The Question of Plot in Virginia Woolf's Novel
Mrs. Dalloway is a work of literature that can be classified as narrative fiction. That is, it tells a story, or a narrative, that is fictional, or made-up. Novels and short stories are narrative fictions usually structured by a plot. But Mrs. Dalloway is a novel without a plot. This essay examines what this means and why the author might have chosen to eschew this typical narrative convention.
In Aspects of the Novel, Woolf's contemporary, E. M. Forster, explains the difference between story and plot in the following way:
A plot [like a story] is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king dies and then the queen died," is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.
A plot, then, establishes causal relationships between characters, or between characters and events. Moreover, for a novel to be said to have a plot, this series of interconnected events must unify the entire story or determine most of its major happenings. To relate the story of a novel is simply to relate events and situations as they happen, page by page, in a book; to relate the plot involves capturing the reasons why the things that happen happen. While Mrs. Dalloway certainly establishes causal relationships between characters and events, the novel cannot be said to have a plot because a network of causality does not unify the entire book.
On the contrary, the book takes great trouble to establish how it is different, in this respect, from most novels. Chance and coincidence, instead of purposeful interconnection, structure the book. Peter Walsh, a very important character, arrives by chance at Clarissa's on the day of her party. Sally Seton, another important character, arrives at Clarissa's party unexpectedly and also by chance. Septimus Warren Smith is also a major character in the book who is only tangentially related to the other major characters. The connection of Septimus to the other characters is determined by chance and locale, not by any social connections these characters have in common. Septimus and Clarissa pass each other by chance, as both are on Bond Street at the same time. Septimus and Peter Walsh also pass each other by chance, just outside Regent's Park, neither knowing that the other exists. Indeed, it is the single day, the Wednesday in June 1923, that unifies the book, and nothing else.
Plots make what happen in a novel seem natural and inevitable. But plots are really just constructed by authors, and so the events depicted in novels are not inevitable at all. Woolf's plotless book of chance and coincidence plays on the way that plot is a series of "coincidences" made to look like naturally or casually connected events by the careful work of a controlling author.
Most stories that are written and read have plots. The writer makes certain decisions about characters (their personalities and qualities), and about characters' relations to other characters or to social forces and events. The author then comes up with a plot built upon the likely responses and actions of character types in relation to other character types or in relation to social happenings. The author, in this way, feels that it is possible and desirable to predict how certain types of people will think and behave. The author also feels that certain social forces are describable and likely to have certain predictable effects on certain types of persons. The author who settles on a plot, then, is confident that he or she knows a great deal about human nature and about how the world works.
This confidence about personality type, social type, and how the world works was never more developed than in the novels of the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. Typical to these novels is a narrator who tells the reader all about the particular character—his or her thoughts and desires, his or weaknesses and strengths. These narrators also explain why a...
(The entire section is 6,060 words.)