While all three novels are Modernist in their approach, with narratives cast in first person, plots concerned with the ills of society after World War I, themes of disillusionment and disconnectedness, a non-linear sense of time, a representation of the self as contradictory and ambiguous, and with personal truth of more import than absolute truths, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway has come to be recognized as a novel that epitomizes Modernism.
Indeed Woolf abandoned the conventional plot and the conception of time as a linear sequence of events, and by means of an extremely lyrical and evocative language, rich in suggestive and beautiful images of transitoriness and openness, and based on a fluid and scattering syntax, she articulated her great novels
Born from Mrs. Woolf's wedding of thought after she listened to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and read James Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway is a masterpiece of all things Modernist as it is told through the weaving of mind and emotions in stream of consciousness. Indeed, Woolf's Modernist narrative technique is what distinguishes it from the others, especially in its authorial candor of presentation as, having heard what one critic calls "the echoes of death" in The Wasteland and felt the wanderings of Odyssean narrative of Joyce, she has created a web of inner consciousness among her characters in Mrs. Dalloway that dissolves time and the self as characters connect in space and the narrator slips from one consciousness to the next. This dissolving of time is definitively symbolized in the impressionistic depiction of Big Ben as "leaden circles dissolved in the air"; indeed, the clock is inadequate for recording subjective reality.
Woolf's duality of consciousness with the personages of Clarissa and Septimus, whose name means "seven," the Biblical number for completion, is a Modernist tour de force as with the depth of Septimus, the existential search for meaning then becomes a feminine quest. In fact, a line from Yeats has been used to describe this relationship between Clarissa and Septimus: "Dying each other's life, living each other's death." At first, they mirror some actions; then, there is an interdependence of Clarissa and Septimus. For example, in the opening of the novel, Clarissa purchases flowers at a florist's shop and is drawn to the window as a motor car backfires, a sound that also draws Septimus, who is on the street outside, to look at the car. Then, as Septimus stands rooted to the place he is in, time seems to stop as he descends into what one critic calls "the interiority of madness." Later, the word time causes Septimus to lose his mind. When his wife utters this word, Septimus is sent into an visionary experience in which he encounters his friend Evans, who was killed in the war and feels what Conrad's Kurtz calls the "horror":
"For God's sake don't come!" Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead.
Septimus on the outskirts of Mrs. Dalloway's social class, nevertheless dies in her place as he is a double to Clarissa. At her party, when Dr. Bradshaw arrives late because one of his patients has committed suicide, Clarissa's contemplation of Septimus's death suggests this intuitive closeness that she feels about a man she has never known. She ponders,
"Death was defiance.... Death was an attempt to communicate.... Had he plunged holding his treasure?... What a plunge...She felt somehow very like him....she felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. . . . He made her feel the beauty."
While interwoven interior monologues with an overriding omniscient narrator and a sense of discontinuous time are prevalent in Mrs. Dalloway, there is also the Modernist use of satire as Woolf attacks the psychiatrists, the traditionalist Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradsaw, for their callousness and lack of empathy and misunderstanding of war trauma. Also, there is some criticism of imperialism and the English social system.
Without doubt, Mrs. Dalloway is a seminal Modernist work that reflects the disillusionment of its time, that illuminates the fluidity of the mind, that depicts the difficult balance in life between autonomy and fear and peace as well as the doubts about objective reality. The New York Times writes of the author of Mrs. Dalloway,
Virginia Woolf is almost alone, however, in the intricate yet clear art of her composition
The modernist Literature movement ushered in what Ezra Pound characterized as the new spirit of the ages in his maxim 'Make it new.' Pound was one of the major figures of the Modernist movement. This modernist movement saw traditional literature, with its static structure of an obligatory introduction and conflict and resolution, and replaced it with ambiguity, connotation, fragmentation, stream of consciousness writing, introspection, symbolic time (via flashbacks in The Great Gatsby), satire and irony.
The novels Mrs. Dalloway, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises are three very well known modernist works which revel in the ability to shatter the status quo in traditional Western thought and belief. These novels include all the basic characteristics of modernist thought.
All three novels are multi-layered works of fiction which delineate the corruption of modern society. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is a self-conscious narrator, more introspective than omniscient (another characteristic of modernist literature) who tells us the story of Jay Gatsby. He moves from the Midwest to New York City, where he goes to work as a stockbroker. His wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby, is in love with a married woman, Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby holds out hope that his great accumulation of wealth will one day eclipse that of Daisy's husband and therefore win her hand in marriage. The possibility of an immoral or unethical angle to his actions never haunts his modern conscience. Nick is aghast at the moral bankruptcy which epitomizes the nouveau riche and even the less fortunate. This modernist antipathy towards Victorian traditional mores is also apparent in The Sun Also Rises, with Brett engaging in sexual liaisons with three men, Romero, Robert and Mike.
In Mrs. Dalloway, the modernist inclination towards greater introspective behavior is seen in the illuminating portrayal of Clarissa's fractured sense of self in her daily ruminations; Clarissa possesses an inner core of sadness which is apparent to us but not to the other characters. She feels her individuality has been swallowed up in that of her husband's and that her daughter is too strongly influenced by her tutor, Miss Kilman, but also feels that she is helpless to remedy her individual dilemmas. The sense of the disembodiment of individual personalities is apparent today: we question technological advances, industrialization and the mechanization of our modern society. We have become more disengaged from our families, our neighbors and ourselves as a result. We look back at previous generations and lament our lost hopes from a more innocent past. As in all three novels, we also question whether traditional morality via a belief in God and absolute truth is an adequate shield for the new challenges we face. We question whether the horrors of war will destroy any last vestiges of humanity within us: in Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I, commits suicide because he is unwilling to accept being committed to a mental institution. Today, we would characterize Smith's problem as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and he would have been qualified for special medication in order to treat symptoms. Jake, in The Sun Also Rises, is another veteran of WWI; he deals with his private griefs from the war through heavy drinking, fishing trips and bullfights. Because of the injuries he received, Jake is impotent and can never marry the love of his life, Lady Brett Ashley.
As to which of the three novels seems the most modernist, we have to ask ourselves what the modernists were trying to tell us. Their message is more relative than absolute. As in the Disney animated song, "Frozen," the modernists questioned the absolute certainty of traditional Western morality of right and wrong as the antidote to the challenges within an evolving modern culture. As explained above, all three of the novels contain this very explicit questioning; in fact, many of the modernists welcomed Marx's and Freud's new ideas about psychology and politics. Yet, The Great Gatsby transcends all that newness with the departure of Nick Carraway back to his Midwestern roots at the end of the novel. This is a very poignant finale and characterizes the greatest of these three modernist novels because it begs the question: after we foray into alternative philosophical thought via Freud, Marx and Nietzsche as the modernists did, will we return full circle to the traditional moralities and cultural norms which modernists believe fueled the excesses in capitalism and industrialization? Was belief in traditional institutions and morality the culprit or the victim of these excesses? Thus, these important questions continue to haunt our modern subconsciousness as we seek answers to war, despair, suicide, social disengagement, corruption and apathy.