-rendering past and present concurrently
-interspersing thought with concrete action
Virginia Woolf’s classic game-changer Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is not subdivided into official chapters, but that does not mean it has no structure. Taking place over the course of a single day, in the vein of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), readers are kept on track by the striking of Big Ben. The sentence “The leaden circles dissolved in the air,” referring to the sound of the striking clock, appears five different times. “Big Ben” itself is directly referenced fourteen times. Our chapters are the passing hours.
So what happens over the course of this novel/day? Clarissa Dalloway leaves her London house in the morning to buy flowers for the high-society party she is having that night. She runs into Hugh Whitbred, a friend she’s known since childhood, and briefly converses with him (to her chagrin) about his sick wife. She buys flowers and gloves and all traffic in the neighborhood seems to stop when the car of a seemingly important personage passes through. When Clarissa returns home, she hears Richard is lunching with Lady Bruton and feels anxious she wasn’t invited; she starts to think about her past with Sally Seton, who was there one critical summer when Clarissa was eighteen at her family’s summer home in Bourton, and whom Clarissa kissed. In the present, Clarissa is then visited by Peter Walsh, the man she almost married instead of her husband Richard, whom she knew was returning from his post in India–but not that day. He reveals he’s in love with a married Indian woman and starts weeping, but they’re interrupted by Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth. When Peter leaves and walks through Regent’s Park, thinking about his past with Clarissa (how she rejected him that critical summer when she was eighteen at Bourton), he sees a couple who seem in distress; this is the former soldier Septimus Warren-Smith and his Italian wife Rezia (whom we saw briefly during the local fascination with the car earlier). Septimus keeps talking to himself about Evans, his friend who died in the war, and saying he’s going to kill himself. The doctor Septimus has been seeing, Dr. Holmes, claims there’s nothing wrong with him, and today Septimus and Rezia are going to get a second opinion from Dr. Bradshaw, who immediately recognizes Septimus’s problems and says he needs to go away to a private clinic. Meanwhile, Richard and Hugh Whitbred have lunch with Lady Bruton, causing Clarissa anxiety at not having been invited. Lady Bruton gets the two men to help her write a letter to the paper about emigration being the solution to their overpopulation problem, though neither actually cares about the issue or believes hers a viable solution. They also talk about the return of Peter Walsh. Walking together after they leave, Hugh stops to buy a necklace for his wife, which Richard finds obnoxious, but, motivated by the return of the man whom his own wife almost married, he gets Clarissa some roses and goes home unexpectedly, intending to tell her he loves her, but failing to get the words out once they’re face to face. After he leaves, Clarissa concludes that her parties are for the sake of life and frets about inviting her dowdy cousin Ellie Henderson. Elizabeth comes in and gets Clarissa mentally worked up over Miss Kilman, Elizabeth’s history tutor, who’s come to visit Elizabeth and whose influence over her daughter she finds untoward, secretly despising Miss Kilman for appearing to be proud of her poverty. Elizabeth and Miss Kilman leave to go shopping, and Miss Kilman buys herself a new (cheap) petticoat; after they part, Miss Kilman prays at an abbey and Elizabeth stays out aimlessly enjoying the day and considering her future. While Rezia is packing Septimus up, Dr. Holmes drops in to visit, going upstairs to see him even when Rezia adamantly attempts to refuse him, knowing that his trying to force Septimus to be cheerful drives him crazy; Septimus, hearing Holmes coming, hurls himself from the window, despite thinking beforehand that he doesn’t really want to die. On his way back to his hotel, Peter hears the ambulance coming for Septimus. When he gets there, he has a letter from Clarissa saying it was nice to see him (this annoys him); he has dinner and considers the past, his time with Clarissa and Sally Seton at Bourton, and whether he’ll go to Clarissa’s party. We then, at long last, get the party, Clarissa greeting all of her guests, which eventually includes the prime minister himself, and Peter and Lady Rossiter (Sally Seton), who converse not with but rather about Clarissa, and the past–Lady Rossiter noting that Clarissa disapproves of her marriage to a man who did not come from money but made his own. Peter anxiously awaits Clarissa coming to talk to them, but she never does. In a moment alone, Clarissa watches through her window as the old woman next door goes to bed. Richard momentarily doesn’t recognize his daughter Elizabeth for her beauty, then tells her so. The End.
The novel provides us a day in the life of our title character, and by default a day in the life of several supporting characters. The primary reason we’re getting this day as opposed to any other in Clarissa’s life (for if she’s the title character than the day we’re getting should be dictated by its importance to her), the reason we get this party as opposed to any of the many others she’s been known to throw is the return of Peter Walsh, which brings back the past for Clarissa, making her ponder her past choices and the course of her life more than she otherwise might be on another day. Neither Peter nor Clarissa approves of what the other has done with his/her life. Then there’s the fact that death invades her party via Dr. Bradshaw and his wife describing what happened to Septimus. In the traditional sense, Septimus has a lot more plot going on in his day than Mrs. Dalloway does in hers: something irrevocable clearly happens to him in dying. But has something irrevocable happened to Clarissa by the end, or not? She recognizes that Peter thinks her frivolous and she feels the weight of his disapproval of her lifestyle, but she doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge the possibility that he might be right. Nor does Septimus’s death intruding on her party seem to make her realize anything profound as it might have (death being necessary to derive pleasure from life, etc.). She seems merely annoyed by the intrusion. It seems that, after this, she will likely go on as she always has. This day gives us the key to Clarissa Dalloway being who she is, is a complete portrait by providing both how she sees herself and how others see her, rather than changing who she is. But this works as a plot because this is the day more than any other that would offer her the potential for change. She has confronted mortality. In never conversing with Peter and Sally, she could be essentially rejecting the past, prioritizing forward movement, which will take her toward mortality, so…has she accepted it? It’s for the reader to decide.
