Literary Essay: In what sense is Mrs Dalloway a 'psychological' novel?
In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf follows her characters' thoughts and feelings throughout one day in London in 1923. This day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway stretches far into her and others characters' past as certain memories always intermingle with their present experiences. Woolf is one of the key figures in modernist writing which puts great emphasis on the representation of the workings of the human mind. In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf tries to convey the characters' thoughts as accurately as possible for which she uses the technique known as stream of consciousness. The term was coined by William James in Principles of Psychology (1890) to “denote the flow of inner experiences” (Cuddon 2000: 866). It attempts to depict the myriad thoughts and feelings that pass through the human mind. It was used, amongst others, by authors such as Marcel Proust in A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27) and James Joyce, who pushed the method to its limits of comprehensibility for the reader in Ulysses (1922). This essay will concentrate on some of the aspects of the stream of consciousness applied in Mrs Dalloway and its psychological impact on the novel as well as on the reader.
In Mrs Dalloway, the first thing that might strike the reader as unusual is that Woolf does not use chapters or any other kind of structure. She seems to imitate the way in which the mind works which is one of the main purposes of the literary technique of stream of consciousness. Thoughts, memories or feelings are not particularly ordered and do not naturally form logical chapters. The novel appears to be a constant flow of ideas with no conclusion at the end. By deliberately choosing this disorder, Woolf tries to depict life as she experienced it and takes the reader on a voyage into another person's mind. Thus, she leads the reader right into the characters' emotional world, a process which contributes to their depth. This is in particular true for the character of Clarissa Dalloway, of whom the reader gets to know probably every aspect of her life. The reader shares in some of her most intimate thoughts, for example when she admits that, in spite of her confident appearance, “[she] had tried to be the same always, never showing a sign of all the other sides of her - faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions” (Woolf 1925: 42).
Yet, there are concessions made for the reader, since in the novel it is possible to follow the characters' thoughts within their seemingly disordered memories. That is because even if Woolf changes the narrator's perspective several times (Holmesland 1998: 27), the reader is nevertheless informed about it. When Peter Walsh sits on a bench in Regent's Park, thinking about the changes London has gone through since he was in India, a change of perspective occurs as the point of view shifts to the young woman sitting on the bench next to him. In this case, the omniscient third person narrator's perspective in “It was awful, he cried, awful, awful!” (Woolf 1925: 72) changes into an omniscient perspective with elements of a first person narrator when Lucrezia Warren Smith is thinking about her life: “[she] was saying to herself, It's wicked; why should I suffer?” (Woolf 1925: 72). For the sake of comprehensibility, Woolf mentions who is thinking what and thus gives the seeming disorder of memories and thoughts a slightly ordered shape. Nevertheless, the change of perspective as such contributes to the notion of inconclusiveness and a myriad of expressions and feelings. It could be argued that because of those changes, the reader becomes aware of the fact that there are as many perceptions of life as there are people on earth or in this case, in the novel.
The notion of time and its inevitable passing also serve as a means to retain the comprehensibility in Mrs Dalloway. The surface narrative covers about 24 hours whereas the inside narrative, all the memories that come to Clarissa Dalloway during this particular day in June, covers about 18 years. Big Ben serves as the time reference in the novel “[that] makes it possible for an outside consciousness (the reader's) to follow, understand and interpret the minds of the characters which the author creates” (Humphrey 1954: 100). Due to the chimes of Big Ben, the reader always knows which part of the narrative is set in present day London and he/she is guided through the passing hours. The permanent intermingling of past and present creates a dense atmosphere of moments that have already been lived through and which are recaptured in just a fragment of time. At the same time, life goes on and new memories are created, just as Clarissa Dalloway experiences it: “She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on” (Woolf 1925: 10). For her, it seems as if the fear of getting older and her ultimate death are always present as well as her ability to enjoy life and to feel young again. With the help of her memories, she, like some of the other fictional characters, tries to evaluate her life.