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I owe my Broken Heart to Virginia Woolf

Emma Caspi

Voices Editor

Virginia Woolf broke my heart, but let me start from the beginning. 

“Mrs. Dalloway is my favourite novel,” said my fellow interviewee during our joint interview for a bookstore. The book you chose was supposed to reflect, in part, who you are. I remember being confounded by her response, unsure if she had understood the question correctly. Why would anybody in their right mind choose Mrs. Dalloway to present yourself in an interview? Let’s just say that since I was so focused on her supposed poor decision, I did not get the job. 

Even before the interview, as a little girl, I kept hearing about Virginia Woolf and what an incredible writer she is. She was frustratingly ubiquitous: bookstores, school curriculums, and magazines promoted her, praising her quotations and peculiarities. So many people raving about her could not be wrong, right? To my younger self’s dismay, her writing style was convoluted and disorganized, which made me question those who commended her. Reading her passages resulted in pounding headaches and dazed confusion, which took me weeks to recover from. How could a meagre piece of literature destroy me so? I asked myself why I could not enjoy Woolf’s novels like the others. Ironically, I was.  

Finally enlightened about Woolf’s ways, her genius is nothing but self-evident. I have built a strong affinity with her prose, which mimics, to an extent, what we secretly are as a society. But, firstly, who is Virginia Woolf, and why should we care about her novels? Adeline Virginia Woolf, born in 1882, was one of the most prominent modernist novelists and essayists of the 20th century. 

After completing a series of novels, Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in 1925. In this novel, she raised important and stigmatized subjects like feminism, homosexuality and mental illness. On the surface, Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist, is bland and, at times, gruesomely bleak, living the average life of a 52-year-old upper-class woman in London, who is actively recovering from The Great War. However, it is simultaneously like nothing you have ever read. 

Via The New Yorker

The novel takes place during one day, focusing on Clarissa Dalloway’s inevitable party she is preparing. Along those alleged mundane lines hides the hefty substance of the novel: Clarissa Dalloway’s infatuation and passion for her old friend Sally Seton, the sufferings of the shell-shocked soldier Septimus Smith, the romantic and aspirational longings of Peter Walsh, and Doris Kilman’s trying hatred towards Clarissa. 

So the reader can access the character’s interior monologue, Woolf writes in a stream-of-consciousness prose style; she writes humans as they are, with no polishing and perfecting. Typical of modernists, Woolf departs from strenuous details of the world and clear-cut storytelling to accurately define and vivify her characters. Why should we nevertheless engage in such a complexly written novel?

Considering that humans feel, seek, strive, and, most importantly, pursue other humans, we cannot deny that we are complex creatures. Woolf, however, understands the frustrating partitions between humans outside of ourselves: the mind. In 200 pages, Virginia Woolf effectively encapsulates the complexities and sophistication of the human experience and reveals the actualities of human consciousness through her modernist novel Mrs. Dalloway. Understandably, Woolf’s style speaks the ugly truth of what we are and weakened me as a young girl. 

I could not handle the thought that we were all engaged in our thoughts, utterly alone and mostly frightened (or, at least, I was). Based on our mind’s ponderations, the world’s reality shifts, making it an unreliable source to explain human nature - hence Woolf’s focus on the reality of individuality and cogitations of her characters. Her diaries reveal how her method of characterization, which Woolf referred to as a “discovery,” now referred  to as a “tunnelling process,” came to fruition:


“I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives…humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight” (Diary II: 263)

I was once ignorant about the human race, the idiosyncracies we all hold introspectively and our individual ‘caves.’ This innocence has nonetheless passed: I can no longer rub shoulders with a stranger on the metro, greet a friend, or stare blankly into a crowd without wondering about what they are wondering. I am no longer afraid of being alone but terrified of constantly being somberly accompanied by other ghostly minds. I wish to rip this ill-fitted and unsightly beating heart, which is perpetually on the cusp of shattering asunder, from my chest. Woolf made me more human if that is even humanly possible, and it hurts, hurts, hurts. But the pain is transformative, not debilitating; like seeing the light after years in darkness. How good it feels to bathe in sunlight.

Respectively, I owe my broken heart to Virginia Woolf.



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