How is Mrs Dalloway a Modernist novel?
There are several ways in which one can see Mrs. Dalloway as a Modernist novel. The mose dominant is that the novel's premise marks a "shift" in both content and narrative style. When Woolf defines Modernism, herself, she does so in a deliberate and pointed manner: “All human relations shifted,and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” It is here in which her work can be seen as Modernist in scope. The stream of consciousness style of writing marked a shift in how literature could be constructed. It was in this where the text become Modernist in scope and in understanding. In terms of content, Mrs. Dalloway focuses on how the fundamental notion of consciousness- "a whole life in a day"- is part of our being in the world. This is yet another "shift" in our thinking and in the way "human relations change." Mrs. Dalloway is not a direct narrative type of protagonist because Woolf believes that this shift which has taken place in both society and intellectual consciousness makes this impossible.
Clarissa's party features much that marks "an end" to the old and conceives of a new that is fundamentally different than what was in the past. Clarissa is not a definite social creature. She does not fully embrace the condition of what women were told to be. True to this "shift," she articulates a different vision. War is not seen as nationalistic or patriotic, but rather is "shifted" to be seen as psychologically horrific. All of these ideas come to represent how the work, itself, is a Modernist one because of the emphasis on this "shift" as an inescapable part of being in the world.
Mrs. Dalloway is a Modernist novel because of the way in which the writing mimics actual human thinking and the book’s story arc is heavily fragmented and non-linear. Although the novel features frequent remembrances from each of its three main characters, the entire novel takes place in a single day. This means that Virginia Woolf spends a tremendous amount of time describing her characters’ thoughts as opposed to the unfolding of events or plot. Throughout the text, Woolf abruptly switches between direct and indirect speech, meaning it is often unclear to whom the character is speaking. Her characters also move between omniscience (being all-knowing) and speaking only of and to themselves. Woolf’s goal was to write in a way that allowed the reader to experience the hyper-awareness, anxiety, and ultimate insanity that plagued her characters.
Modernism was shaped by the aftermath of World War I. One of its tenants was the belief that traditional artistic modes could no longer accurately render the human experience after the atrocity of the “War to End All Wars.” The poet Ezra Pound said of Modernism, “Make it new!” It’s Mrs. Dalloway’s radical mode of storytelling that epitomizes newness and makes this book a landmark Modernist text.
Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway is considered a landmark modernist text for both stylistic and content-based reasons. Published in 1925 during the height of the modernist movement, Mrs. Dalloway solidified the stream-of-consciousness technique which has become a defining feature of modernist literature. Unlike previous narratives which frequently make use of an external narrator, Mrs. Dalloway presents the inner thoughts of characters as they are thinking. The goal of the novel, then, is not just to tell a story, but to capture the reality of individuals' lived experience.
In addition to the stream-of-consciousness technique, Woolf's narrative seems to weave in and out of different characters' minds, presenting us with a fragmented narrative. As scholars such as Malcolm Bradbury and Peter Howarth argue, this sense of fragmentation is an important condition of the modernist mindset, and permeates the works of many modernists such as Woolf, Joyce, and Eliot. Mrs. Dalloway deals with fragmentation not only through its narrative structure, but through the content of the story, which involves several flashbacks. These flashbacks reflect another important modernist concern: the issue of time. With the rise of new, more efficient technologies, the pace of life in the modernist period became accelerated, and left many modernist authors and artists feeling lost in the tumult. With the perpetual presence of clock chimes, Mrs. Dalloway examines the way that the relatively new concept of standardized time is insufficient as a way of measuring life, and reemphasizes the idea of a fragmented society.
The issue of fragmentation is further manifested in how Mrs. Dalloway deals with the issue of physical bodies and inner mental existence. For most modernists (DH Lawrence being the most notable exception), the physical body came to be seen as problematic and isolating; we can never truly know how another person experiences the world because they exist in a completely separate physical body. Clarissa recognizes this physical limitation, and even identifies it as the primary question of modern existence. Before her party begins, and directly after "Big Ben struck the half-hour" (127), Clarissa observes her elderly neighbor, and concludes "the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn't believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?" (127).
Mrs. Dalloway, then, is not just a modernist novel, but a key text of the modernist movement that touches on the questions of fragmentation and isolated inner existence through startling technical innovations that later helped define modernist literature.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. New York: Harcourt, 1981.
Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane, editors. Modernism 1890-1930. Penguin,