Virginia Woolf is one of the representative writers of novels using the stream of consciousness technique. She made important contributions to its development by confirming her own original literary views through a unique structure in one of her masterpieces, Mrs. Dalloway. Throughout her life, Woolf constantly broke through tradition and worked hard for innovation.
Mrs. Dalloway expresses subjective truth in a simple plot and uses time-space leaps to show aspects different from traditional novels. It is known as Woolf’s most typical novel using the stream of consciousness technique.
Acting not only as a descriptive and narrative technique, but also as an embodiment and extension of the themes in the novel, the stream of consciousness helps to fulfill the ideal unity between form and content. Without comprehension of this unity, one cannot fully appreciate the unique beauty and profound ideological intentions of the novel. This thesis attempts a tentative study of how stream of consciousness techniques function in characterization and deepening themes. The thesis consists of four chapters.
Chapter One focuses on the shuttle between clock time and psychological time, creating a double narrative” that records both external and internal activities of the characters. This unique approach to time enhances and enriches the structure and patterns of the stream of consciousness.
In Chapter Two, more attention is given to symbolic imagery. While not exclusive to stream of consciousness novels, this technique is also used in other types of literature.
Chapter Three provides vivid examples that explain the use of interior monologue.
The novel also provides a definition and related knowledge of interior monologue, which helps readers gain a better understanding. Chapter four emphasizes the characterization of Mrs. Dalloway from another point of view, analyzing her stream of consciousness.
Keywords: Mrs. Dalloway, stream of consciousness, writing techniques.
Her father, Leslie Stephen, was also a writer and edited The Dictionary of National Biography. During her childhood, Woolf suffered sexual abuse from her half-brother Gerald Duckworth and experienced the early deaths of both her mother and brother. Throughout the rest of her life, she struggled with mental illness and periods of extreme depression that accompanied the creation of her major works and ultimately led to her suicide in 1941.
Following Leslie’s death in 1904, the Stephen family relocated to a house in London’s Bloomsbury area which later became known as the base for the famous Bloomsbury group. This group included novelist E.M. Forster and economist John Maynard Keynes among others.
M. Forster, the biographer Lytton Strachey, and the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were all part of the Bloomsbury Group, as were economist John Maynard Keynes, Fabian writer Leonard Woolf, and novelist and critic Virginia Woolf. As a central figure in this group, Woolf held a strong belief in the importance of the arts while remaining skeptical of social conventions and restraints. Rather than turning to new social ideas such as Marxism after World War I, Woolf and her peers sought compensation for the chaos of contemporary history through new forms of art. It is often said that Woolf’s work cannot be discussed without considering her views on the novel.
In all her literary life, Virginia Woolf endeavored to establish a new form of novel: novels of stream of consciousness. Her rebellion against Victorianism lay in her rejection of realism. Woolf looked inward and explored the external world of the human mind by drawing attention to an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” and representing psychological reality with her delicate use of stream-of-consciousness. Woolf is considered one of the representatives of writers who used stream-of-consciousness in the 20th century Modernist Movement. Her style is often described as poetic and impressionistic.
Her major works include Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931). Though there is argument over which is Woolf’s masterpiece, most critics agree that Mrs. Dalloway is the first experimental novel by which Woolf established her status as one of the most influential modern writers in the 20th century.
Mrs. Dalloway records the experiences of two characters within a single day, from 10 o’clock in the morning till midnight. There is little action, but much shifting in time from present to past and back again in the characters’ memories through such devices as stream of consciousness, interior monologue and nonlinear narrative.
The novel was originally named The Hours, which emphasized its representation of time. The eventual change to Mrs. Dalloway reflects Woolf’s new depth given to her central character.
The story takes place on a June day in 1923 London where Clarissa Dalloway, wife of Richard Dalloway – Member of Parliament – sets off to buy flowers for her party that evening. In the street, a car said to contain some VIP catches everyone’s attention including Clarissa and shell-shocked veteran Septimus Warren Smith who are both main characters.
After that, the story splits into two lines. On one line, Clarissa has important encounters with Peter Walsh, an old suitor whom she rejected; her husband Richard; her daughter Elizabeth; and the home tutor appropriately named Miss Kilman. On the other line, Septimus refuses to be treated by Dr. Holmes and instead calls on the nerve specialist Sir William Bradshaw with his wife Rezia. Later he commits suicide at home by throwing himself out of a window in an attempt to escape being sent to one of Sir William’s homes.
