james joyce, literary fiction, meme, mrs. dalloway, stream of consciousness, ulysses, virginia woolf
Welcome to the ‘Literary Blog Hop’, a meme hosted by The Blue Bookcase for book bloggers who focus on reviewing literary fiction. This weeks’ hop comes with the question:
What is the most difficult literary work you’ve ever read? What made it so difficult?
The most difficult book I’ve ever read has to be ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf. Going into it is like being hit with a literary sledgehammer. Seriously. If you reckon you know ‘stream-of-consciousness’, then think again! ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is probably SoC perfection what with its mercurial ideas and shifting narrators.
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself… it was the moment between six and seven when every flower – roses, carnations, irises, lilac – glows, white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!”
The story of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is set in post World War I England and is about one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a married middle-class woman who is preparing to throw a party later that evening. The novel works on a number of different themes including mental illness, existential issues, feminism and homosexuality. People who know a bit about Woolf will probably have heard about her own mental problems and her suicide. She was known to have been bisexual and a strong champion of feminist thought. All of these issues find voice in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ making it an excellent study of her life and her ideals.
The special thing about the novel is that even though it takes place over 24 hours, the story constantly shifts backwards and forwards in time. In reality, this is Woolf’s way of mimicking one day in the life of anyone’s mind, as she makes it clear that even though we are living in a constant ‘present’, our thoughts rarely ever do. The novel also has a very strong element of ‘voyeurism’ to it, as Woolf’s narrative switches from character to the next without warning, often delving into the world of private, often embarrassing thoughts. This also seems to show that people are never what they seem to be. Clarissa, a respectably married housewife entertains thoughts of suppressed love for her childhood friend Sally Bourton. Similarly, Septimus (a shell-shocked war hero) is still haunted by his commanding officer Evans. The story of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is essentially about the secret lives people live within themselves, and the things that go without saying which is rather, the omitted subtext of everyday existence.
All I can really say about this novel is that it has no ‘walls’. Yes, there is nothing to separate the thoughts of the characters or the characters themselves for that matter, because Woolf’s complete focus is on ‘memory’ and the organic behaviour of thought. Many writers have toyed with the idea of writing a novel that mimics the theatre of the mind, but few have ever got so close as to actually emulating that on paper. One of those successes being James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ gets a mention here, only because it is probably up there on the number one spot for the most difficult SoC book to read (both famous and infamous for it in equal measure!). In fact, it’s hailed as the most difficult book period, but since I haven’t read it yet, Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ takes first place for now.
When I first picked this up eight years ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was already a fan of Woolf, having read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and some other essays of hers, but I never counted on experiencing anything quite as modern and intuitive as the complex style she exhibits here. In fact, before reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ I realised I had a pretty rigid view on what makes a successful novel. Normally, a book is constructed from a number of ‘building blocks’ like themes, symbolism, etc, and the way those blocks fit into each other (much like lego) depends on the way an author structures her narrative. Woolf however completely blew my theory to pieces; how she did it I still don’t know, but one thing is certain, her writing is as fine as gossamer and as strong as steel-wool. ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is hardly a conventional novel. I see it as a gross concentration of memories, an intense saturation of isolated, fleeting feelings and thoughts that seem to be plucked from the mind and laid directly onto paper. The ebb and flow of the story may seem erratic at first, but like a 3D picture, once you adjust yourself to the pace and the multiple story strands, it becomes a very fulfilling read.
If you would like to read Mrs. Dalloway for free, Project Gutenburg Australia has very kindly uploaded the book in text, zip and HTML format.
Project Gutenburg Australia has a number of free ebooks in it’s archives that cannot be found in the normal Project Gutenburg website, so check it out when you have the time!
Ohh yeah … Stream of Consciousness can be almost IMPOSSIBLE to follow sometimes. Thanks for your post, Zee!
The Bookeater said:
I agree–I read Mrs. Dalloway awhile back and was difficult to read. Maybe if I wait a few years and read it with a fresh perspective, it will grow on me. Until then, it is definitely in my library as a difficult literary work.
