Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway”

1925

Probably Woolf’s most widely-read novel, Mrs. Dalloway is a response to Joyce’s Ulysses in its multiple subjectivities, its urban exploration, and its one-day setting. As opposed to the stream of consciousness of Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway is usually described as hinging on free indirect discourse. This allows a jumping and flowing between subjectivities, but with an emphasis on the ambiguity of the third-person intercostal phrases that occur as mutually observed objects become nexus points for multiple viewers.

To me, it seems that while the object is the occasion for memory or perspectival change in Woolf, it proliferates in Joyce. That is, whereas the surfaces of Woolf’s world are points of contact with other people and with a deep store of memory, in Joyce, even for the more worldly Bloom (let alone the philosophical Stephen), they are occasions to ruminate and multiply associations. One of the most profound set of images for this in the novel comes with the connection between Clarissa and Septimus, who never meet. Both of them imagine connectedness with other people through trees – materially rooted and reaching at the same time, but imagine loneliness and depression through silent seas – not present but in the mind. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa goes to the window, she is able to imagine his death with her body first – a visceral giving on to his subjectivity in a wonderful moment of genuine sympathy, sadly absent between many characters who actually do know each other.

Woolf’s free indirect discourse also gives itself over to the characters in a sort of democratic consensus. On the novel’s first page:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when… 3.

This is echoed again in the last line, as Peter’s perspective opens outward: “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” 194. The continuous present of Woolf’s past tense, as well as the lack of chapters, encourages the reader to process the novel as an accumulation of thought, of the “atoms as they fall,” as Woolf writes in “Modern Fiction.”

E. M. Forster writes of the “shimmering fabric of mysticism” in the novel, “required like most writers to choose between the surface and depths as a basis of her operations, she chooses the surface and then burrows in as far as she can,” perhaps a reference to Woolf’s own imagining of her characters as caves with tunnels connecting them. I’m also interested in the nascent split subject in this novel, especially Clarissa. Woolf and other modernist writers point to women, specifically, as always split. I will conclude the passage where Clarissa pulls the parts of her self together in the mirror alone:

“That was her self – pointed; dart like, definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing-room and made a meeting-point, a radiancy no doubt in some dull lives” 37.

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