My position vis-a-vis including Virginia Woolf in the Second Chance books project was similar to my reasoning on Ernest Hemingway (except for the part about having read and hated one of her books in high school): I had attempted one Virginia Woolf book years ago, hated it, and couldn’t remember which one it was. I know now that it wasn’t Mrs. Dalloway, but having picked up this one instead, I can now say that I have read a Virginia Woolf book and enjoyed it.
It took me awhile to get into the stream-of-consciousness narration and how it hops from the head of one character to another, and also how nothing much really happens. Once I realized how the “story” (if you can call it that) was unfolding, I went with the flow (literally) and enjoyed the voice and the observations quite a lot. It’s the story — again, not really much of a story — of a middle-aged woman, Mrs. Dalloway, on the day when she’s giving a party. The narrative voice tells us everything Mrs. Dalloway is thinking as she prepares for her party and also flows into the thoughtstreams of various other people she encounters during the day. Thoughts include memories too, so we see quite a few flashbacks into the past lives of Mrs. Dalloway and the people she knows, and it’s interesting to see their memories from different perspectives and to see their impressions of each other. Another character, Septimus Smith, seems to have no real connection to Mrs. Dalloway and her friends except that various people pass Septimus and his wife on the street at times during the day, but their perspectives too, are included. While Mrs. Dalloway and her middle-class friends are having a very ordinary day that ends with a rather ordinary party, Septimus, a WW1 veteran suffering terribly from post-traumatic stress disorder (not that they called it that) is in the midst of a crisis that ends with tragedy. The juxtaposition of the everyday with the extreme is very powerful here even though I didn’t always understand what Woolf was trying to achieve.
It was interesting to compare this to reading Hemingway because my complaint with Hemingway was that he only gives us surfaces: we see only what happens to characters and almost nothing of what they think or feel. Virginia Woolf is like Hemingway turned inside-out: we see only interiors, vivid and intense even when what’s happening externally doesn’t seem to be all that dramatic. I prefer a blend of the two, but if I have to pick just one I’ll pick Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narration that gives us such a clear sense of the characters’ inner lives.