What narrative techniques are significant in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway?
The narrative technique Virginia Woolf employs in Mrs. Dalloway is extremely significant for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most significant and most commonly discussed technique is Woolf's use of free indirect discourse, which allows her to represent the inner thought processes of multiple characters throughout the text. A form of third-person narration wherein a character's thoughts and feelings are filtered through the voice of the narrator, free indirect discourse allows Woolf to explore the nature of human consciousness by tracing the mental processes involved in sensation and perception. This is one of the primary focal points of the text. Free indirect discourse was a relatively new and experimental narrative technique at the time Woolf was writing Mrs. Dalloway, which lends it another level of significance in that it establishes the novel's modernist roots. While more traditional novels focus on the outer world of action, Woolf's simultaneous focus on the complex inner worlds of multiple characters represents a departure from novelistic conventions of the time, making Mrs. Dalloway a groundbreaking piece of modern literature.
Although sometimes mistakenly referred to as "stream of consciousness," the narration in Mrs. Dalloway is very structured and serves the rhetorical function of revealing the many different ways a single stimulus or piece of information can be processed or interpreted by different people over time. Woolf is also very interested in the nature of time and how humans perceive time both consciously and unconsciously. By employing free indirect discourse, Woolf is able to move swiftly between the inner worlds of various characters across time and space, in effect expanding and contracting moments in time to reveal the intricate mental processes involved in even the simplest actions or sense perceptions.
In Mrs. Dalloway, the narrative shifts subtly to present the innermost thoughts of many characters, including not only Clarissa Dalloway but other characters such as Peter, Richard, Septimus Smith (the shell-shocked veteran), and Doris Kilman, among others. In this technique, the subjective thoughts and feelings of different characters are presented as if the reader has access their minds. However, the narrative does not use "I," or the first person, but instead stays within the frame of an omniscient, or all-knowing, narrator—the third person. The shift from one character's thoughts to another can be very hard to detect at first, as the narration shifts subtly from presenting the thoughts and experiences of one character to another.
In addition, the narrative uses a stream of consciousness technique, a hallmark of modernist literature, to present characters' thoughts as they go about their day. The characters' thoughts appear as the thoughts pop into their minds in a jumbled, haphazard fashion. More momentous thoughts come in between fleeting impressions of the world around them. The narrative in the novel happens in one day, so Woolf captures the thoughts of her characters as they go through a single day.
Mrs Dalloway utlizes a third person narrator who is “omniscient” in the sense that the narrator has access, to some degree, to the thoughts of all the characters. The novel also employs what is known as “free indirect style,” where the third person narrator speaks from the point of view of a particular character while maintaining the use of third-person pronouns. Woolf is not alone in using these methods—we can see much the same technique at work in Jane Austen’s novels, for example. Woolf’s innovation was in the rapid (and fairly explicit) shifting of point of view between characters, often without reference to conventional narrative markers (like time and place). Woolf also used what was known as “stream of consciousness,” or the attempt to present as accurately as possible the actual thought processes of a character. The “story” of Mrs Dalloway consists of the mundane events of a single day—Mrs Dalloway’s trip to buy flowers—but the real subject matter is the interior lives of the characters, a kind of psychological reality that required new narrative approaches to capture.