Discuss Virginia Woolf's narrative technique in the novel Mrs. Dalloway.

Woolf's narrative technique in Mrs. Dalloway is stream of consciousness. She tells the story of one day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway through the thoughts, perceptions, and experiences of Mrs. Dalloway and those she encounters. She dispenses with the omniscient narrator who tells readers what it all means.

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In her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses a blended narration. She employs a third-person narrator, but through that narrator, she also offers a stream of consciousness that relates Clarissa Dalloway's thoughts, feelings, and reactions in a running flow. The narrator both looks at Clarissa from the outside and...

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In her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses a blended narration. She employs a third-person narrator, but through that narrator, she also offers a stream of consciousness that relates Clarissa Dalloway's thoughts, feelings, and reactions in a running flow. The narrator both looks at Clarissa from the outside and has access to the depths of her psyche. Let's look at some examples of how this works.

The very first sentence of the novel announces, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." This statement by the third-person narrator looks at Clarissa from the outside and describes something that she said that everyone could hear.

The very next paragraph, however, plunges readers directly into Clarissa's own thoughts about Lucy having "her work cut out for her," the doors and their hinges, Rumpelmayer's men coming, and the freshness of the morning. It is a jumble of reflections very much like what all of us would find if we stopped for a moment to pay attention to exactly what we are thinking.

Yet this stream of consciousness is not completely in Clarissa's own voice. Consider the novel's third paragraph. It begins with Clarissa's thoughts, "What a lark! What a plunge!" But then the narrator inserts a comment that it has always seemed such to Clarissa and a description of her bursting open the windows. The stream of consciousness then resumes with next sentence as Clarissa muses on the freshness of the air, the waves, the flowers and trees, Peter Walsh, and an odd quotation about preferring men to cauliflower. Again, this is a classic stream of consciousness with its random, free-flowing narration, yet is not relayed in the first person.

The very next paragraph, then, moves firmly back to the third-person narrator, who describes Clarissa as sitting on the curb and notes that Scrope Purvis considers her to be a charming woman.

Note that the stream-of-consciousness sections of the narrative tend to be long and winding with extra long, rather rambling sentences, digressions, questions, and even some unusual syntax. Again, this mirrors (or at least attempts to mirror) a person's actual sequence of thoughts.

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Woolf struggled with how to convey the truth she felt was missing in Victorian and Edwardian novels. Her breakthrough came when she was institutionalized for a mental breakdown after writing Night and Day, her last conventional novel. Her breakthrough was that omniscient narration is a lie: nobody really knows what is the true reality of another person's life or consciousness. She expressed this in her short story "An Unwritten Novel," in which a narrator on a train creates a stream-of-consciousness story in her mind about a woman near her being a lonely spinster, only to have this fiction proven wrong when the woman's husband greets her at the station. The point of the story is this: what a narrator thinks is not necessarily real.

Woolf uses this same stream-of-consciousness technique in Mrs. Dalloway. People see and greet and talk to each other, but ninety percent of what happens is what goes on in their minds, in their thoughts, as they go through their day. Mrs. Dalloway follows Clarissa Dalloway through one day, recording her thoughts as she travels around London preparing for a party she is throwing that night and then follows her and others through the party itself. She tells us not what Mrs. Dalloway is like from on high as an omniscient, all-knowing narrator might, but what Mrs. Dalloway herself thinks, see, and perceives. She doesn't pass judgment on this, but lets it be.

She also reveals what Mrs. Dalloway is like by putting us in the heads of multiple characters who know her, such as Peter Walsh, and letting their thoughts about her flow out. Juxtaposed against this is the story of Septimus Smith, suffering from war trauma, whose story is also told through his own consciousness and that of his wife. Through doing this, Woolf is trying to get closer to the subjective way life is lived and experienced: we don't know most of other people's thoughts, don't reveal most of what passes through our minds to others, and have nobody to tell us what is all means.

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In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf employs a third-person omniscient narrator. The narrator is privy to Mrs. Dalloway's private thoughts, such as in the following opening scene. Mrs. Dalloway is on her way to buy flowers in London for a party she is holding later that night:

For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can't be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life.

The narration presents her stream-of-consciousness thoughts that are provoked by what Mrs. Dalloway sees or hears around her. In the passage above, she has just heard the bells of Westminster and is moved to think about how everyone loves life and how she is connected to other people through hearing the bells.

The narration also presents the innermost thoughts of other characters in the novel. For example, when Peter Walsh, Mrs. Dalloway's former boyfriend, meets her years later, he thinks: 

She's grown older, he thought, sitting down. I shan't tell her anything about it, he thought, for she's grown older. She's looking at me, he thought, a sudden embarrassment coming over him, though he had kissed her hands.

The narration presents the thoughts of different characters, even the smallest thought, as they go through one day in London. The result is a novel that presents everyday experiences as people truly live them; people in the novel are provoked to think thoughts both important and inconsequential by experiencing the world around them each day. 

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Woolf's narrative technique in Mrs. Dalloway is stream-of-consciousness but a different form than, say, James Joyce. In Mrs. Dalloway, she is thinking a lot and the reader is privy to her constant stream of thoughts. (But it's not written in the first person narrative.)  It feels very self-conscious when you read it; because the things written down on the page are what most people think--inside their heads--however they would never say out loud. This is her narrative style and it shows in Mrs. Dalloway how aware she was of her limited role in society and in her way of seeing herself in an almost objective way. Mrs. Dalloway was a character unto herself. She was herself and , at the same time, she was a character that she could observe.

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