Virginia Woolf and her masterpiece: Mrs Dalloway – an attempt to uncover the disparity between appearance and reality (part one)

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I came across the works of Virginia Woolf when I was doing British literature as part of my BA programme in English Language. The novel by Virginia Woolf was on the syllabus. In any case, it wasn’t a smooth start. The composition of the story puzzled me, I was struggling to understand the themes, what did Virginia intend to tell the readers?

Skip it and get another book, I was told. I couldn’t get rid of it, it was obligatory reading. And I didn’t want to, there was something deep and utterly fascinating hidden in the carefully selected words and the narrative technique termed “Stream of consciousness” was just overwhelming and intense. Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the characters´mind. The readers are often drawn into the inner world of the characters.

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Virginia Woolf was born on 25 Januar, 1882 in Kensington, England. She was an English writer who is considered one of the foremost modernists of 20th century, and a pioneer in the use of “Stream of consciousness”.

Virginia had a history of mental instability, she suffered a break-down during her childhood. After her mother´s death in 1895, she suffered another break-down. During 1913, when Virginia was finishing the novel “The Voyage Out”, the delusions and sleeplessness returned. She attempted suicide, four trained nurses were required during her recovery. In 1913, very little was known about mental illness, nearly all cases were diagnosed as various stages of neurasthenia. Virginia had not been given psychiatric treatment, but was advised to have plenty of rest and good food. The improper treatment she received is also reflected in the novel Mrs Dalloway.

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During the most of 1940, insomnia and nervousness exhausted her, and on 28 March 1941 (aged 59). She left a note for her husband Leonard saying she felt she was going mad and had lost the courage to battle the voices and delusions which were constantly invading her mind. She was grateful for her husband, Leonard´s goodness and his continuous kind care. While she was writing the note, Leonard passed her worktable and reminded her that it was nearing lunchtime. When he returned shortly after, she was no longer there. He went to look for her and found her hat and walking stick on the river bank. Virginia had drowned herself.

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Mrs Dalloway (published on 14 May 1925) is one of her best-known novels, a masterpiece. In October 2005, Mrs Dalloway was included on Time´s list of 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. The fiction is attempting to reveal the mystery and magic personality beneath the skin of human beings.

If you are still with me, here is the story.

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Mrs Dalloway differs from a conventionally narrated novel in that it is a collage, it pieces together bits of Mrs Dalloway´s (Clarissa Dalloway, a delicate English lady of fifty) past and bits of Mrs Dalloway´s present on a single day – a Wednesday in mid-June.

The story opens with a simple, yet immensely complex sentence: Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

She is going to buy the flowers for the party which is to take place in the afternoon. In a sense, Mrs Dalloway is portrayed as the perfect hostess and the whole story is about the party she gives. But human beings can never be labelled or defined in one word. We know how little of our “real selves” is displayed to the world. There are feelings such as fear, desire, vulnerability, despair – which we keep to ourselves. These feelings are rarely revealed. Virginia’s art of narration allows the readers to go deeply into the mind of Mrs Dalloway and get a sense of her real personality.

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Mrs Dalloway is sophisticated, she realises her “self” changes, it modifies to a certain extent, depending on whom she is with. The implicit message Virginia intended to convey seems to be: most people think they are always the same, regardless of whom they are with. In reality, few people remain constant, we all change, reacting with different parts of our personalities to different people we spend time with. In other words, we are adaptive and we behave differently in different contexts. But are human beings insincere creatures?

Mrs Dalloway is sensitive and intuitive, her emotions are intense. But her feelings are carefully guarded and she would not like them to be exposed to others. She builds up boundaries between herself and her surroundings. Her husband Richard and her daughter Elizabeth are no exception. It is in the attic that she is comfortable to be herself. It is her retreat. The real Mrs Dalloway becomes visible, her mental fatigure, her confusion and fear, but only to the readers.

It seems this post tends to go endlessly, I think it would be good to divide it into two separate parts. In the second part I will write more about Mrs Dalloway and her link to another main character Septimus, a shell-shocked soldier with a damaged soul. And more importantly, the underlying truth of human nature, in the eyes of Virginia.

Mrs Dalloway is one of my favourite novels, thank you for taking time to read it, and I hope you enjoyed it.

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Author: Isabelle

Content writer / editor & Language advisor

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