Unifying the Double Plot in Mrs. Dalloway

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Depiction of Human Consciousness.

      Mrs. Virginia Woolf writes in her essay on Modern fiction included in the Common Reader, (first series): “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 Woolf’s stuff of the novel.

      In the novel, she has primarily paid her attention to recording 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 or alien. She is primarily interested in interpreting the inner life of the characters with the events from outside which affects the inner life. Thus she breaks away from the conventions of the well-made 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 no tragedy or comedy.

Vigorous Structure.

      Though Woolf has not followed the conventional style yet her novels are not chaotic and formless. She has evolved a new convention of her own that suits the purpose of rendering inner reality or mind of the character. Joan Bennett has well commented that “She adopts a rigorous process of selection and clarification, and so each of her novels has a vigorous and positive structure.’’ Mrs. Dalloway is specially praiseworthy for the “brilliance and fitness 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, the narrow framework of a single day. It moves between Mrs. Dalloway’s preparations for party in the morning and her presiding over it in the evening. The contacts she makes, and her associated memory with them constitute the fabric of the novel. The story of Septimus who impinges upon her mind, early in the day and whose death makes her gloomy in 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 a distinctive prominence. They move around each other in two concentric circles. Mr. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway and Peter Walsh stand in one circle, Septimus Warren Smith and Lucrezia in another. There is a set of minor characters like Sally Seton, Lady Bruton, Hugh Whitbread, Elizabeth Dalloway and Doris Kilman. They move around the first set but Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw revolve around Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Through the device of Dr. Holmes and William Bradshaw, two themes get linked with each other. In the background, there are number of figures in the novel but they are unimportant yet help to compose the total picture of London.

Device 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 its 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 more concerned with the past of characters than the present of a single day. Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway is the focal point of the action in the novel. The novel begins with Clarissa’s stepping out in a London street to buy flowers for her evening party but we have hardly joined her before we move in her mind, back through time to her girlhood, away from London to her family home at Bourton where we meet Peter Walsh, now in India but expected to come within few days. Then for the next twelve pages, we share her London morning and her memories; meet in the flesh her next door neighbor Purvis, 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 relationships, the economy of means by which it is done, are alike astonishing.”

Use of External Incidents.

      The backfiring of a motor-car engine draws out 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 in Lucrezia’s mind, when they stood on the embankment wrapped in the same cloak and were happy. The backfiring of motorcar brings into the focus of our attention again the by-standers and passers - by 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. Coats looks up, everyone looks up, to see an airplane making letters in the sky. Among those who looked are Lucrezia and Septimus also. The horror of Septimus’ madness is presented to us through Rezia’s terror, 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 one started. “What are they looking at?” asks Clarissa Dalloway to the maid who opened the door.

The Alternating 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 back 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; the point in present time once more, with the airplane sky-writing over London; and thus the movement swings back to the point of the consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway. It is out of this pattern of a series of incomplete pieces a complete whole comes out. Thus it seems that Mrs. Dalloway represents a compromise between the requirement for formal clarity of presentation and the formlessness very much found in 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. Woolf has used several other devices to impart formal clarity, order and design. First, attention is paid to 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 chiming 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 interrelated, 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 over the same question when they, look at the same sights. The conflict between the essential need of keeping the self inviolable and the need of love and contacts with other individuals constantly troubles Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway and the other characters of the novel.

The Psychological Unity Between Two Plots

      The novel has two plots but they are closely knit together psychologically. Septimus is Clarissa’s externalization of her mental states. He is the objectification of the frustration and boredom of Clarissa that she is suffering from. He suggests her tormented soul. He, too, feels the end of ‘spiritual privacy’, He represents the “death of the soul” both of Mrs. Dalloway and contemporary civilization. According to Jean Guiget, “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 reference is of capital importance. What allows us to shift without a bar from Clarissa to Septimus, in front of the flower shop, is not their spatial contiguity, nor even the explosion that rings out is the ears of both. It is contiguity of their thoughts. The monstrous threat of the specters who stand astride us and suck up half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants, 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 brought about not their looking at the airplane but by the feeling of beauty and peace, of blended awe and exaltation, of religious relations which both experience. Finally, the response of Clarissa Dalloway on the talk of Septimus’ death shows, as said by A.D. Moody that he represents the most hidden aspects of her soul. He is the objectification of Clarissa’s “death of the soul.”


      Mrs. Dalloway is not formless or chaotic like other stream-of-consciousness novels in rendering human mind. It is noteworthy here that in order to sustain the internal unity the whole 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 achieved the compromise between the need for formal clarity and the requirement of the stream-of-consciousness method.

University Questions

The double plot is one of the chief merits of Mrs. Dalloway. Discuss.
The action of the novel is limited, spatially temporarily and emotionally; How far Mrs. Woolf is successful in achieving it in her novel - Mrs. Dalloway.
What are the various unifying factors in the plot of Mrs, Dalloway?

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