In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf not only depicts English society after the First World War, but also provides insights into life and death, sanity and insanity, criticism of the social system, and its most intense workings (Woolf, Collected Essays2 89). The novel centers around Clarissa’s party and her encounter with Sir William Bradshaw who informs her of Septimus’s death. This event inspires a vivid reverie on life and death at the end. The society portrayed in the novel is recovering from the tragedies of battle, death, and loss but lacks consistency and connection between people as well as between past and present.
Mrs. Dalloway has received wide critical acclaim for its innovative presentation of time, narrative structure, characterization through stream of consciousness technique marked by frequent shifts between several characters’ inner worlds. This enables Woolf to portray different perspectives simultaneously while showing their interrelationships through their reflections on each other.
Virginia Woolf’s innovative use of the stream of consciousness technique not only adds new depth to her works but also makes her one of the most influential writers in British literature. According to the encyclopedia, stream of consciousness is a literary technique that records the multifarious thoughts and feelings of a character without regard for logical argument or narrative sequence. The writer attempts, through the stream of consciousness, to reflect all external and internal forces that influence a character’s psychology at a single moment.
The technique of stream of consciousness was first employed by Edouard Dujardin in his novel Les Lauriers sont coupes. The phrase “stream of consciousness” was first used by William James in Principles of Psychology, which I quoted at the beginning of this paper. While James’s contemporaries believed that consciousness was “chopped up in bits,” he described the human mind as a continuous “stream of thought or consciousness.” This innovative approach to understanding the mind soon became a literary term. – M. H.
Abrams asserts that a stream of consciousness narrative describes the unbroken flow of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings in the waking mind.” During this time period, many authors were influenced by new psychological ideas that were becoming accepted as ways to identify the true reality of human consciousness. Psychologist Sigmund Freud also stepped onto this scene with his emphasis on individuals’ interconnectedness made up of the id, ego, and super-ego. This parallels well with how new authors began to characterize their characters not only through spoken words but also by writing streams of thought possibly going through their minds.
According to Freud, the subject matter for earlier novelists is motive and action (external man), and for later ones, psychic existences and functioning (internal man).” He also notes that this new narrative form presents characters more accurately and realistically.
Chapter One: The Time Transfer Between Subjective and Objective Views
A. Examples of Time Transferring in the Novel
Here, we discuss the time transfer between subjective and objective views, which refers to shifts that take us from “clock time” into “mind time.”
There are two ways to indicate time in the novel: clock time or mechanical time, represented by Big Ben and other clocks, and mind time or psychological time, reflected in the characters’ minds or consciousness. Woolf’s use of this structure allows her to follow the rules of the characters’ stream of consciousness in unrestricted psychological time while also keeping track of their superficial activities according to clock time. This creates a two-layer narrative: one superficial and external, and one psychological and internal.
The following list shows the hours and events measured by the clock time in Mrs. Dalloway. Some hours are not specified in the novel but are referred to from the context:
- 10:00 – Clarissa is on her way to the florist.
- 11:00 – People are watching the plane outside Buckingham Palace; Septimus and Rezia are watching a plane in Regent’s Park; Clarissa arrives home (shortly after 11:00).
- 11:30 – Peter calls on Clarissa.
- 11:45 – Septimus and Rezia are about to leave the park; Peter is walking back to his hotel through the park and sees the couple.
Clarissa finishes mending her dress. Septimus and Rezia are nearing Sir William’s house at 13:30. Septimus and Rezia left Sir William, and Hugh Whitbread is on his way to Lady Bruton’s lunch party at 15:00. Richard Dalloway is approaching home while Clarissa sits at her writing table at 15:30. At 18:00, Clarissa is resting on a sofa while Elizabeth and Miss Kilman are on their way to the Stores. Rezia sinks into a daze after drinking the stuff Dr. Holmes gives her because Septimus has just jumped out of the window. Peter arrives at his hotel around midnight, and Clarissa meditates on Septimus’s death as the old lady in the opposite window goes to bed.
As we can see, the clock time often shows that events in the two plots occur nearly at the same time. This enables the double plots to keep pace with each other. However, it also means that the narrative cannot move steadily ahead in strict chronological order; it pauses and loops back at certain intervals. For instance, shortly after the bells strike eleven times, a plane appears in the sky over Buckingham Palace. The plane then flies west over Green Park, north over Piccadilly and Regent Street before reaching Regent’s Park where Rezia and Septimus see it.
The narrative covers several pages to describe what happens between Rezia and Septimus in the park. Afterward, a plane flies over Ludgate Circus. Although Clarissa’s arrival at home is mentioned after the plane flies over Ludgate Circus, she also sees the plane upon arriving home. “What are they looking at?” she asks the maid who opens the door. Based on Clarissa and Richard’s route home, it can be inferred that they live near Dean’s Yard and Buckingham Palace instead of Ludgate Circus. Therefore, it is likely that Clarissa arrives home around 11:00 when the plane is flying over Buckingham Palace.
