Stream of Consciousness to explore the characters in Mrs. Dalloway

by Giz TimesJune 10, 2015

Stream of Consciousness to explore the characters in Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs dalloway

Mrs dalloway


Cerebral game playing and philosophical speculation along with deep introspection and religious skepticism exemplify the preoccupation of modernism- A philosophical movement that arose from wide scale and far reaching transformations in the western society in the late 19th and 20th century. The main writers who dominate this era are Thomas Hardy, TS Eliot, Conrad and Virginia Woolf. However, the seeds of modernism were sown from 1850’s onwards and hence this era is influenced by thinkers like Freud, Darwin, Marx, Neitzche, Bergson, Saussere and Einstein.


Modernism saw the deconstruction of ideologies and a lot of changes( owing to the fragmentation caused by industrialization and World War I), writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce were not satisfied with the fiction of their times. Virginia Woolf who was deeply influenced by Freud and Bergson wanted to dwell more on mind owing to its complexity. She wanted to use THE STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS as a Modernist technique to explore her characters. It is surprising to find out that the Buddhists talked about this stream of consciousness of an individual ( that carries on from one lifetime to the next) in the 5th century BC. Much later, William James in his ‘Principles of Psychology’ (1890) compared consciousness to a stream or a river which carries submerged and floating memories and receives constantly changing impressions of external world. He coined a single term for this – The Stream of Consciousness. Virginia Woolf uses this narrative mode in many of her novels to show the working of a mind. Woolf says that the interest for modern authors “lies very likely in the dark places of psychology.” A passage from ‘Modern Fiction’ which appeared in a collection of THE COMMON READER by Woolf says “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions….From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” The Stream of Consciousness thus seeks to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind. Woolf used this technique in JACOB’S ROOM (1922) for the first time. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE( 1927) show a still firmer mastery of this technique and THE WAVES(1931) is the ultimate development of her method.


Virginia Woolf’s MRS. DALLOWAY(1925) has a unique narrative style, salient for its shifts in a point of view to occur within one same paragraph , accentuating the psychological and analytical  nature of the narrative . To achieve the quick transition, Woolf uses a literary technique called free indirect speech (which uses some characteristics of third person along with the essence first person direct speech). MRS.DALLOWAY refers to a story that captures a character’s thoughts and uses them to tell a story. The novel addresses Clarissa a Dalloway’s preparations for a party she will host that evening. The nice day reminds her of her youth spent in Burton and makes her wonder about the choice of her husband-Richard over Peter or Sally Seton (a female friend). It also talks about Septimus Smith (an alter ego of Mrs. Dalloway), a World War I veteran suffering from traumatic stress, who commits suicide. Clarissa’s party is a slow success and she hears about the death of this veteran who is in fact a stranger to her. But this death affects her and she considers his suicide an act to preserve the purity of his happiness.

The novel follows no conventional plot or tragedy or love interest or catastrophe. For example: Septimus’ death is casually reported in the party (although it affects and impacts Mrs. Dalloway in a huge way). The emphasis is laid on the manipulation of words and not on the organization of the story. According to the mechanical time of the Big Ben, the action of the novel is limited to a single day. But, going by the psychological time (as was put by Bergson), the characters’ disorganized experience of the past which has an impression on their mind makes them be in the present through the past and contemplate about the future. We move in Mrs. Dalloway’s mind from London to her girlhood days in Bourton through the air enveloping her in a fine London morning. This helps us to be very close to Mrs. Dalloway’s mind as she is thinking about the myriad things around her. As, David Daiches points out – This technique of the stream of consciousness helps a person  in the novel to move back and forth in time again and again. The characters are shown as they think about themselves and about others. The past and the present are thus involved with each other as we see Clarissa remembering Peter’s remarks about the vegetables, he playing with a pocket knife, which he still does. Similarly, Peter’s thoughts about Clarissa, how she rejected him for a rich man in the past and his comment about her being the ‘perfect hostess’, outline Mrs. Dalloway’s present character which is materialistic and cares a lot about her freedom. We get to know about Peter’s possessiveness and Clarissa’s sense of freedom when they both think about themselves and about each other.

On the other side of the coin, we’ve got Septimus Smith who is attuned to life’s deep meaning and has intense reactions, like those triggered by the noise of the tyre. We get to know about his trauma through Lucrezia, who also ends up painting her solitary picture that we pity. We also get to know about the characters like Mrs. Dalloway through the strangers like Scrope Pervis who gives some idea about her outward personality. Similarly, Peter’s senses of sight and sound are triggered when he sees and hears the bell of an ambulance that has picked Septimus. He also thinks that Septimus and Lucrezia are having a serious quarrel and then suddenly goes on to think about Manchester (due to the scenic beauty) and then about Sally Seton, when he goes to visit a lawyer. The reader is made aware of Clarissa’s lesbian relationship with Sally in a similar fashion when Clarissa has taken a ‘plunge’ into her memories.

Virginia Woolf has used the stream of consciousness brilliantly in this novel. She has intermingled various thought processes of various humans, but has intelligently used the Big Ben and Airplane to avoid the chaos which might have been created due to the complex nature of the brain. The symbols unite everyone. The impressions and expressions are linked up emotionally by the law of association and one even recalls another. The characters think and reality is shown through their fluidity – almost like a river flowing. MRS. DALLOWAY is thus one of the best examples of the novel form of writing that uses the technique of Stream of Consciousness to explore the inner life of the characters, expose their follies, frustrations and complexity.

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