Mrs. Dalloway is an Exploration of Consciousness

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Unique Features of Virginia Woolf’s use of the stream-of-consciousness technique.

      Mrs. Woolf has used the stream-of-consciousness technique in her novel because her prime concern in the novel is with psychology or metaphysics. In this kind of writing the main emphasis is given to the thoughts and feelings of the characters rather than actions or external events. Human consciousness, feelings and thoughts, obscure emotions and sensations are explored in this sort of the novel. It renders the mind, and external events or realities are brought in only when they intrude the world of mind. It is a radical technique that is very difficult to handle. In the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf has used this technique very successfully. She has triumphantly implied it for the artistic portrayal of life. One of the drawbacks of this technique is its frequent lapse into the formlessness and incoherence. Mrs. Woolf’s accomplishment is that she has succeeded in imparting the order and balance to what is chaotic. She has rendered inner life convincingly but the book is flawlessly well-structured.

Imparted Form and Order to Something Complex and Chaotic.

      Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925 and the stream-of-consciousness technique had become nearly a common place in fiction.

      Then there was a problem to find a way how to discipline it because the clear impression of character in the mind and objectively clear impression of character in the work are entirely different. Mrs. Virginia Woolf has solved it in Mrs. Dalloway. She has limited the scope in time and space; her characters are few in numbers and their relation to each other is crystal clear. The manipulation of time is extraordinary feature of the novel. It is only a single day of June in the life of the protagonist Mrs. Dalloway. The action is confined to London only. Mrs. Dalloway is exceptional in its construction. It is a rare combination of the rendering of inner life, form and order.

The Narrow Structure.

      Virginia Woolf was tremendously influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses. As Ulysses is confined within one day in the life of Leopald Bloom, so Mrs. Woolf has taken single day; from morning to evening and built up the story of Mrs. Dalloway within this narrow compass. Though events are largely psychological yet they are framed in a narrow compass. Mrs. Dalloway employs an easy and simpler technique. Mrs. Woolf has constructed the whole novel in 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 temporarily in the consciousness of one individual. “David Daiches comments: “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 variety of 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. The fecal point swings from the consciousness of one character to another, or from London to Bourton or from the present to the past.

The Alternating Movement.

      As in Ulysses the past figures more than present and there is a constant backward and forward movement corresponding the thought processes, in Mrs. Dalloway we get the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ of a character, then we stop a while to take a glance into the mind of other characters; then we investigate the consciousness of one of those characters and again start contemplating over the environment etc. As we pause to investigate the character’s mind, we are taken back into the past and escape altogether from the chronological time sequence of the story.

Emphasis on Clock Time and Personal Identity.

      Mrs. Woolf has taken more careful attention than Joyce on imparting clarity, order and from to her novels. She has very attentively marked those points when we stay in time and move rapidly through the minds of various characters. They are the unifying factors which hold these consciousness together. The clock Big Ben and other clock chime at this transition from the very beginning to the end. We are kept from straying by the continuous reminder of the speaker’s identity when we swing between past and present through the minds of different characters. There is no ambiguity in the chiming of London clocks:

The time, Septimus’, Rezia repeated, ‘What is the time?’.

       He was talking, he was staring, this man must notice him. He was looking at them. ‘I will tell you the time’, said Septimus, very slowly, very drowsily, smiling mysteriously. As he sat smiling at the dead man in the grey suit, the quarter struck, the quarter to twelve.

‘‘And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them.”

      We move from Septimus Warren Smith to Peter Walsh and the chiming of the London clock indicates this transition. If we do not lose the link between various consciousness we must understand the reason of this transition because it impinges on time and this impingement is represented by the striking of the clock. Almost on every page the time of day is given, especially when we pass from one character to another. Similarly, when we pause within the consciousness of one character only to move up and down in time within that consciousness, the identity of the thinker with this time as the unifying factor, is stressed. Mrs. Dalloway’s personality is stressed in this way in the very beginning of the novel.

A Compromise between Self-Effacement and the Convention of Omniscient Author.

      The ‘stream-of-consciousness novel’ requires a complete self-effacement of the novelist but it often results in incoherence. In Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Woolf has successfully made a compromise between total self-effacement and the traditional rule of the omniscient author and side by side imparts order and clarity to the novel also. As an omniscient author, Mrs. Woolf has sketched the minor characters also. The characters whom we do not see through the minds of other characters have been interpreted from ‘without’ by the writer. These characters are Rezia, Septimus, Hugh Whitbread, Bradshaws etc. This compromise begets a few interesting results. Pronoun ‘I’ is used by the writers of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novels and ‘she’ by the writers who narrate objectively as in traditional novel but Mrs. Woolf’s ‘she or ‘he’ is a midway or intermediate sort of pronoun between ‘I’ and ‘she’ of other novelists. She often takes refuge in ‘one’ also; “For having lived in Westminster - how many years now? over twenty-one feels even in the midst of traffic, or working at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity...” Here the shift is from ‘I’ to ‘one’ and further with the purpose to stress the identity of Clarissa Dalloway she has used straight third-person name ‘Clarissa’. The frequent use of present participle is also noteworthy, (“...she cried to herself, pushing through the swing doors”; “she thought, waiting to cross”, ... “she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street”. It makes her able to identify the thinker and put her into a new action without intruding the even flow of the stream of thought. We must also notice the frequent use of paragraphs with ‘for’ and its purpose is to hint the vague, pseudo logical connection between the different parts of a reverie.

The Emotional and Associational Links.

      In the novel, there is no logical connection of transition but emotional and associational links. It is the touch of the June morning breeze that takes Mrs. Dalloway back to thirty years at Bourton. Likewise, her green dress which she selects for her evening party reminds her of girlhood friend Sally Seton whose favorite color was green. Her meeting with Hugh Whitbread stimulates the thought of Peter Walsh in her mind. The example of emotional link is Rezia and Septimus looking at the same car, same airplane and same thoughts occur in their mind as in Clarissa. Thus they are emotionally linked to Clarissa Dalloway.


      Mrs. Dalloway is remarkable for its brilliance in construction. Mr. Bernard Blackstone says; “For technical mastery the novel is unparalleled in English fiction.”

University Questions

Discuss the complete self-effacement of the novelist in Mrs. Dalloway.
Mrs. Dalloway is an exploration of consciousness rather than of events. Discuss.
Mrs. Dalloway is a study of a revolt against the material, the external and the logical. Discuss.
Elaborate this dictum: Mrs. Dalloway: The life of the mind more important than the movement of the body: Combination of the exploration of Inner life with order and discipline in the novel.”

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