Her question links her to Septimus, who is looking at the plane in Regent’s Park at that time. The list above shows that the characters’ activities within a day are divided by the clock into fragments measured by hours, minutes, and seconds. What is presented is only an external physical description of life. In contrast, what is shown in clock time is the recollection of the characters’ life stories measured by time in mind. The novel often departs from the narrative order of external reality by following the characters’ mental journeys to the past.
It is through the frequent return of the characters to the past that we catch a glimpse of their lives. For instance, Clarissa’s past life is mainly narrated by her own reflections and Peter’s recollections of their shared history. In this sense, these frequent reflections bring back the past into the present and create continuity or duration of life, which cannot be measured by time on a clock. According to French philosopher Henri Bergson, human experience does not perceive real life as a succession of demarcated conscious states progressing along some imaginary line but rather as a continuous flow.
In his work Time and Free Will (1889), Henri Bergson attempted to establish the concept of duration, or lived time, as opposed to the spatialized conception of time measured by a clock and employed by science. While physicists observe objects and events in succession, time is presented to consciousness as an endlessly flowing process that contains all impressions, emotions, thoughts, feelings – everything one perceives. Bergson argued that ‘real time’ is experienced as duration and apprehended through intuition rather than separate operations of instinct and intellect.
Woolf’s vision of life is described as a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (43), which bears some similarity to Bergson’s theory of time. This is why Woolf calls on writers to convey the varying and unknown spirit of life, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible (102). It is clear that Woolf disapproves of presenting life in a systematic and symmetrical manner, represented by the ticking clocks.
In order to create confusion with the clock time, Woolf purposefully skips certain hours in the account of the clock and makes some clocks strike later than Big Ben. Additionally, she makes certain moments last longer in the characters’ consciousness than others. For instance, shortly after Clarissa arrives home around 11:00 AM, Peter calls on her. Who can, what can,” asked Mrs. Dalloway (thinking it was shocking to be interrupted at that time of day when she was giving a party). (61) It is likely that Clarissa’s reference to the time is general rather than specific since no chiming clock confirms it.
That is to say, the time between Clarissa’s arrival and Peter’s visit must be no more than a few minutes. However, Clarissa’s stream of consciousness flows on for about twelve pages during this short period. Peter’s visit, which ends as the clocks strike 11:30, may last 15 or 20 minutes but covers about ten pages as much of the scene takes place within their minds. These are two of the many occasions in the novel when time seems suspended and the focus shifts from external to internal events.
One typical effect of this technique is that it allows for a deeper exploration of characters’ thoughts and emotions. By slowing down time and focusing on internal events, readers gain insight into characters’ motivations and inner conflicts.
Instead of formulating life into regular units and parts like clock time, time in consciousness allows certain moments from the past to merge with the present and acquire timelessness in duration. In many places throughout Mrs. Dalloway, the intersection of time and timelessness arises as characters’ stream of consciousness brings the past back repeatedly and blends it with the present. For instance, after Peter leaves Clarissa’s home and walks through London’s streets to his hotel, his thoughts keep returning to their shared past, just as Clarissa’s did an hour ago. The bells of St.
Margaret’s reminds him of the image of Clarissa as a hostess. Ah,” said St. Margaret’s, “like a hostess who comes into her drawing-room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already. I am not late. No, it is precisely half-past eleven,” she says. Yet she is perfectly right; her voice, being the voice of the hostess, is reluctant to inflict its individuality… and the sound of St. Margaret’s glides into the recesses of the heart and buries itself in ring after ring of sound like something alive which wants to confide itself, to disperse itself, to be with a tremor of delight at rest-like Clarissa herself… It is Clarissa herself he thought with deep emotion and an extraordinarily clear yet puzzling recollection of her as if this bell had come into the room years ago where they sat at some moment of great intimacy and had gone from one to another and had left like a bee with honey laden with that moment.”
Peter’s reference to Clarissa as a hostess comes up several times in both Peter and Clarissa’s memories in the novel. Just about an hour ago when Clarissa was also walking through the streets, she recalled “How he scolded her! How they argued!”
She dreamed of marrying a Prime Minister and standing at the top of a grand staircase. He called her the perfect hostess, and she had cried tears of joy in her bedroom upon hearing it. According to him, she had all the makings of an excellent hostess.
