masses?

6. Proportion v. Conversion

On  p. 284 conversion is introduced as a sister to proportion. What are these two ideas? How are they different? How do they compete with one another? Why are they important to the novel?

7. One world is spoken and one world is thought and the two rarely meet.

On p. 302 we find evidence of the spoken world v. the unspoken world and the very large gap between the two. Clarissa thinks so many things about Peter and about Richard, but doesn’t share those thoughts with either. Our true thoughts are very rarely revealed to others. Is this one of the reasons we need literature? Without it we would never truly know human nature aside from our own? This idea of the spoken v. the unspoken contemplates the idea that the best literature serves as a guided meditation whereby we arrive at our own true thoughts. Through literature, like Mrs. Dalloway, we’re dared to face that unspoken world.

8. In what way are the parties “offerings?”

On p. 304  we explore the idea of parties as an offering. Are they a ritual offering like the ancients used to make to the gods (sacrifices)? Are they an offering to the people of you community (blessings and well wishes)? Who are they offered to (Gods, Men, Others)? Why would one feel the need to make such an offering?

9. Is Mrs. Dalloway the jealous type?

Explore what options are available to Elizabeth v. Clarissa. on p. 317.  Elizabeth is told that every profession is open to women of her generation. Is that true? Does Clarissa have some jealous resentment of people with all their options open? Why do you think that Mrs. Kilman and Clarissa Dalloway are at odds? Can we trust Mrs. Dalloway to give us an honest explanation?  Do you think there are aspects of this relationship that Mrs. Dalloway will not even admit to herself?

For next time we’ll read to p. 371 of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, the conclusion of the novel. Also, if you’d like to suggest what book we read in June, I’m open to that. Just leave your thoughts in the comments.

Update/Bonus: If you suggest a book, and I end up picking it for June, I’ll buy you a copy or send you an amazon gift card of equal value if you already own it. Suggest something good.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Karen_O’D.


  1. Anonymous

    What about something a bit lighter? So much heavy reading! I was going to suggest a children’s classic novel, actually. I started The Secret Garden and was immediately floored. I mean, you could take it any way, though. There are tons of great classic children’s books I feel people have not read and ignore once they are “adults.”

    1. A.A.

      Oh man, silly login… that was me!

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