How does Virginia Woolf uses the narrative technique “stream of consciousness" in her novel Mrs. Dalloway?

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This pathbreaking novel is told entirely through stream of consciousness. In other words, there is no outside narrator setting up and describing the scene or telling us, as readers, what to think. As Woolf outlines in her essay "Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown" she rejects the Edwardian—and Victorian—narrator who provides...

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This pathbreaking novel is told entirely through stream of consciousness. In other words, there is no outside narrator setting up and describing the scene or telling us, as readers, what to think. As Woolf outlines in her essay "Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown" she rejects the Edwardian—and Victorian—narrator who provides a "normative" frame for a work and lots of descriptive embellishment that is supposed to stand in for "objectivity." Woolf, instead, wanted to capture the pure subjectivity of real, lived experience. As we go through our days, we don't have a "narrator" telling us what to think: we simply react to the raw experience of what we encounter as we process it inside our heads.

In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf moves in and out of the heads of various characters. We see everything through the subjective eyes of whatever character whose thoughts and perceptions Woolf happens to be "downloading" at that moment. The experiences that molded these characters—and their memories as well—determine how they react to what is going on around them in the single day of Mrs. Dalloway's party. So as a character walks down a London street, what he or she encounters experientially will trigger a line of thoughts and memories that Woolf will record.

Woolf goes in and out of so many heads without any contextualizing structure that it can become confusing, and one has to work hard to keep track of what is going on. This is a hallmark of modernism: writers like Woolf, Joyce, and Stein wanted readers to be alert and actively engaged in the reading process was slightly disoriented and didn't become mechanical and predictable.

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Virginia Woolf is often recognized as a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness, but to simply make that observation is not quite enough. Indeed, Woolf's writing style differs quite remarkably from other writers who use the technique, especially James Joyce, whose landmark novel Ulysses uses the stream of consciousness masterfully and is often presented as the quintessential modernist novel. Joyce's technique, however, is quite different from Woolf's. Joyce, for instance, directly reports what his characters think in the way that they would think it, especially in the final chapter, in which he realistically represents the messy pattern of human thought by giving us Molly Bloom's interior monologue with very little punctuation. Woolf's style throughout Mrs. Dalloway is still stream of consciousness, but it is also very different from Joyce's standard. For example, though Woolf spends most of the novel occupying her protagonists' thoughts, and though she mimics the flux of the interior monologue, she does not try to mimic the messy progress of human thought like Joyce. Instead, she uses a style that is very similar to free indirect discourse, in which a narrator's style adopts the persona of certain character's (Jane Austen was a master of this narrative technique as well), giving the reader a narrative colored by the personality of the protagonist. Take, for example, the second paragraph of the book:

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumplemayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning--fresh as if issued to children on a beach. (3)

In this paragraph, we actually indirectly occupy Clarissa's consciousness, seeing the world through her eyes and experiencing a narrative firmly under the control of her interior processes. The morning is not fresh because it is objectively fresh, but rather because Clarissa thinks it's fresh, and so our experience of the world is also an experience of Clarissa's interior life. Thus, Woolf's style is unique in that, though it doesn't attempt to depict the exact way that thoughts happen as Joyce does, she still presents a continuous stream of personalized thoughts. Later, this technique becomes even more unique as Woolf jumps from consciousness to consciousness, exploring the interior lives of characters like Peter Walsh and Septimus Smith. In this way, though Woolf is certainly not the only writer to use stream of consciousness, she certainly made the technique her own by blending it with free indirect discourse.  

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