As time passes, certain scenes, moments, and feelings from our past become attached to specific things, places or images. These memories are revived repeatedly in our minds. For Peter and Clarissa, their shared past has become a permanent part of their present lives. Although the time has passed, those moments continue to exist in their consciousness.
Here, the clock loses its power to wipe away the past as it measures changes and the passage of time. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses typical contrasts to express her ideas from different perspectives and levels. Clarissa often feels a particular hush or solemnity in the midst of traffic or while walking at night, an indescribable pause or suspense (though it may be her heart affected by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. Her extreme sensitivity towards time is shown through Peter’s imagination merging her image with the late bells of St. Margaret’s.
Yet, complete ignorance of clock time, which tells the changes and external connections between things, is a sign of insanity. In the novel, Septimus is never aware of clock time which represents his isolation from external reality. On the contrary, Clarissa is always sensitive to both clock time and mind time. Thus, by putting clock time and psychological time side by side, Woolf means to show that only when a person reflects on their life on both levels of time – meaning they are aware of themselves both subjectively and objectively – can they be said to have a sane sense of time.
Chapter Two: Symbolic Imagery
A. Concrete Use of the Symbolic Image: Clock
Stream of consciousness is a very complex psychological process that can be divided into different levels. According to the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, it can be divided into three levels: the unconscious, the subconscious, and the conscious.
The conscious mind can be described directly in demonstrative, ideographic, and logical speech. However, the subconscious mind – particularly the unconscious mind – is usually a kind of sensual impression or reverie that is so complex, elusive and subtle that it is indescribable.
When describing the subconscious mind, particularly the unconscious mind, demonstrative, ideographic, and logical speech may not be functional. In these cases, stream of consciousness novelists aim to present the subconscious and unconscious minds of their characters. To achieve this purpose, they use symbolic imagery as a special vehicle. This is because the unconscious mind forms in a similar way to how symbols form – both are primitive states of one’s mind.
To metaphysically present the sensual impressions and the confused mood that reside in the recesses of one’s consciousness like the unconscious mind, stream of consciousness novelists use symbolic imagery. Virginia Woolf, a novelist of this genre, is no exception. In Mrs. Dalloway, the clock of London and its striking form a complex symbolic image. The clocks and their striking are personified and endowed with emotions similar to those of characters.
Thus, this image symbolizes different things to different characters. It may also mean different things even to the same character when they are in different moods. For instance, when Clarissa Dalloway crosses Victoria Street and thinks of the quick passage of time, she feels a sense of suspense in her heart upon hearing the striking of Big Ben. In this sense, the striking of the clock is like a warning of death. On another occasion, when St. Margaret’s clock strikes, it makes her think of all sorts of little things such as Mrs.
Marsham, Ellie Henderson, and glasses for ices all bring to Clarissa’s mind the feeling that all sorts of little things came flooding and lapping and dancing in on the wake of that solemn stroke which lay flat like a bar of gold on the sea.” For Clarissa, this image of the clock striking becomes a symbol of life composed of countless little things. However, for Mrs. Dalloway, the striking of the clock signifies the passing of good times and lost opportunities in life which makes her feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, Peter Walsh interprets this image differently when he hears St.
In Clarissa’s drawing-room, Margaret’s clock catches Peter’s attention. He describes the sound of the clock as something alive” and imagines Clarissa descending the stairs in a white gown as the sound fills the room. However, when he hears the high bell of an ambulance carrying Septimus’ dead body, Big Ben’s striking becomes a tolling knell. On the other hand, Septimus has a different reaction to clock chimes. The loud and strong sound from Big Ben triggers his most vulnerable nerves and brings back terrible memories of war and fallen comrades unconsciously.
However, he does not have pity for the past; on the contrary, the striking of the clock strengthens his will to end his own life as early as possible. Woolf uses the symbolic image of Big Ben to connect two people who do not know each other at all and skillfully reveals the novel’s theme through their different experiences and opinions about time. From a general view, the clock is taken as a symbol of modern society’s industrialization.
As society becomes more industrialized, people become increasingly dependent on clocks. Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks… counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion.” The clock attempts to divide human life into average, mechanical units which drives individuality and self-mastery out of humans and causes pressure and anxiety. Therefore, by using clocks as a symbol image – especially Big Ben – it accurately represents the local specialty and London-style atmosphere.
More importantly, the reality which the clock symbolizes drives people away from far illusions and wakes them up from their deep thoughts. It is the bridge between the stream of consciousness and reality.
B. Symbolic Image: Death
Death is a core theme in Mrs. Dalloway, and Virginia Woolf uses many images to discuss death and life and to address relevant topics. Death can be seen as the wake of life or simply a different kind of life – one with more subtle and nuanced qualities that are slower but lasting.
