Plot Construction & Narrative Techniques of Mrs. Dalloway

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      The plot of Mrs. Dalloway does not follow the conventional pattern because Mrs. Viriginia Woolf believes that the novel should not be a story. It is a mirror of life. “The proper stuff of fiction,” she says, “is a little than custom would have us believe it.” Thus according to Mrs. Virginia Woolf, the proper stuff of the novel is not what takes place outside or in the world but within the mind of man. It is the inner reality of human beings.

Depiction of Human Consciousness

      Mrs. Virginia Woolf writes in her essay on Modern Fiction: “Life is not a series of gig lamp symmetrically arranged; but is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of the consciousness to the end.” This “semi-transparent envelope” is her stuff of the novel. In the novel, she has drawn her main attention on recording the various impressions which Clarissa receives in a single day. Woolf’s purpose as a novelist is to render the ‘psyche’ of her characters with the rare mixture of something external. She is primarily interested in interpreting inner life of her characters with the things from outside which affect the inner life. Thus she breakes away the conventions of the 19th-century novel. Her novel is merely a record of the actual process of living and the backward and forward movement of human consciousness. It has neither tragedy nor comedy.

“Vigorous and Positive Structure”.

      Though Mrs. Woolf has not followed the conventional pattern of maintaining the chronology yet her novels are not chaotic or incoherent. She has evolved a new convention of her own that suits her purpose of the rendering of human soul and inner reality. Joan Bennett has well remarked: “She adopts a rigorous process of selection and clarification, and so each of her novels has a vigorous and positive structure.” Mrs. Dalloway is characteristic of the “brilliance and fineness of its construction.” It represents a compromise between the need for formal clarity of presentation and the formlessness, conspicuously inherent in the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ technique. This requires a very high artistic sensibility to put such a compromise into practice.

The Narrow Framework

      The whole action of the novel takes place within a narrow framework of a single day. It moves between Mrs. Dalloway’s preparations for her party in the morning and her presiding over it in the evening. The relations she has developed with various persons and her associated memories with them are the fabric of the novel. The story of Septimus who impinges upon Clarissa’s mind early in the day and whose death makes her gloomy at the evening party is the means of introducing another set of characters. The major characters are no more than five who stand out from the rest with distinctive prominence. They move round each other in two concentric circles. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Richard Dalloway and Peter Walsh stand in one, Septimus Warren Smith and Lucrezia in another. There is a set of minor characters like Sally Seton, Lady Bruton, Hugh Whitbread, Elizabeth Dalloway, Doris Kilman. They move around the first set but through Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw, the two themes are made to hold each other.

      In background there are a number of figures in the novel but they are unimportant yet help to fill the total canvas.

Subtle Use of ‘Interior Monologue’

      R.L. Chambers has pointed out, “In Mrs. Dalloway the action of the book is limited temporally to a single day in the life of the chief characters, spatially to a single place, London, and emotionally to the relations of Mrs. Dalloway with few other people.” But the action is presented through the stream of consciousness of the major characters. The book is concerned more with the past of its characters than with the presence of a single day. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway. is the focal point of the action in the novel. The novel begins with Clarissa Dalloway’s stepping out in a London street to buy flowers for the party; but we have hardly joined her before we are moving, in her mind, back through time to her girlhood, away from London to her family home at Bourton, where we are to meet Peter Walsh, now away in India but due to come home. Then for the next twelve pages, we share with her the London morning and her memories; meets in the flesh her next-door neighbor, Purvid, Hugh Whitbread, and in her reflections her husband, daughter and Doris Kilman, her friend Sally Seton and repeatedly Peter Walsh. “The rapidity with which we are given intimate knowledge of the characters and their relationship, the economy of means by which it is done, are alike astonishing.”

