Narrative Voice in Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway[1] is a major literary achievement because of the narrative style of the novel where Virginia Woolf rejects the artificial structures of Victorian fiction and writes aptly for the Modernist era. Woolf succeeds in conveying, with realism, multiple subjective perspectives on grand themes including oppression and death. As we venture into characters’ thoughts, we realize their complexity and confusion. Dorothy Goldman points out that “Modernist writing suggests a cultural crisis: language awry, cultural cohesion lost, perception fragmented and multiplied.”[2] Written from 1922-4, Mrs Dalloway reflects the need for a new convention to express the struggle in coming to terms with the horrors of modern warfare.

D. H. Lawrence notably said, ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale.’ In Mrs Dalloway, the reality of the novel is constructed through the minds of the characters rather than a narrator or ‘teller’, so the novel denies the presence of one truth for everybody. That is to say, the reader can’t assume any one subjective consciousness to be truer than the other. When Peter thinks of telling Clarissa that he is in love and has come to London to see about a divorce, he thinks, ‘she would think me a failure, which I am in their sense.’ (32) However, the reader mustn’t assume that this is the reality but merely Peter’s impression. Clarissa thinks ‘He was in love! Not with her. With some younger woman, of course’ (33) but she is in fact wrong as we see by the end of the novel. This means that the reader is slow to form a judgment on any character because what they are told about them is not the objective truth but rather the subjective impression told by a fellow character.

In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf makes use of ‘free indirect style’ as the mode of narrative. The narrator reports the speech or thought of a character ‘while moving inside the character’s consciousness to take on the style and tone of their own immediate speaking voice.’[3] (Parsons 29) The narrator becomes that character as the voices of objectivity and subjectivity merge. Sometimes this change is so subtle that sentences can be attributed to either voice. We know that ‘(… his little job at Court)’ (5) is Clarissa’s voice rather than the narrator’s because ‘little’ is condescending and so provides a personal attitude. Similarly, ‘Other people came to see pictures… the Whitbreads came ‘to see doctors’’ is Clarissa’s and offers an unsympathetic tone; that the Whitbreads’ actions are outside the norm of high-society would be distasteful to her, as readers understand within the context of the story. What’s more, the punctuation tells us that she is paraphrasing his words in her thoughts. We can see that this ambiguity serves a purpose: it makes the reader consider characters’ personalities and their relationship in order to decide whose view is being expressed.

The narrator does not dictate whether a character is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is up to the reader to judge based on the characters interior monologues as their source of information:

To his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour; and if in this exacting science… a doctor loses his sense of proportion, as a doctor he fails. Health we must have; and health is proportion; so that when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ… you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months’ rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve. (73)

In this example, there is dramatic irony as William Bradshaw condemns himself out of his own mouth. Woolf witnessed that her contemporaries failed to recognize shell shock as a serious mental condition, and uses Bradshaw as a vehicle through which to attack the medical community ill equipped to heal Septimus.

In the narrative technique, the individual mental language of characters can be expressed and this offers the possibility for the reader to make connections between characters. Clarissa and Septimus are an obvious point of comparison. Septimus is the ‘other’; a working class war veteran gone mad while Clarissa is a socialite, the perfect hostess. His disillusion with the society for which he fought calls into question Clarissa’s blindness to suffering and politics. His suicide is life affirming for her. Woolf’s repetition means that many of their thoughts echo each other. In particular, they reference Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/ Nor the furious winter’s rages.’[4] (7). Before his suicide Septimus accepts the prospect of his death, ‘Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more’ and ‘Life was good. The sun hot.’ (108) At her party, Clarissa ponders Septimus’ death, ‘the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun.’ (135) This is one of the tunneling devices through which these characters, though they never actually meet, are brought together as each fears oppression and muses on death. J. Hillis Miller points to ‘the same images of unity, of reconciliation, of communion [that] well up spontaneously from the deep levels of the minds of all the major characters’[5] (Miller 181).

These musings make up ‘moments of being’- a theory invented and explored by Woolf – of moments of intense awareness and full consciousness. In her essay, ‘A Sketch of the Past’[6] she asserts that ‘all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.’ (72) In Mrs Dalloway, moments of being are life-affirming, for example, when Clarissa walks towards Bond Street, she thinks ‘what she loved was this, here, now… Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely… but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived.’ (7) This is Clarissa’s theory of the transcendental where she believes her presence will live on after death in places she visited. Septimus’ theory of death is also put across in a moment of being inspired by beauty, ‘they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body…’ (17) He believes in a Pantheist view of the world where there is spirituality in nature. Septimus believes that the dead become part of the natural world. These moments allow the reader to recognize the complexity and sensitivity of the characters.