This book aims to showcase the true potential of self-expression and self-realization. However, the deepest and most authentic part of oneself remains concealed, as it desires to remain hidden. The self is often compared to an underwater creature, exhibiting continuous motion, unique freedom and isolation, an ability to dive deeper into oneself, and a tendency to perceive objects as luminous and distorted. For instance, Septimus’s suicide serves as a symbol of society’s strong controlling power killing the free soul.
It is easy to understand that doctors can do cruel things due to the terrible spiritual power of society. This also explains why Clarissa was greatly shocked by the news of Septimus’ death, whom she had never known during her entire life. Septimus’ suicide merely symbolizes Clarissa’s spiritual crisis. Similarly, the old lady whom Clarissa observes attentively when she leaves the party for a little while is another symbolic image – representing Clarissa’s lonely soul. Therefore, after the light in the old lady’s house goes out, the heroine naturally ends her inner thoughts.
Still, many of the characters in Virginia Woolf’s novel are associated with bird imagery. For example, Clarissa in the West End standing by the road is described as perched on the curb like a bird”; Septimus is “beak-nosed”; and Lucrezia is like a bird in her vulnerability and timidity. The birds symbolize movement towards the sky, towards life. On the other hand, underwater creatures symbolize movement towards darkness and death. However, these seemingly opposing movements are closely related and can be different aspects of the same movement. Additionally, there are wave images present throughout the novel.
The colors of the florist’s flowers wash over Clarissa like a wave. …as if this beauty, this scent, this color, and Miss Pym liking her, trusting her were a wave which she let flow over her” (Virginia Woolf, 1996, p. 4). Septimus believes he might float away on the colors he sees. For Clarissa, the wave often shows vitality and joy. “And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room prancing sparkling with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore earrings and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed having that gift still” (Virginia Woolf, 1996, p.135). However for Septimus it often causes terror and anxiety: “Every power poured its treasures on his head, and his hand lay there on the back of the sofa as he had seen his hand lie when he was bathing floating on top of waves while far away on shore he heard dogs barking and barking far away Fear no more says heart in body.” And Clarissa’s plunge into the morning air as she bursts open French windows participating in rising falling rooks is complement to Septimus’ plunge to death from high windows at end of book.
Since images of death are so similar to images of life, it is not surprising to discover that they are not merely deadly. In Septimus’s vision, birds sing to the dead in Greek and proclaim that there is no death. He waits and listens as a sparrow perched on the opposite railing chirps Septimus, Septimus” four or five times over. The sparrow draws out its notes and sings freshly and piercingly in Greek words about how there is no crime. Another sparrow joins in, and they both sing in prolonged and piercing voices about how there is no death from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk. Although he has recurrent dreams of drowning, these dreams or fantasies are always countered by a denial that being drowned means being dead. At first, he dreams that he has been drowned and has died but then realizes that he is alive like a sleeper before waking up; drawing towards the shore of life.
Clarissa is aware of the creeping approach of old age and her diminishing sensibility and receptivity. She finds excitement in the idea of death. Before entering her drawing room, where she can follow her own thoughts uninterrupted, she feels anticipation and suspense. It’s like when a diver is about to plunge into the sea, and the waves threaten to break but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal, encrusting as they turn over the weeds with pearl.
There is something here that suggests a death wish as a desire for escape, relief, and freedom from the human and physical world. However, Clarissa’s excitement at the prospect of solitude also signifies an excitement for the deepening of life. As Kelley states, For death, though it is in one sense an ending, is in another sense a greater beginning in the visionary unity that succeeds it… Septimus…is one of the people who complete her (Clarissa)” (73). His death may fulfill the warnings that surround Clarissa throughout the novel and prove her tentative thesis.
Chapter Three: Interior Monologue
A. Definition and Related Knowledge of Interior Monologue
Interior monologue is a phrase closely related to the stream of consciousness novel. Unlike external action, the movement of consciousness is a psychological process that we cannot see. Therefore, an objective description of it is impossible, and interior monologue, which can register even the slightest waverings of the world that surrounds consciousness, is the best way to illustrate it. Almost all stream-of-consciousness novelists use this technique in their works.
Generally speaking, interior monologue can be divided into two types: direct interior monologue and indirect interior monologue. With direct interior monologue, the author narrates in first person and does not provide any explanation or remarks on the character’s thoughts and experiences. This device allows for a thorough revelation of the character’s complex psychological activity, particularly their unconsciousness. By displaying the character’s unconscious thoughts, readers gain a fuller and deeper understanding of the character.
