Purpose, Style & Method in the Novel Mrs. Dalloway

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      The real secret of her limitation is that, besides living in a restricted world, within this world, she confines her interest within still closer bounds. She is not interested much in what people do. This is oddly illustrated by her attitude towards business as either an esoteric mystery or an opportunity for slumming in an organized way, and by her use of India as a sort of drop-scene, always to hand but very sketchy, which she can call into play whenever she wants to send off a man to do something. In The Waves Percival dies in India, a crucial event in the book: in Mrs. Dalloway Peter Walsh spends most of his life there. Yet even in Peter Walsh’s thoughts (it is not necessary that Percival should have any thoughts), all that we get of India is the second-hand picture well-known to the relatives of Indian Civil Servants. It seems that she did not know enough about business and about India,—if by enough we mean enough to mount a scene with the furniture of action. But the truth is that she did not want to do any such thing.”

      “This is why Doris Kilman is hateful and evil,—because, having denied her own personality, she would lay her ugly hands on another’s, and swathe it and smother it beneath the drab shapelessness of her green mackintosh coat. “Conversion is her name, and she feasts on the wills of the weakly ....offers help, but desires power ... fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick .. that Goddess whose lust is to override opposition, to stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself.” So Septimus Warren Smith is no just a case of war-neurosis, mishandled by his doctors, but a cringing, fugitive human soul, escaping from Holmes and Bradshaw, who wish to possess what is not their own, to violate the one inviolable right.”


      T. S. Eliot in this essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent says, “The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” In his essay on Hamlet, he says, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in otter words a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” He speaks of “emotion in the form of art,” but he is dealing with geometry in particular, end my point is that in literature it is the poet who most naturally turns for the most effective, the most immediately effective, “objective correlative” to the use of images. Immediacy of effect is essential to the poet’s purpose, and by the use of images, significant symbols which fase emotion and evoke a specific and immediate emotional response, he frees himself from the trammels of explanation which intervene between statement and apprehension. You can explain why a person feels or should feel a given emotion, but you cannot explain him into feeling it. Prose usually relies for the evocation of emotion upon its overtones; and their effect, I have suggested, is generally vague and pervasive: poetry evokes specific emotions by the use of images, what Virginia Woolf does is to borrow the technique of poetry to enlarge the possibilities of expression in prose, at one and the same time to make clear her meaning and to drive home/its emotional implication.

      In Mrs. Dalloway Clarissa thinks of Peter Walsh on the first page, “... it was his saying one remembered; his eyes, his pocket knife...’’ - what a woman does remember of her old lover, his fiddling with his pocket-knife. And the pocket knife recurs again and again, until at the end Peter Walsh arrives at Clarissa’s party. We have been with him at intervals throughout the day, inside his thoughts at his hotel, in the park, walking London to her house, waiting till he shall see her again; and at last, here he is “entering the house, the lighted house, where the door stood open, where the motor cars were standing and bright women descending; the soul must brave itself to endure He opened the big blade of his pocket-knife.” These examples are perhaps tedious, because there is a long context to unfold. But as the technology develops it becomes impossible to illustrate it at all by quotation, since the images involved become merged in the whole texture of the book and the allusions become continuous.


      In Mrs. Dalloway and of the action of the book is limited temporally to a single day in the life of its chief character, spatially to a single place, London, and emotionally to the relations of Mrs. Dalloway with a few other people. But as the action is presented in the main through the minds of these few people, and as the mind ranges without limitation of time or space, the book is actually concerned more with the past of its characters than with the presence of its single day, as much with other scenes as with London. Taking Mrs. Dalloway herself as the focal point round which all the “action” is centered, we find that the method of presentation reproduces that movement out and back again, to which I have referred in dealing with the word-patterns of Virginia Woolf’s style. So we start with Clarissa Dalloway stepping out into a London street to buy flowers for her party: but we have barely 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 meet Peter walsh, now away in India but due to come home. Then for the next twelve pages, we share with her the world of this London morning and the world of her memories; meet in the flesh her next-door neighbor, Scrope Purvis, and her friend, Hugh Whitbread; and in the mind her husband, her daughter Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s friend Doris Kilman, her own girlhood friend Sally Seton, many less important people, and again and again Peter Walsh.

“But with Peter, everything had to be shared, everything gone into. And it was intolerable, and when it came to that scene in the little garden by the fountain, she had to break with him, or they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced; though she had borne about with her for years like an arrow sticking in her heart, the grief, the anguish; and then the horror of that moment when someone told her at a concert that he had married a woman met on the boat going to India!”

      So the movement out and back again goes on. The process in an alternating one. A point is fixed, first a point of consciousness, Clarissa Dalloway; from that point 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 J. Watkiss, Septimus and Lucrezia, Sarah Bletchley, Mr. Bowley, and so on; then thirdly another point of consciousness, this time Septimus and Lucrezia, from which the movement can swing back in time again; then the point in present time once more, with the airplane sky-writing over London; and so this movement swings back to the point of consciousness, Clarissa Dalloway. It is on this pattern that the whole structure of the book is carefully built up, and the interesting result is that out of a series of incomplete pieces a complete whole is constructed; whereas in Jacob’s Room the movement was meandering, the pattern haphazard by consequence and the effect one of incompleteness. So it appears that 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,” that “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 required an artistic sensibility of a very high order to apply such a compromise in practice, to bring the “stream of consciousness” technique out of the realm of “stunt literature” into the world of the “common reader.”

      It is not easy to sum up Virginia Woolf’s method. She had so many methods; or rather she gave to her own particular method, “the stream of consciousness,” so many twists and turns. What she did do was to contrive a presentation of life which was highly individual and deeply interesting, and which was once, perhaps twice, completely successful. For in To the Lighthouse and hardly less so in Mrs. Dalloway she advanced the frontiers of the English novel by the mastery of a new and potentially fruitful technique; and so in the list of great novelists she will find a place perhaps not without honor.

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