To the Lighthouse with Mrs. Dalloway

by cheri block

I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse several years ago.

At first, I resisted her style, often harrumphing about her scattered stream of  consciousness and disorder that defy categorization.

Irritated, perhaps, by the stop and start of topic, interrupted by her random thoughts, sparking here and fizzling there– lights out, lights on–I struggled with her every word, sometimes writing her off (after all, she killed herself by walking into a river and drowning). How tragic. What a waste.

This past March, skimming my reading list for my graduate class, Virginia Woolf’s name jumped out (just like a confused gazelle). Oh goody. I’ve read her stuff. Oh goody.

Now, I am reading Mrs. Dalloway.

It’s the same: no order, time is awash, characters who come and go, go and come, like Dante’s shades in the Inferno, shadows who peer around corners and comment. Her characters are like people who just step into the street, causing you to brake, so as not to run them over.

This time, however, I don’t need the order. I’ve let go. Hooray!

It doesn’t matter, Virginia, that you put rocks in your pockets and ended your life. I can separate your brilliant modernism, your work, from your profound mental illness and distress (just like Nietzsche’s).

It isn’t you who have changed, Virginia. It’s me.

I am with you on your tour around London, Clarissa Dalloway.

Carry on, my dear.

I will backtrack as much as needed.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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15 Responses to To the Lighthouse with Mrs. Dalloway

  1. Man of Roma says:

    The lengthy commentator has come back lol. It’d be interesting to know why you have changed, being first irritated by her stops and starts and random thoughts (her ‘brilliant modernism’ as you call it) and at a later time not any longer.

    The indistinct and the distinct, the clear and the obscure, they always existed in literature, philosophy or music and I’d say in any form of human ‘language’. We see both also in our blogs (in mine in any case) and I think that the ‘obscure’ or vague is at times more profound that the crystal-clear. It allows the mind to activate all its complexity

    I had a nice *brief discussion* with Andreas on vagueness (philosophical in this case). He said that as “a youngish German, I’ve also become a very Anglo-Saxon thinker… And as such I just have to laugh at Hegel. If he has something important to say, why can’t he say it in a way that can be understood?” which, to me, is an interesting statement.

    Let me explode the topic a bit (and be vague lol). If we look at history, the Greeks, who were not stupid and had bettered exact logic and praised simplicity & clarity, they nonetheless (an example) before any BIG decision – like where to found a new town – respected the mysterious responses of the Delphic Sybil or Pizia, that they followed no matter how mysteriously she spoke. That those vague sentences determined the big events of the entire Greek-ness, or Graecitas, until the late Roman Empire (Christian closed such oracles by force), and that the sybils were always women – in a male rules society where the woman was deemed deprived of exact reason – is also interesting.

    • Cheri says:

      What a lovely comment, a blog post in itself! Your command of English is firm, here; your expression, beautiful.

      First, to answer your question. In the last several years, I have tried to slow down and enjoy. I am also more patient with the literature I read. Last, I am tired of resisting so many things I cannot change, so some of my fire has cooled a bit.

      The travails of the economy (and trying to steer my business through the storm) have forced me to control only what I can, which is almost nothing.

      I read that interchange between you and Andreas. I am afraid most philosophical depth is over my head 🙂 Trying to write like Woolf…

      Your example about Greece is magnificent. I’ve read it twice. Why did the Greeks imbue such women with such power and then deny others so much? Is it that the oracles had power (and thus were like men?)

  2. Phil says:

    A few weeks ago (or was it a few months ago) while I was struggling through Hilary Mantel’s novel “Wolf Hall”, I came up with the brilliant (if I may say so) concept of speed-bump writing, whereby the author intends that, in the manner of a driver driving a car slowly along a road with speed bumps, the reader read slowly lest he merely gloss over the novel’s depth and profundity, or miss it entirely, instead of savouring slowly the novel’s true essence.

    Hence I feel sure that Virginia Woolf had an image of a speed-bumped road in her mind while she wrote “Mrs Dalloway”.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Phil,

      Navigating speed bumps! Perfect. How do you like my mixed metaphor?

      Speed-bump writing…should be in a book of literary terms, now.

      You are spot on, here. The only trouble with Woolf is that her paragraphs…whole pages…are speed bumps…wide speed bumps.

      I’ll keep your image in mind as I read.