When indirect interior monologue is used, the author narrates in the third person and is partly involved in the narration by providing explanations or comments. This device enables the writer to depict both conscious and subconscious thoughts of characters, but not their unconscious mind as it’s controlled surreptitiously by the writer.
As a master of stream of consciousness, Woolf often employs indirect interior monologue.
Examples of indirect interior monologue can be found in many parts of Mrs. Dalloway, written by Woolf. For instance, the protagonist argues with herself in St. James’s Park and convinces herself that she made the right decision not to marry Richard because a little independence is necessary in a marriage. She wonders where Richard is this morning and assumes he is at some committee meeting, but she never asks for details. However, with Peter, everything had to be shared.
It was intolerable. When that scene occurred in the little garden by the fountain, she had to break up with him. Otherwise, both of them would have been destroyed and ruined, she was convinced. For years, she had carried around grief and anguish like an arrow sticking in her heart. Then came the horror of the moment when someone told her at the concert that he had married a woman he met on the boat going to India! She would never forget all that! He called her cold-hearted and a prude. She could never understand how he cared for her. But presumably, those Indian women did – silly, pretty, flimsy nincompoops.
And she had wasted her pity because he assured her that he was quite happy, perfectly happy, despite never having accomplished any of the things they had talked about. His whole life had been a failure. This still made her angry (202).
Peter is Clarissa’s former love who, compared to her husband, is fantastic and a little bit dominant but not practical. Although she ultimately chooses Mr. Dalloway as her husband, she still loves Peter. That’s why she feels terrible when she learns of Peter’s marriage to an Indian girl. Like any other sensitive woman, she becomes jealous of the Indian girl and calls her a silly, pretty, flimsy nincompoop.
After many years of peaceful but dull married life with Mr. Dalloway, her mood is stirred by the news of Peter’s return to London from India. She tries to convince herself that her choice of Mr. Dalloway as her husband is right, revealing a subtle description of the psychology of a sensitive woman. This is not a one-hundred-percent indirect interior monologue but more like an internal analysis made by the writer, making Virginia Woolf unique in using this technique. In most cases, she uses indirect interior monologue.
However, this does not mean that she never uses direct interior monologue. In some cases, she also adopts it. In Mrs. Woolf’s direct interior monologue, punctuations are present, grammar and syntax are correct, and there are no broken words. Why does Virginia Woolf tend to use indirect interior monologue in her novels? Or why doesn’t she go to the extreme as other novel writers do by using ellipsis of punctuations, dislocation of grammar and syntax, and broken words even when using direct interior monologue? Perhaps this is because her acceptance of experimentation does not extend to anarchy or irresponsible eccentricity.
Virginia Woolf is widely admired for her technical innovation in the novel. She expressed her readiness to welcome any experimental technique that achieves its effect, stating that Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express.” She even extends this welcome of novelty to life itself, saying “Movement and change are the essence of our being; rigidity is death; conformity is death… For nothing matters except life; and, of course, order.” In these lines, we see not only her embrace of new things but also her longing for the order that existed in the past but not at present.
In fact, she has a strong sense of the past and great respect for tradition. While she recognizes the conditions that have prompted some of the more extreme manifestations of the experimental spirit in the twentieth century, she is critical of them. She believes that we are currently suffering not from decay, but from having no code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to more exciting friendship. The literary convention of our time is so artificial that naturally, the feeble are tempted to outrage while the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society.
Signs of this are everywhere apparent. Grammar is violated, and syntax disintegrates. With this view in mind, the author uses indirect interior monologue in most cases and avoids making her writing too difficult to read by using direct interior monologue together with other devices like ellipsis of punctuation, dislocation of grammar and syntax, and broken words.
The stream of consciousness technique has been greatly successful in characterizing the individuals within a novel. In addition to plot development, characterization is an important aspect that reflects an author’s conception of life and human nature.
Virginia Woolf abandons traditional techniques of characterization and plot arrangement because they cannot express life and human nature as she sees them. Her intention is to create a communal character, which requires the multi-leveled mode of characterization. The best example of this technique is the characterization of Clarissa Dalloway, the main character in Mrs. Dalloway. In the novel, Clarissa’s character is developed through five levels.
