30 Day Book Challenge: Day Eleven

Book from your favorite author: Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

I can’t say I really have a “favorite author,” as I change my mind constantly; however, I would say Virginia Woolf is the author I most admire. First and foremost, and I don’t think I’m saying anything new here, she’s an unreal writer. Her books are one part Dostoevskean existentialist angst, one part Shakespearean prose, and one part Joycean experimentation. A quote from Mrs. Dalloway: “So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, ‘that is all’.”

She was also fiercely intellectual and wasn’t intimidated by the sausage fest that is the Western Literary Canon – especially the modernist period of her own time. People may think of the post-WWI era as a wonderful time of original and revolutionary thought, but James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Pablo Picasso were hardly feminists. Woolf’s (at the time, and arguably still) radical feminist ideas made even her sympathetic Bloomsbury group uncomfortable. There is nothing more radical than the Individual, and Woolf was certainly that.

However, I think what I admire most about Woolf was her struggle with mental illness and ultimate suicide. If anyone has ever suffered from depression and/or anxiety, the most terrifying thought is the prospect of going insane. To stare down into the void and confront the wriggling worms that await us all is the last frontier of thought; it is fear itself. Yet, Woolf did exactly that her entire career as a writer, and especially so in Mrs. Dalloway.

For me, the most striking character in the novel is Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran who has lost his grip on reality. When Septimus is outside walking in the park he is overwhelmed by everyday mundane experiences, such as trees waving in the wind and cars puttering, “and this gradual drawing together of everything to one center before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.”

Woolf also predates Foucault in her critique of the medical gaze and its treatment of the mentally ill. It is evident Woolf drew from her own experiences during her own breakdowns to bring Septimus to life. Furthermore, Septimus really foreshadows Woolf’s own suicide. As Albert Camus observes, the question concerning suicide is the only real philosophical problem, and I think within the next 10-20 years it’ll be the most compelling issue in our society, given the current state of medicine.

In a debate with Norman Mailler, Marshall McLuhan argued that once you have man-made environment of satellites rotating the planet, nature will have to programmed. Now that’s a whole other can of worms that I’d like to deal with at another time, but what I want to take from it is that with the power and influence of science, we are very much actively creating the natural world in a radically new way. And one of the most pressing issues is how does one die with dignity when machines and medicine can sustain a certain level of life for an indefinite period of time.

Many people say suicide is cowardly and the easy way out, but those who say such things don’t know the pain that precipitates suicidal thoughts. When Woolf suffered another mental breakdown in 1941, she felt there was no way out. She could no longer read or write (imagine what that must be like for one of the greatest literary minds the world as ever produced), and felt she was a burden to her husband and family.

Unless you know her pain, you’re not in the position to judge. And mental health was not then what it is now, so maybe she was justified in her lack of faith. I can’t rightly say. All I can say is that she didn’t want to be a patient waited on for the rest of her life and decided to end it on her own terms. Is it so wrong to let someone decide how they choose to end his/her life. I don’t think so.


I really enjoyed the film The Hours. I was extremely skeptical of Nicole Kidman playing Woolf, but I think she was incredible. Here is the final scene from the film. Can anyone tell me if this is a real quote or was it fabricated for the film/novel? Either way, I think it really captures Woolf’s person:


~ by braddunne on June 27, 2011.

One Response to “30 Day Book Challenge: Day Eleven”

  1. This is a superbly written post. Love it! Virginia Woolf is also one of my very favourite authors, thought I love “The Waves” the most.

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