Hi Bookeater, yes I agree. I know for a fact that when I left ‘The God of Small Things’ for a year and came back to it again it felt like a completely different book. Sometimes we’re just not ready for some stories.
Nice choice! I think A Room of One’s Own is much more accessible than Mrs. Dalloway. I haven’t cracked it yet, though I have an idea of it from Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours.
Cunningham’s novel was fabulous, as was the movie. His re-working of the Dalloway story is fascinating. The title ‘The Hours’ was going to be the original title for ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. Cunningham took the theme of ‘one day in the life of…’ and just added more layers. Truly a beautiful book.
Debnance at Readerbuzz said:
I thought this book was brilliant. I’d read the Michael Cunningham book, The Hours, first and was gently urged to try Mrs. Dalloway.
Here’s my post:
It’s great that people are becoming aware of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ through ‘The Hours’. What did you think of it?
Difficult as struggled and gave up: Ulysses.
Difficult as WTF and threw it in the bin in a public bathroom: The 120 Days of Sodom.
I have to mention the non-fiction The discourse on language, by Foucault. Reading a few sentences over and over and not understanding anything. In my mother tongue. I had the book, I don’t know what happened to it.
Ulysses… everyone has problems with it. I have heard good things about 120 Days of Sodom, but didn’t really know it was a hard read.
Foucault. Him and Lacan and Derrida. I’ve got a love/hate relationship with the literary theory stuff. Can’t do with it, can’t do without it. It takes AGES to get your head around the concepts, but once you do, you start to see examples of it EVERYWHERE. It’s like a bad curse.
Sade tried with his book to write the worse possible thing. To his defense, being a prisoner in the 18th century must have been pretty dull.
Philosophers who perfer being hard to read than being accessible and rely on their ideas are stupid. Just because you made it hard to read doesn’t mean it’s good. It only means it’s hard to read.
Mrs. Dalloway was my choice, too. I finally finished it last winter (my third try) and ended up really liking it… such a surprise!
Hi JoAnn, it’s great that you got to finish it. I must admit I almost gave up and would have had it not been a key text that we had to study. It’s such a buzz when you finally finish with it. I also ended up loving the book. I intend to re-read it for next summer.
Oh wow, this looks like a great book. One you need to actually sit down and put some effort in to, but great nonetheless 🙂 My sister loves Virginia Woolf after reading some of her stuff for school, but I haven’t gotten around to reading her yet.
It’s a pain to get into, but once you’re in you won’t want to leave. Woolf is my heroine. Your sister has great taste. I have heard that her diaries are really interesting, maybe you could start off with those. Woolf was very popular as a writer in her day and often wrote about the authors that she met. It’s so interesting to know how authors felt about each other, and she was brutally honest in her opinions about her fellow peers.
* In fact, before reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ I realised I had a pretty rigid view on what makes a successful novel. *
I love that quote! And you’re so right! Literature has done that to me, too. Shown me writing from different perspectives rather than the ‘popular’ version most known today.
I have to say, having read this post, I’m intrigued by Woolf and her Mrs. Daloway…
I hope you get to give it a go. Authors like Woolf who challenge me are the ones I end up going back to again and again. It’s pointless reading the same kind of books. She really was a rare talent. Pity she died so young.
Sarah Reads Too Much said:
You are the second person to mention Woolf and her stream of consciousness… you don’t scare me though – I just may have to read this!
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? sorry… couldn’t resist lol. There’s nothing to be afraid of really. Just make sure you have time to sit down and really give yourself to it. It’s not a ‘Ulysses’, though it is said to have been written in response to it. I think Woolf probably did a far better job than Joyce.
This makes me really want to try reading this one again. Tried it years ago then, completely annoyed, I put it down. After acclimating to more difficult reads in the last year than I had been indulging in during my attempt at “Mrs. Dalloway” has me thinking it’s time to give it another go. And, despite having not finished it, I’ve got to agree with you about this being difficult. Thanks for the inspiration!
You’re welcome! I think it might help reading up a little about what the book is trying to do before going into it. I felt like a fish out of water at first, but ‘acclimatised’ to it.
