Critical Analysis of the Novel Mrs. Dalloway

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An Introduction

      Mrs. Dalloway is the most popular novel of Mrs. Virginia Woolf published in 1925. This novel has been translated into a number of languages — French, Danish, German, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish etc. David Daiches has praised it and remarked this novel as the first wholly successfully novel that Virginia Woolf produced; and Joan Bennett has characterized it as “one of her four most satisfying novels”. E.M. Forster has said in the Criterion, “it is perhaps her masterpiece, but difficult, and I am not altogether sure about every detail, except when my fountain pen is in my hand.”

The Theme And The Double Plot

      Miss Neill has well observed in A Short History of the English Novel: Hi Mrs. Dalloway the personality to be explored and recreated is that of a woman on the threshold of middle age. Incidents of a day in her life and the accompanying visual, mental and emotional impressions are set down from moment to moment in the style of Dorothy Richardson with a touch of Joyce. Mrs. Dalloway’s, intent on the preparations for her birthday party (she is fifty) in the evening, is outwardly poised and controlled, yet filled with wistful regrets for what time has left unachieved. The day in her life is expressed in terms of a long interior monologue, the smooth flowing streams of consciousness interrupted only by the striking hours of the clock that poignantly marks the drifting hours.”

      Apparently, the theme of the novel is the life and personality of Mrs. Dalloway. But Mrs. Dalloway is not only an individual, she is a representative character. She represents the vivid and critical picture of the contemporary civilization with all its chatter, noise and incessant parties, its hypocrisy, its snobbery and materialism. The other theme is the life and personality of Septimus Warren Smith, a neurotic. He is Clarissa Dalloway’s double’ in the sense that he is the objectification of the death of her soul as well as the death of contemporary civilization. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, they project a terrible indictment of the contemporary materialistic society. Though both are two poles and stand apart yet they constitute a whole. They are two faces of the same society - a society with all its sophistication, pomp and power, wealth and affectation, Second picture of the society is of a ‘dead’ The Universality of Theme

      Thus Mrs. Dalloway has two plots that are closely knit together and quite coherent. Mrs. Dalloway has a poetic-pattern also that is suggested through the use of rhythm in language, symbols and imagery. It suggests the universality of life, the conflict between life and death, the spiritual privacy and independence, the urge for love and social contact. Mrs. Dalloway is scared of both love and religion because they are too possessive and dominating. Septimus’ horror of ‘human nature’ is so acute that he commits suicide. Dr. Bradshaw is the ironic picture of an insolent, aggressive and dominating figure who destroys the soul of others.

The Structure of Mrs. Dalloway

      Mrs. Dalloway has a very vigorous structure. Mrs. Woolf’s unparalleled achievement in the context of this novel lies in the fact that she has become successful in imposing form and order on something incoherent, formless and chaotic. She has achieved it through the narrow framework of the novel. The entire action is very limited. It is like Joyce’s Ulysses, a single day of June in the life of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway - spatially at London and ‘spiritually’ or rather psychologically Mrs. Dalloway meets several persons at different places. For filling the canvas there are a number of characters in the background of the novel. The method of presentation follows a free movement completely independent of time - sequence. There is a skillful association of ‘psychological time’ with ‘clock time’; whenever Big Ben strikes we feel that now there will be a shift from the past to present or from one personality to another. Mrs. Woolf is not altogether absent but appears from time to time in order to guide the readers. This is well indicated by the frequent use of pronoun ‘one’ in place of ‘I’. Thus we meet no incoherence or confusion in the novel. R.L. Chambers says, Mrs. Dalloway represents a compromise between the need for formal clarity of presentation and the formlessness apparently inherent in the stream-of-consciousness technique with its insistence that ‘everything is the proper stuff of fiction’ and, ‘no perception comes amiss’. It was perhaps the main achievement of Virginia Woolf’s genius to discover that such a compromise was possible, certainly, it requires an artistic sensibility of a very high order to apply such a compromise in practice.”