  3. andreaskluth says:

    let’s put this another way:

    Virginia Woolf — like, say, James Joyce, another brainstormer — has over the years been anointed a “classic”. That means, among other things, that Woolf and Joyce (or Hegel, in philosophy) will make it onto most syllabi. Syllabi, in turn, are the equivalent of a captive audience. Students have NO CHOICE.

    Now, I would pay any bribe to have my future book become obligatory reading on some syllabus. If you, Phil, provide me written assurance that I will have a captive audience that won’t run away, then I will gladly practice speed-bump writing. I will take you along on every twist of my brainstormy storm brain, clarity be damned.

    But really. Who besides the likes of Woolf (and perhaps Mantel) has that luxury? The rest of us, as readers, would prefer not to be tortured. The rest of us, as writers, would prefer to be understood.

    So fie upon these self-indulgent classics. Let them pitch a proposal to Random House, Riverhead, Little Brown etc TODAY and see where the manuscript gets them.

    So: I’ll read Woolf as soon as — and not until — Cheri posts her Cliff’s Notes here. Now, I gotta go and write something for my day job that makes sense in fewer than 1,000 words….

  4. andreaskluth says:

    A new low in mangled spellling and syntax, as I now see. Note to self: Must stop writing like Woolf in blog comments.

    • Cheri says:

      I don’t see any mangling…

      • Cyberquill says:

        I don’t see any either, except the three l’s in spellling, but that’s sort of self-referential, and the alleged mangling must have occurred before.


        I guess it’s Cliffsnotes and not Cliff’s Notes, and it should be … been anointed a “classic.” with the period to the left of the closing quotation mark rather than outside.

        Also, the period in etc. is missing.

        A serial comma before etc. might be nice.

        I guess the first word of the post Let’s… ought to be capitalized.

        Four dots after the last word words may be one dot too many.

        Spaces before and after an em dash are a New York Times thing, so that’s probably a matter of taste.

        But yeah, I can’t find anything major. No idea what he’s talking about.

        Oh, what I actually wanted to ask:

        Who’s Afraid of Cheri Block?

      • Cyberquill says:

        Or maybe Cliffs Notes or CliffsNotes. Either way, I don’t think there’s an apostrophe involved.

  5. Man of Roma says:

    [didn’t see Andreas’ comment: now it’s too late]

    Oh yes, to slow down and to enjoy, if we don’t do that now, when the heck are we going to adopt a more human pace? As for steering business through the storm, pls don’t tell me, me being into tourism a bit and this volcano now causing so many flights to be cancelled!

    Your command of English is firm, here; your expression, beautiful.

    Rule num 1. Never applaud a Latin since he /she is already puffed with silly pride. Look at Sarko, look at our Berlusconi!

    Kidding, I am the king of the unassuming, ça est certain 😉

    Silliness (with some truth) apart (and typos too: that = than, male rules = male ruled) I think languages should be learned without any formal education. Whatever my English skill, I have learned it having fun with literature, never via exercises, and I always advised students to do the same. For example, to brush up my 40-year-old Latin and Greek (when my knowledge was poor in any case) I’ve started to read Julius Caesar, the Greek and Latin Bible plus some ancient Greek sages very quickly & ALL at the same time. The 1rst week, so darn confused I was I understood 1/20 of what I read (figures arbitrary), the 2nd week 1/15, the 3rd 1/11 etc. Now, after 3 months of mad wanderings on all that is Greek and Latin, I possibly understand 1/3, and I go on, pleasure and fascination finally arriving in floods they make my (bookworm’s) days. A Canadian friend learned 12 languages like that. I wrote a post on this kinda method (*Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition*,) but I might have told you, since I’m that forgetful I risk to repeat the same thing 10 times at someone’s blog.

  6. Cheri says:


    I fixed most of Andreas’ typos because, well, because I felt compelled to do so after he left that second comment about spellling and mangled…

    After reading your corrections, it is clear I missed many others that you caught.

    Grammar Girl could have used your services.

    No one is afraid of me (except maybe 12 little junior high kids who are waiting for me to write and mail their report cards…)

  7. Cheri says:

    Diotima of the Symposium? Wasn’t her commentary more powerful than Socrates’?

  8. Cheri says:


    Have you read To the Lighthouse? That is my favorite VW novel.

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