On the first level, the novel describes the different impressions that Clarissa leaves on other characters. According to Scrope Purvis, her neighbor, Clarissa is a charming woman like a jay bird, but white due to her illness. Miss Pym, the florist who employs Clarissa and views her as a businesswoman, thinks she is as kind as she was years ago but looks older. Lucy, Clarissa’s maid and admirer sees her as the loveliest mistress of silver, linen and china” because she is arranging tableware and napkins when this thought occurs to her. Lady Bruton admires Clarissa’s acute intuition and believes that she has a special sense of “cutting people up.” Richard Dalloway regards Clarissa as his beloved wife who always needs his help. Elizabeth, Clarissa’s daughter is disgusted with the vanity of her mother who likes “old women because they were Duchesses” and being descended from some Lord”. Ellie Henderson -Clarissa’s sensitive yet poor cousin- thinks that Clarissa is a snob. These many shifts in perspective enable readers to see different sides of Clarissa.
On the second level, the reciprocal views of Clarissa and the other characters on each other are narrated. Clarissa feels that Miss Kilman, the governess of her daughter, is never in the room for five minutes without making you feel her superiority and your inferiority; how poor she was; how rich you were” (137). She hates Miss Kilman’s idea of class distinction and thinks of her as “one of those specters with which one battles in the night” (172). Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s former suitor, often comments on her with such words as “sentimental” and “civilized”.
Clarissa thinks that Peter’s interests are different from hers. She loves the trees and grass on a fine day, while Peter is only interested in Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul.” Peter believes that Clarissa’s ideal is to “marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase.” As far as emotions are concerned, Clarissa loves Peter. However, she finally chooses not to marry him following her reason and realizing their marriage will not be a happy one. Peter cannot understand her decision of not marrying him and calls her “cold,” “heartless,” and “a prude.”
But when she is informed of Peter’s marriage to an Indian woman, she feels grief and anguish like an arrow sticking in her heart.” These reciprocal views of Clarissa and the other characters provide the reader with more knowledge about Clarissa. On another level, it is Clarissa’s analysis and appraisal of herself. “She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced through everything like a knife; at the same time was outside looking on.” She knows nothing – no language, no history – but wants people to look pleased when she enters a room. At the same time, she is annoyed by her own vanity.
When she looks at herself in the mirror, she sees a self that is pointed, dart-like, and definite.” Yet, she knows that this self is composed by drawing together parts that are so different and incompatible. On this level, the reader comes to understand more about Clarissa’s contradictory and complex personality.
On the fourth level, we can learn about Clarissa’s understanding of and attitude towards life. She loves London in this moment of June. She is fascinated with the fresh air on summer mornings, Buckingham Palace decorated with flying flags, and Bond Street with its shops and crowds of people.
She sees the poetic splendor of life in ordinary daily life. So, she has an emotional sigh, Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so” (81), when crossing Victoria Street. However, life is not always peaceful. Sensitive as she is, a tiny episode can arouse a surge of undercurrents. When entering her cool hall from the hot street and seeing Lucy’s smiling face, she feels blessed and purified. Moments like this are buds on the tree of life and flowers of darkness – as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only.
However, when she discovers that her husband has been invited to Millicent Bruton’s lunch party while she has not, her contented mood suddenly changes. She feels herself becoming shriveled, aged, breastless.” This is not due to vulgar jealousy but rather a fear of time itself. In her imagination, Lady Bruton’s face becomes a dial cut in impressive stone. She feels as though life is dwindling and that “year by year her share was sliced,” leaving only a small margin that was no longer capable of stretching.
The description of the subtle and acute change in Clarissa’s mood enables us to feel the pulsation of her soul. On the fifth level, we read Clarissa’s interior monologues. As she walks towards Bond Street, the idea that she must inevitably cease completely someday comes to her mind. However, she does not fear death and thinks it does not matter because she understands life to exist in living with each other. She feels a part of the trees at home, a part of the house there, and part of people she had never met.” She realizes that “all this must go on without her.”
Since she has come to understand the transience of individual life and the eternal nature of the universe, she can calmly regard death as a kind of release and a means to merge with the universe. When she is informed of Septimus’ suicide, she suddenly awakens to a deeper understanding of death: there is something that matters; something that is surrounded by idle talk, defaced, and obscured in her own life. This thing drops away every day in corruption, lies, and chatter. Septimus had preserved it.
Death is defiance. It represents an attempt to communicate, as people feel the impossibility of reaching the center which mystically evades them. Closeness draws apart, rapture fades, and one is left alone. However, there is also an embrace in death. Clarissa’s interior monologues reveal her philosophical thinking about life and death, and through adopting a multi-leveled mode of characterization, Virginia Woolf enables the reader to see a contradictory and complex Clarissa.