Masterly Use of Stream-of-Consciousness Technique

      Mrs. Virginia Woolf comes out as a great novelist who has skillfully used the ‘interior monologue’ or ‘stream-of-consciousness technique’. David Daiches has remarked: “The whole novel is constructed in terms of the two dimensions of space and time. We either stand still in time and are led to contemplate diverse but contemporaneous events in space or we stand still in space and are allowed to move up and down temporally in the consciousness of one individual. If it would not be extravagant to consider personality rather than space as one dimension, with time as the other, we might divide the book quite easily into those Sections where time is fluid and personality stable or where personality is fluid and time is stable, and regard this as a careful alternation of the dimensions. So that at one point we are halted at a London street to take a peep into the consciousness of a various people who are all on the spot at the same moment in the same place, and at another, we are halted within the consciousness of one individual moving up and down in time, within the limits of one individual’s memory?”

Subtle Manipulation of Time

      “The added dimension afforded by allowing the persons of the novel to move back and forth in time to encompass an entire life in a few seconds of thought enriches not only the personality of the characters but, in great measure, the philosophical depth of the book.” Mrs. Dalloway is a round character. We get her picture, through her own ‘stream-of-consciousness’ through other character’s stream-of-consciousness and we feel ourselves present with her at the crucial moments of her life. Of course, the technique of stream-of-consciousness has freed the novelist from the chains of the chronological time sequence. The action independently moves backward and forward in time. We see a confrontation of clock-time with psychological-time. The historical time is suggested by the aftermath of war that has just ended.

The Lyrical Style

      Mrs. Dalloway represents a musicalization and poetisation of the English novel. It is very much like, “a musical fugue in construction” as remarked by Bernard Blackstone. It has a rhythmical movement of going backward and forward. The focal point is fixed and it is the stream of consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway. From this point the movement swings backward and forward in time. The another fixed point regarding both time and space is June morning and Bond street. The third fixed point is the consciousness of Septimus and Lucrezia. There is again a backward and forward movement from this point. Thus the novel is an artistic whole like a piece of music.

      Mrs. Woolf has used the technique of a poet to enhance the expressiveness and richness of her diction. Her style is poetic, she has used plenty of poetic imagery, metaphor and symbol. As E. Albert writes, “She uses words with a keen sense of their rhythmical and musical potentialities; her style is richly figurative.” Her style has all the qualities of a poetic style-rhyme, refrain, metaphor. R.L. Chambers has pointed out that the metaphors of Woolf are not of prose or romantic prose but of poetry. First, they are not the metaphors from the visible world but they are often the collections of ideas made by the transmutation of laws of association which we get in poetry. “A candle in a crocus” is not a prose metaphor. It is a poetic image as “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone” etc. Thus, the style of Mrs. Dalloway is poetic. Her style is perfectly made to render complex mental states or to convey that are hard to render.

Symbolism in Mrs. Dalloway

      Few critics say that the characters of Mrs. Dalloway are symbolic of different aspects of life and society. The Dalloway's represent pomp and show, outward glitter of a civilization that is suffering from a spiritual barrenness. The Whitbreads suggest all that is most detestable in English middle-class life. Doris Kilman symbolizes the possessiveness of love and religion. Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw represent the scientific evils of modern civilization. Peter Walsh is symbolic of knowledge, truth, adventurous spirit and those men who are able to protect themselves from society. Septimus is a stricture in the modern war, and Sally is a revolt against orthodox. Fresh morning represents youth, rose is symbol of love. Streets are symbolical of anonymity and mystery in the human life, rooms represent protection and intimacy, and window suggests personal angle of viewing the world.

Few Demerits

A.D. Moody has pointed out that Mrs. Dalloway is worthy to be called a comedy of manners which emphasizes the outward fashionable, refined and sophisticated upper class society.

Few critics are of the opinion that there are certain serious imperfections in this attempt to residue, “a social comedy into something of a tragedy of the soul.” “The crucial flaw in the dramatization of Clarissa Dalloway’s “death of the soul” is that its link with her “doubles”.

Septimus Warren Smith and Bradshaw are not very convincing in their roles. They hardly touch her own complacent image of herself.

The “positive characters of the novel like Peter Walsh and Sally Seton seldom impinge with any force upon one’s consciousness. Thus the grave criticism of a society that kills the soul reaches to us with little weight and force.”

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