The free indirect style refuses to dominate or contain voices, blurring authorial hierarchy and emphasizing multiplicity and unification. The multiple voices of the novel come together through connecting devices. The royal car, for example, brings together for the first time Clarissa and Septimus: ‘Mrs Dalloway… looked out with her little pink face pursed in enquiry. Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked.’ (11) First, they are engaged in the same outward action but Clarissa, like others in the street, ponders on who the person in the car could be. Her thoughts, therefore, are superficial. Septimus by contrast experiences another moment of being, ‘this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him.’ (12) For the first time we see that he sees the world differently to others.

In writing Mrs Dalloway, Woolf wanted to portray the complexity of human nature by making a stylistic choice to focus on reflection and rely less on dialogue. By doing this, she could relate not only what a character said at any given moment but also what they left unsaid. This is most apparent where Richard is unable to tell Clarissa that he loves her. Before the presentation of the flowers, we follow Richard’s thoughts as he thinks of his love for his wife, ‘his wife, Clarissa, whom Peter Walsh had loved so passionately, and Richard had had a sudden vision of her there at luncheon; of himself and Clarissa: of their life together.’ (84) Richard is grateful that Clarissa chose to marry him rather than Peter, he understands that she could easily have married Peter, causing all their lives to follow a different path. When Richard gives Clarissa the flowers, he doesn’t, after all, confess his love for her but there is a wonderful moment when Clarissa knows what he is thinking,

‘She understood; she understood without his speaking; his Clarissa.’ (86)

When Clarissa receives the flowers we are looking at the scene through her mind and we initially think that the sentence is hers. But ‘his Clarissa’ at the end of the line shows that this is Richard’s thought – a statement of relief and gratitude upon seeing her reaction. Possibly they share the line, both thinking the thought at the same time. The narrative mode solidifies their relationship.

Woolf chose to write her novel in the free indirect style rather than as a series of interior monologues. This may have been because her chosen method allows her to weave in and out of different consciousnesses – where the narrator provides transition- with much frequency.

“Where’s the woman gone to?” he asked…

Sally supposed, and so did Peter for the matter of that, that there were people of importance… Yet there was Richard Dalloway not in the Cabinet. He hadn’t been a success, Sally supposed? For herself, she scarcely ever read the papers… she lived a very solitary life, in the wilds, Clarissa would say… She had done things too!

“I have five sons!” she told him.

Lord, Lord, what a change had come over her! the softness of motherhood; its egotism too. Last time they met, Peter remembered, had been among the cauliflowers in the moonlight, the leaves “like rough bronze” she had said… she had marched him up and down that awful night… Heavens, he had wept!

That was his old trick, opening a pocket-knife, thought Sally (136)

In this passage, the narrative goes to and from Peter and Sally’s consciousness’ and displays both together, also briefly including Clarissa’s thoughts. ‘He hadn’t been a success’ can be attributed to both characters, as can ‘Heavens he had wept!’ That there is an exclamation mark ‘She had done things too!’ tells that it isn’t the narrator but Sally’s statement. Moreover, the narrative goes between past and present in only a few lines.

Free indirect speech gives immediacy between the reader and the action. Traditional narrative is a ‘doubly temporal sequence’; there is the time of the thing told and the time of the narrative. These merge in Mrs Dalloway in a continuous mix of past and present. The background story, rather than being told through a narrator, emerges in memories. The pluperfect quickly changes to the immediate past so that the finished action becomes the present in the memory of the character. When Clarissa steps outside, she remembers Bourton, the past takes over, then a memory of Peter brings her back into the present with, ‘he would be back from India one of these days’ (3). That the past is told through memory, rather than the omniscient narrator, means the past truth is as subjective and unreliable as the present.

In conclusion, the narrative method of free indirect style exposes the characters; we see their process of thought. The characters are not mere two-dimensional archetypes but complex beings. The reader could easily hate Clarissa for caring more about roses than the Armenians or for rejoicing in Septimus’ death, but we see that she is sensitive and complex. Woolf stated that “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect.”[7] (in Miller 182).


[1] Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway, 1925, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1996)

[2] Goldman, Dorothy, et al. Women Writers and the Great War, (New York: Twayne, 1995)

[3] Parsons, Deborah, Theorists of the Modernist Novel: James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson,

Virginia Woolf. (London: Routledge, 2007)

[4] Shakespeare, William, Cymbeline 4:2

[5] Miller, J. Hillis, Fiction and Repetition: seven English novels. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982)

[6] Woolf, Virginia, ‘A Sketch of the Past’ in Moments of Being, Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. 2nd edn. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1985)

[7] Virginia Woolf, quoted in Miller, J. Hillis, Fiction and Repetition: seven English novels. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982)