This lesson outlines the characters, major plot points and style of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel 'Mrs. Dalloway.' We'll discuss how free indirect discourse informs both the style and substance of the novel, and how memory and interpretation are valued more highly than relaying concrete events.
We're talking today about Mrs. Dalloway. This is published by Virginia Woolf in 1925.
It's gotten a lot of play in the last decade or so thanks to a book and film called The Hours by Michael Cunningham. In that movie, Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, wearing a big fake nose. It's worth checking out for the prosthetic aspect of it. Meryl Streep plays a modernized version of Clarissa Dalloway, who is the Mrs. Dalloway of the title.
You can watch that movie for fun, but don't think it gives the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. It doesn't. I'm about to do that, so watch me!
It's basically a novel that takes place in a single day in June, which is mentioned over and over again. Now, there is a long tradition of one-day plot things. But it was kind of new, maybe not quite revolutionary, but certainly different at the time when it came out. Ulysses, which is James Joyce's big Modernist book, did it in 1922. So they're kind of dovetailing off of each other.
But now it happens in TV and movies all of the time, like 24, where the premise is that it's a single day over a whole TV show. There's also Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which is one day, Training Day, Dude, Where's My Car?, etc. A lot of movies use this because it gives narrative tightness. And that's what goes on here.
Basically, the story is constructed around interlocking character storylines. You've got Clarissa Dalloway, who is the Mrs. Dalloway of the title. She's about 52. She's going to have a party. She starts out planning it and, at the end of the single day plot, she throws it.
She's got her husband Richard, who works in politics. She's got her daughter Elizabeth. And she just loves, loves, loves throwing parties. It's a way for her to express her individuality.
I hate throwing parties. I can't really identify with that, but maybe some of you guys out there can. I think it's scary and terrifying. But she loves it and thinks it's really fulfilling and interesting.
The other main character we have to deal with is Septimus Smith. He's kind of entirely unrelated to Clarissa Dalloway. He's basically a shell-shocked World War I veteran. He's got his wife, whose name is Lucrezia; they call her Rezia for short.
He's back in London now and going around to see psychiatrists to figure out what they should do, because he used to be a vibrant young man. He was into poetry, but now he's not able to do anything because of the shock of the war.
We've also got Peter Walsh, who's an old friend of Clarissa's. He had proposed to her back in the day. She said no, so he's back in town and going to marry this woman named Daisy. He doesn't seem that into it.
These are basically the people that you're going to run into. They don't really do that much. But since the book is more about their memories and their thoughts, they kind of do a lot.
Mrs. Dalloway wanders around London, buying things and preparing for the party. But all of this is while she's thinking about whether she should have married Peter. She also remembers being in love with a woman named Sally Seton. She's thinking that maybe she should have pursued that. In terms of what she does, she goes home, she mends her dress and she oversees the party preparations.
Then we get a scene with her husband, who's out to lunch with some friends. He returns home and brings her roses. He wants to say that he loves his wife, but he can't do it.
We get a lot of the internal narrative of these characters. That's really what makes it interesting. He doesn't just come home with roses and give them to her. No, we get all of the internal angst about why he's doing it and then he can't say he loves her. That's the interesting bit.
We get this with all of the characters. We get this with Peter Walsh. He going to talk to lawyers to figure out how he's going to marry Daisy, because Daisy needs to get divorced. Then he observes Septimus and his wife Rezia fighting. He thinks they're just having a lovers' quarrel but we, as the readers, know that something worse is going on.
That's how Woolf plays with perspective in that way. What people observe and what people are like on the inside is very different. We get that with Peter watching them.
Septimus and Rezia were actually on their way to go and see this renowned psychiatrist named Dr. Bradshaw. He recommends that Septimus ought to be institutionalized away from his wife. This is the decision that eventually prompts Septimus to kill himself by throwing himself out of a window when the dudes come to take him away to go to the institution.
This Septimus storyline is kind of seen as a commentary on how mental illness was dealt with at the time. Woolf suffered from various bouts of depression. It comes off as being pretty critical of the way people who were mentally ill were dealt with at the time.
Then, coincidentally, Dr. Bradshaw, the doctor who recommended that Septimus be institutionalized, is actually a guest at Mrs. Dalloway's party later in the evening. He tells her that one of his patients committed suicide and that's kind of upsetting. She thinks about it and she kind of feels that even though she doesn't know Septimus, she admires him in a way for doing it.
This is, again, why it's so important that Woolf is into her characters' thoughts. She shows us how Clarissa is thinking about how everyone around her has these thwarted ambitions. His death, his rejection of being institutionalized, seems to her as a way of saying something or preserving some sort of independence. This is something that maybe she and her friends haven't been able to do as they've gone through life and not married Peter, not gone and had her love with Sally - all these things that she didn't do. She doesn't entirely agree with what Septimus did, but she sees it as sort of a symbol of something positive, or something that she hadn't done.
And that's how it ends.
Basically, what we've got going on, besides the interweaving plot, is style. It's essentially in a kind of free indirect discourse, which sort of means a third person representation of a person's thoughts, but without the 'he said,' 'he thought', 'he considered' tags. To give you an example of a basic free indirect discourse:
'He wondered why he hadn't thought to try Pepsi before. How effervescent the bubbles, how lovely the taste!'
That latter part, the 'how effervescent the bubbles', that's the free indirect discourse part.
It's kind of his voice and thoughts, getting into an untagged narrative. We don't get, 'He thought, How effervescent the bubbles.' We don't get that, but it's implied that he thought it. We get his language merged with the narrator's language.
We see this all over the place in Mrs. Dalloway, particularly in the famous opening lines:
'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!'
So some of this is given directly: 'And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning.' But some of it, like 'What a lark! What a plunge!' is free indirect discourse. That's her voice getting into Virginia Woolf's narrator voice.
This kind of play characterizes the style of the novel: indirect to direct, thoughts and description, all going on at once without really letting us know the difference between the two. There's not a lot of indication that we're going from one to the other given to us by Woolf. It's kind of all mixed up together. It can be hard to follow, but it can also create this really cool stylistic effect where we're always in the characters' thoughts and we're always out of the characters' thoughts. That's a really interesting thing that Woolf gets really good at in this book.
The other thing that this way of writing inherently lends itself to is a meditation on perspective and thoughts. These characters are constantly thinking about what could have been in their pasts. Because we're in this one day space, they're always thinking about the past. Clarissa could've married Peter. She loved Sally.
Because we get all of them at once, we get all of the characters' thoughts, it sort of naturally lends itself to consideration of how people observe the same thing differently. There's a famous scene where they watch an airplane in the sky doing skywriting, essentially. Everyone who's watching sees something different. We get Mrs. Dalloway looking at it, we get other people, we get Septimus looking up at it. That really emphasizes that it's about interpretation and thoughts, rather than events and plot.
And that's basically Mrs. Dalloway. That's the plot and what's stylistically going on that reinforces that plot and makes it interesting.
Basically, it's comprised of the thoughts and actions of Clarissa Dalloway, her husband Richard, her friend and former lover Peter Walsh and Septimus Smith, who's the World War I veteran. It's got free indirect discourse, that sometimes reads a little like stream of consciousness, but also then cedes to the regular narrator. We've got lots of shifting perspectives. All of this lends itself to the exploration of memories and regrets, and the idea of interpretation rather than anything concrete.