Mrs. Dalloway Questions and Answers
by Virginia Woolf

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

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Olen Bruce eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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kimfuji eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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mehul26 | Student

Virginia Woolf uses a complex and well known narrative technique, popularly known as the 'stream of consciousness' technique. However, great scholars like Erich Auerbach prefer to call it the 'interpersonal representation of consciousness.' This technique of presenting the interconnected thoughts of the many characters in the novel like Mrs. Dalloway, Richard, Peter, Sally, Elizabeth-Clarissa's daughter, was quite new and unusual when Virginia Woolf was writing. Before her and other modernist writers like James Joyce and Proust were famously composing novels using such techniques, novels had been written till the very end of the nineteenth century in what has been called the 'realist mode.' The differences between the two modes are not so easily discerned, but there are some characteristics of both kinds of novels which can be determined. Modernism, in general as many movements in arts in the twentieth century was characterized by breakdown of certainties and traditional art forms and the rise of new art forms which challenged dominant narratives of truth, power and certainty in the world.

While the realist mode is characterized by characters moving from birth to death, having thoughts and performing actions that move along a linear direction in time, this is not the case with characters in the modernist novels. In modernist novels like Mrs. Dalloway the days of childhood of most of the characters have not been shown in a linear fashion. References to Peter, Sally and Clarissa's early days stretch back to when they were teenagers. In the present (the time scheme of the novel) the characters are shown to be in their fifties. In fact, the novel shows the older selves of these characters reminiscing about their younger selves in the past. The realist mode which often dealt with characters growing in linear time, dealt with ideas of truth with a lot of certainty. It started with characters in their early childhood days.

Unlike the realist novels, the modernist novels portrayed truth as multiple 'truths,' presented through the perspective of many characters. No one single voice dominates or assumes the role of giving the truth. This is because the twentieth century witnessed great changes in social, political and cultural spheres of life. With rapid urbanization, industrialization, World Wars raging and tearing people's minds, families, cities and countries apart, it was difficult to hold on to any single idea of truth in the twentieth century. And then there was the rise of fascist regimes which divided the people as in the Nazi regime and others, and caused much destruction of lives and social structures.

This background is absolutely essential to understand the narrative technique employed by Woolf in the novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The characters in Mrs. Dalloway have their thoughts interconnected, as it were. Also, one character's thoughts move back and forth in the past as well as the present. This is well illustrated in the motor car scene of the novel.

In the motor car scene, Mrs. Dalloway sees the car that has the Royal symbol of the Queen or those in power, representing the political authority in England. While she watches the car move slowly through a huge crowd trying to catch a glimpse of this authority, we also see Septimus Warren Smith getting affected by the presence of the car. He feels that the sun is too hot upon him, and people are watching him. He feels that he is on display. Both Clarissa and Septimus together express their feelings of unease in interconnected thoughts, which in Septimus's case is huge because it is this authority in the car which had sent young men like him to the First World War from which he never recovered. Later on in the novel, Septimus commits suicide as he is suffering from shell shock and the psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw who represents patriarchal oppression in the novel dismisses shell shock that soldiers suffer from as merely some disease that needs 'isolation and rest' to cure. Even Clarissa Dalloway hates Sir William Bradshaw, because to her he seems like the epitome of patriarchal suppression and one who legitimizes the political logic of War. Many of the modernist novels had actually raised voices against the atrocities of the two World Wars. Just as the more recent BBC show, Peaky Blinders also shows through the character of Tommy Shelby, who throws away all his medals won in the War.

In the party scene, when Clarissa Dalloway receives the news of Septimus's suicide she herself feels a terrible sadness as if she was somehow connected to a Septimus, whom she had never met. This man and she shared many similarities-both of them had become victims of a patriarchal political and social order in England represented by Richard Dalloway and Sir William Bradshaw in the novel. Through the 'stream of consciousness', the novel shows a world torn apart by fascist tendencies, World Wars and also the horrendous characteristics of the British Empire which controlled many parts of the world ruthlessly. In the end, she feels connected with the old lady in her thoughts while looking out of the window sharing a fondness for normalcy, safety and security of the every day which was when people lived their lives without the fear of imminent destruction. The 'everyday' as a category was quite a popular philosophical category in a lot of modernist literature.

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