Use of External Incident

      The backfiring of a motor-car engine draws our attention to the Bond Street and to Septimus and his wife Lucrezia. Septimus has said, “I will kill myself;” an awful thing to say, and we go back to last year through Lucrezia’s mind, when they stood on the embankment wrapped in the same cloak and were happy. The backfiring motor-car brings into the focus again the by-standers and passersby who are interested and idly puzzled as to who may be in it - Sarah Bletchley from Pimlico, Emily Coates, little Mrs. Bowley who had rooms in the Albany and others. Then suddenly Mrs. Coates looks up, everyone looks up, to see an airplane making letters in the sky. Among those who looked up are Lucrezia and Septimus, now. sitting on a bench in Regent’s park. The horror of Septimus’ madness is presented to us in a few etched lines, through Lucrezia’s terror, through Septimus’ own collapsing mind; we meet Dr. Holmes, symbol of something evil. Then we pass back by way of Maisie Johnson and Mrs. Dempster, both ‘casual’ characters watching the airplane, to the center from which we started. “What are they cooking at” asks Clarissa Dalloway to the maid who opened the door.

Fluctuation of the Movement

      From the fixed point of Clarissa’s consciousness the movement swings, back through time, away in space, opening vistas and displaying experience and character, then forward again to the present moment; second, a point in time and space, Bond Street on this morning in June; from that point the movement swings again, this time through different points of consciousness—Edgar, Septimus, Lucrezia, Bowley and so on; then thirdly another point of consciousness, it is Septimus and Lucrezia, from which the movement can swing back in time again; then the point in present time one more, with the airplane sky-writing over London, and so the movement swings back to the point of consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway. It is on this pattern the structure of the novel is built up, and the remarkable consequence is that out of a series of incomplete pieces a complete picture comes out. Thus it seems that Mrs. Dalloway represents a compromise between the requirements for formal clarity of presentation and the formlessness inherited by the stream-of-consciousness technique, with its emphasis that “everything is the proper stuff of fiction”, that, “no perception comes a miss.”

Some other Welding Factors

      Mrs. Virginia Woolf has used other devices except a narrow framework to impart formal clarity, order and design. First, attention is paid to the clock-time. David Daiches has pointed out that the clock-time is the unifying factor of great significance. From beginning till the end Big Ben’s strike is heard. When we shift through the consciousness of one character to another or from present to past, the striking of the clock indicates this transition. Secondly, various events are emotionally inter-related, for example the feeling of the air that makes Clarissa reminded of the similar morning at Bourton thirty years before. Her green dress reminds her of girlhood friend Sally Seton because green was her favorite color. Her party in the evening stimulates her thought of Peter Walsh who had once called her, “a perfect hostess”. Thirdly, various characters think of the same problem, look at the same sights. The conflict between the essential need of keeping the self inviolable and the need for love and contact with other individuals constantly troubles Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway and the other characters of the novel.

Two Plots of the Novel are Psychologically United

      The novel has two plots but they are psychologically knitted together. Septimus is Clarissa’s externalization of her mental state. He is the. objectification of the frustration and boredom that Clarissa is suffering from. He suggests her tormented soul. He, too, feels the need of ‘spiritual privacy’ which is constantly threatened. He objectifies, “the death of the soul” of Mrs. Dalloway and the contemporary civilization. Jean Guiget, a critic, has thus commented on the psychological unity of the novel: “The true structure is of another nature: it is homogeneous with the content, and that is why the restriction of the book’s substance to precisely defined moments and centers of references is of capital importance. What allows us to shift without a jar from Clarissa to Septimus, in front of the flower shop, is not their spatial contiguity, nor even the explosion that rings out in the ears of both. It is the continuity of their thoughts. The monstrous threat of the specters who stand astride us and suck up half our life-blood, dominators and tyrant, against which Clarissa protests, is the same that Septimus apprehends when he hears the explosion, and against which Rezia wants to call for help”. We witness here several anonymous reactions of the crowd. Likewise, the second meeting between Septimus and Clarissa is put together not only with the help of their airplane but by the feeling of beauty and peace, of blended awe and exaltation, of religious revolution which both experience. Finally, the response of Clarissa Dalloway on the talk of Septimus’ death shows, as said by A.D. Moody, that he stands in the novel for the most hidden aspects of her soul. He is the objectification of her “death of the soul.”


      Mrs. Dalloway is not formless like other stream-of-consciousness novels rendering the chaotic human psyche. It is noteworthy here that in order to sustain the internal unity of the whole, the novel has been printed as one piece from beginning to the end, “without parts or chapters or numerical section-headings or any mark of transition beyond an occasional blank space of two lines or so in the text.” To sum up: “Mrs. Dalloway is a brilliant achievement in which the novelist has reached the right compromise between the need for formal clarity and the requirement of the stream of consciousness method.”

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