The same problem occured with Thomas Pychon and ‘Crying of Lot 49’. Again, it’s a demon of a book. Barely 100 pages, but it really had me at the end of my tether. I was forced to whip out the spark notes and after reading them was astonished at how much he had packed into his prose. It realised it was information overload that made it difficult to read.
gautami tripathy said:
I have read a lot of classics in my school and college years. And some still remain my favorites. However, there are a few I could never get into..
Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!
I have had one attempt at Virginia Woolf and then gave up. Maybe I should try again. I guess it also depends which book you read. And what mood you’re in.
Using Project Gutenberg to find classics is a good tip. I’ve done that a few times already.
Project Gutenburg is a firm favourite of mine. I love the idea of preserving classics online.
Dan Cafaro said:
Love the choice! Your comments on the whole SoC challenge rings indelibly true. It takes not only persistence in reading such a challenging work, but a fertile, malleable, trusting mind to let the author shape your thoughts like clay. It’s liberating on one level and altogether mind-boggling on the other.
I suppose the key may be to just let it ride and see what comes out the other side. A literary exercise in aimless wandering, destination unknown!
Thanks, too for the tip on Project Gutenberg. People often forget (or still do not know) what a rich resource of e-books we have at our fingertips…
“I suppose the key may be to just let it ride and see what comes out the other side. A literary exercise in aimless wandering, destination unknown!”
That’s it right there! I kind of like it when my literary compass malfunctions. I have to get my bearings the old-fashioned way – just read and ‘feel’ things out. Books like that lets you use your senses. There are so many novels out there that have been written in the cookie-cutter style I feel like I’m reading on auto-pilot. There’s a part of my brain that just switches off because it’s like ‘Oh, I’ve been here before… I know this road. I know how this ends’.
I want a writer to surprise me.
I haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway but I rather like that excerpt you have up…it’s very lyrical and a tad melodramatic, that’s how I like em.
It’s like that all the way through. Melodramatic, lyrical… it’s like taking a walk through a flower shop. So totally feminine and utterly delicate.
I love that Virginia Woolf is popping-up so often on this “most difficult read” discussion. She drives me absolutely batty!
Hi Adam, I think I read on someone else’s post how they didn’t recommend the book BECAUSE it drove them batty lol. I think they made a fair point there 🙂
And I like how you raised the issue of Moby Dick. It’s one of those books that I know I should read, but am scared of leaving halfway.
If you give yourself the time to read it – and expect it to be dense and to take patience, then you will finish. It really is quite brilliant, just not exactly what I expected, and certainly challenged.
I think the most difficult one I’ve read is Tristam Shandy. It was infuriating – like seriously infuriating. I gave up. =\
I’ve heard all about Tristram Shandy. It was pretty modern for its’ time and we were meant to read it for our Romanticism class but I never got round to it. I was too busy with the Gothic stuff lol. Thumbs up for trying though!
What a lovely homage to the Mrs. It’s one of my favorite books. Yes, Woolf threw the notion of what of novel was/is out of the window and came back with a truly brilliant form and novel. Thanks.
SoC perfection, love that phrase. has made me seek out the woolf.
Lisa Almeda Sumner said:
Woolf is one of my favorite writers, but her stream-of-consciousness style does put off some readers. I just jump in the stream and go along for the ride. Once in a while you get pulled under and think you’re drowning, but then just as suddenly it all makes sense!
I picked Mrs Dalloway as my most difficult read also, but it seems we came away with different opinions!
Great analysis of one of my favorite books! I agree that it’s not easy, but so well done and ultimately very rewarding. Thanks for participating in the hop!
That’s interesting – Mrs Dalloway is one of my fav books and I’ve actually enjoyed it quite a lot. Although, I guess I did know what I was getting into and the whole Stream of Consciousness thing didn’t come as a surprise. 🙂
I;ve never seen the movie, though.
I love this blog hop!
Hi Louise and Nikola! This hop is turning out to be a blast. I can’t wait for next week to come around. Oh and Nikola, I love your blog! You read some excellent books and you’ve reminded me about Capote again.
I recommend you read/ watch Cunningham’s work. It is a wonderful novel and the film was wonderfully done. The cast was amazing and I cried and cried at the end.