Mrs Dalloway: A Guide to Reading

April 11, 2010

Below are some helpful issues to think of as you read.

Stream-of-Consciousness

The stream-of-consciousness writing style that Virginia Woolf uses is very different from the prosaic realism of F. Scott Fitzgerald. First, it is a much more “poetic” style, as every line carries more weight with figurative language. More importantly, the narrative shifts between different points of views of different characters. We enter the thoughts of different characters, and see actions from their different perspectives.

Keeping Track of the Narrative Voices

Keeping track of on who the narrative is focused can be challenging. It helps to keep aware of key names of characters, so that when you see their names, you can be on the alert that the narrative might have shifted to their point of view. The narrative focuses mostly on, but not exclusively:

Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa).

Peter Walsh (Mrs. Dalloways teenage boyfriend).

Septimus Smith (the shell-shock victim. You can easily recognize his narrative voice since he hallucinates most of the time, particularly the vision of his good friend Evans getting blown up by a mortar in the war).

Lacrezia (Mrs. Septimus Smith, the belagured wife of Septimus).

Mr. Richard Dalloway (Clarissa’s husband, whose voice we do not hear until after the middle of then novel).

Elizabeth (Mrs. Dalloway’s daughter. We hear snippets of her thoughts, but we do not get a longer narrative concerning her until her failed lunch with Ms. Kilman, and her bus ride back home.)

The One Day Structure of the Novel.

Also, keep in mind that the entire novel revolves around one day, beginning at around 8 in the morning, and running until a couple of hours after midnight of the same day. The novel does jump back into the past, based upon people’s memories. The most significant memory is the weekend at Bourton, when Mrs. Dalloway meets Richard, her current husband, and ends her relationship with Peter Walsh.

After you have read the whole novel, it can be helpful to pick a random spot in the novel, and look at the passage closely, just to see how Woolf constructs narrative, how she jumps between people’s thoughts, and between the present and the past.

The Big Diametric Opposition.

A diametric opposition in literature essentially means anything that is the opposite of something else. Mrs. Dalloway focuses on two diametrically opposite voices, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith.

Clarissa, like her name, is clear, bright, dynamic, and very much a person who enjoys organizing dinner parties. She seems in control, at ease with her world.

Septimus, like his name, is dark, “septic,” underground, troubled, and extremely uncomfortable with the world. Shell-shocked, his thoughts are the opposite of Clarissa’s, in that they are cloudy, jumbled, confused and hallucinatory.

Consciousness versus Unconsciousness

One way you can think of the opposition between these two characters — and a theme in the novel — is that Clarissa very much represents consciousness, whereas Septimus represents the unconscious. Clarissa is in control and, at the same time, likes to control her surroundings. In other words, she has her mental bearings. Septimus, however, is not in control, nor is he in control of his surroundings. Quite the opposite of having his mental bearings, he is in the middle of a mental breakdown.

The Conscious – Unconscious Union

In a sort of “mystical” union, Woolf presents these two characters, who never once meet in the whole novel, as two necessary sides to human existence. Septimus needs more of Clarissa’s “clarity” and control in order to survive, whereas Clarissa is going to eventually have to confront emotions and passions in her life that she leaves repressed. The news she hears at the party of Septimus’s suicide disturbs her, and awakens her to an epiphany of the possibly messier aspects of life that she does not deal with.

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