She has graceful manners, but she appears pale and fragile. She can be kind and generous to some people, but snobbish towards others. She is extroverted and sociable, yet simultaneously an outsider who views things around her with a critical eye. Although sensitive and sentimental, she relies more on reason than emotion. While not gaining much knowledge from reading books, she possesses acute intuition. She loves secular life but fears the passage of time; however, death does not frighten her as she views it as both a challenge and a release.
This character is unlike the characters in traditional novels, which are usually simple and can be easily summarized. The complexity of this character cannot be drawn in outline or covered with a formula as it is done in traditional novels. Virginia Woolf has a different view of the self, emphasizing the change of individual identity. In her view, life is like a bowl that one fills and fills. Every moment brings new experiences that add to existing ones and alter their previous meaning by forcing them into new combinations.
Characters are elusive and complex, and cannot be easily summarized. The traditional technique of characterization used in novels is not functional in revealing their elusiveness and complexity. Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness novels offer a different approach to characterization. Her characters are not described by external details such as clothing or living arrangements, but rather by their internal world – the stream of consciousness.
Virginia Woolf showcases her tremendous gift for getting inside the mind of her characters through her unique technique of characterization. Her aim is to direct the reader’s attention towards the interior world, the spiritual part, and the soul of the character rather than on external factors such as material things and body. As far as we are concerned, Woolf’s works, especially those utilizing stream of consciousness, are generally highly appreciated despite occasional criticisms.
However, even the critics admire her beauty. They only criticize its aloofness from reality, passion, or association with life. These are weak protests because her aloofness does not equate to unreality or dissociation. She stands away observing and thinking, then turns back to writing. This distance preserves her originality. When one is deeply involved, it’s hard to maintain a full and objective view. A writer is supposed to be passionate and aloof at the same time.
A good writer must deal with the events of their time. They are not mere reporters but are aware of the significance of what is happening in their age. They can interpret experiences and express ultimate truths. The true artist grasps the meaning behind phenomena, but technique also plays a role. New ideas and ways of experiencing call for new forms of expression. Originality of thought and spontaneity of emotion create fresh designs and innovative rhythms, with some writers even creating a new vocabulary.
Thus, the first essential for a modern writer is an awareness of what is new and important, along with an adequate technical response to that awareness. Virginia Woolf embodies this commitment. From beginning to end, she is intensely conscious of creating something different within the novel form. Her novels explore the psychology of her time and the struggle of the human spirit in a war-stricken world. She reveals what people are thinking and how they are thinking it, offering new ways to describe these experiences. It’s worth noting that Virginia Woolf was also a woman.
The genre has traditionally been dominated by male authors, but a female novelist must create her own unique style. Women writers have something fresh to offer and therefore experiment with new forms and techniques in an attempt to express life more fully. They are dedicated to truth, which is often lacking in stereotypical, conventional, and commercial novels that only focus on certain aspects of life and rely on formulaic descriptions, coincidences, accidents, and superficial events.
Woolf finds them despicable. She seeks a form that conveys the movement of things under the surface, including free thought, emotion, and insight. This freedom reflects itself first in the chronological time pattern. Time is a problem for most modern writers; they feel bound and cramped by the necessity of following a strict sequence of events with A followed by B and C following B. They look forward to jumping about from present to past or future.
Woolf is extremely interested in experimenting with time. As we have discussed different time patterns, Woolf consistently contemplates the possibility of reproducing what has happened and what is yet to happen. Memory and imagination swim in the dark river of time like a soul wandering in the afterworld. However, as restricted as it is to the field of action and telling a story, the novel must present a sequence of cause and effect. The reader wants to know what is going to happen now.
The writer presents a new perspective never heard before, but the reader may refuse their hospitality with statements such as I don’t want your new perception; I don’t want reality. I don’t understand you. It’s boring and frightening.” This creates a significant gap between the writer and reader, which modern writers face when striving for interior exploration and freedom of mind and soul. Virginia Woolf, however, perseveres in this pursuit by consistently delving inwardly, away from the world of events. While her books may be considered “difficult,” they are still read and accepted.
Virginia Woolf’s difficulty lies in capturing subtlety, beauty, delicacy, and elegance. Like other innovative writers, she seeks to reflect the world, life, and human nature in a better way. Her stream of consciousness novels are her attempt at achieving this purpose through technical innovation. I believe that her efforts in technical innovation can serve as a good reference for those who share Virginia Woolf’s purpose. By studying Virginia Woolf’s work, they may find inspiration to try new literary techniques.
This paper only covers a portion of the study on the literary techniques of Virginia Woolf. The remaining part includes many issues, such as the influence of her literary techniques on writers of later generations and why they are worthy to be studied. Therefore, further study of her techniques is necessary and worthwhile in the future.
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