If what is dictating the official plot is Clarissa’s confronting mortality, then everything in the Septimus thread is justified and entirely necessary. Anything Clarissa does this day, no matter how mundane or frivolous, contributes to this plot of forcing her to confront (and then ignore) her own frivolousness. But we see other characters doing all sorts of mundane things that would seem to have no direct plot relevance–Miss Kilman praying in the abbey, Elizabeth going out on the Strand, Hugh and Richard lunching with Lady Bruton (though this raises the question of her coming to the party later and provides us with Clarissa’s anxiety over having not been invited, so this scene seems to be doing more direct plot work than Elizabeth or Miss Kilman). But getting what other characters related (by blood or acquaintance) to Clarissa are doing juxtaposed with what Clarissa’s doing provides us with important points of contrast to characterize Clarissa, and characterizing Clarissa is, in essence, the book’s plot.
In the only written comment she left on her own work, Woolf essentially admits that she herself at one point did not consider this arc enough to constitute a plot:
…in the first version Septimus, who is intended to be her double, had no existence; and  Mrs. Dalloway was originally to kill herself, or perhaps merely to die at the end of the party. Such scraps are offered humbly to the reader in the hope that like other odds and ends they may come in useful.
Woolf does seem to walk a fine line between presenting events that are thematically relevant versus plot relevant; Clarissa’s discussing Hugh Whitbred’s sick wife with him at the very beginning is an encounter with mortality that seems to foreshadow her climactic encounter with mortality via Septimus’s suicide.
One popular general interpretation is that the book’s true subject is not Clarissa, but consciousness itself. But one still needs a plot to explore that subject. The plot provided by Peter Walsh’s return is one that allows Woolf to do what is partially so groundbreaking about this text–represent the past and present simultaneously. Woolf wants to explore how any human consciousness is necessarily comprised of both, and would be on any given day, but on this day, thanks to Peter’s return, the past is going to be even more present got Clarissa, present enough to compete with the present itself, while also heightening an appreciation of that present. The academic Kate Haffey analyzes how Woolf achieves this in the first passage in which Clarissa “plunges” into her past.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.
The temporal location of this “little squeak” that Clarissa hears is quite ambiguous. Clarissa could “hear now” in the present of the story this sound, but the sound’s origin seems to be located in the past as she “burst[s] open the French windows at Bourton” (3). The “squeak” could be her own door as she sets out that morning, it could be the sound of “Rumpelmayer’s men” taking the doors “off their hinges” to prepare for the party, or it could be the sound of the French doors opening at Bourton, a sound heard across time (3).
Clarissa apparently has Bourton on the mind because she’s got Peter Walsh on the mind, due to the letter he’s sent announcing his return, even if she does not know at this point that his return will be this very day.
Haffey also analyzes the novel’s structure, debunking a popular past analysis: that the novel’s plot, instead of being what happens on this one day, is rather Clarissa’s development from adolescence to adulthood, which we see unfold within the frame of this particular day. Haffey convincingly claims that this reading insists too much on separating past and present, that the novel’s insistence on representing the past and present simultaneously undermines such a separation. Haffey focuses on the kiss between Clarissa and Sally Seton as one moment in particular in the novel that dispenses with “the cause and effect logic of narrative.” This moment “rupture[s] the forward flow of time in narrative” when the novel returns to it repeatedly (that is, via Clarissa’s thoughts). But this moment could be seen to adhere to cause-and-effect narrative logic when Clarissa thinks that due to it, “The whole world might have turned upside down!” She seems to see it as a moment where her whole life could have forked and taken an entirely different trajectory. It could have caused something different to happen; that it didn’t doesn’t necessarily remove it altogether from cause-and-effect logic. It seems to heighten the tragedy of her life that it could have caused a significant change but did not. In this way, this moment seems to echo Clarissa’s confrontation with mortality at the end: it could cause something to change in her, but the change ultimately doesn’t seem as significant as it might–though other critics, such as Elizabeth Abel, read Clarissa’s reaction at the end differently in that “Septimus’s suicide ‘enables Clarissa to acknowledge and renounce’ the past’s hold on her and allows her ‘to embrace the imperfect pleasures of adulthood more completely’ (179)” (Haffey 138). Some think that she has changed.
If the juxtaposition of past and present in the rendering of human consciousness is one of this novel’s triumphs (a template for the oft-copied technique known as stream-of-consciousness), a further triumph is rendering this at work in the mind of multiple characters, not just Clarissa Dalloway’s. (Which character’s thoughts we are getting at any particular moment is dictated by their proximity and importance to Clarissa.) This novel is a go-to (the go-to) for anyone studying how to execute omniscience–specifically how to transition from the mind of one character into another. Woolf does this primarily via physical proximity, in at least two different ways. One way is to have a character in a scene doing something, then transition to someone who’s looking at that character doing that thing. This happens for the first time a few paragraphs into the book, when Clarissa is walking on the street:
She stiffened a little on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass. A charming woman, Scope Purvis thought her (knowing her as one does know people who live next door to one in Westminster); a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness. There she perched, never seeing him, waiting to cross, very upright.
For good measure, compare this to the passage from Woolf’s short story that the novel developed from, “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”:
A charming woman, poised, eager, strangely white-haired for her pink cheeks, so Scope Purvis, C.C.B., saw her as he hurried to his office. She stiffened a little, waiting for burthen’s van to pass.
Both of these passages are the beginning of new paragraphs. Note how in the novel, she rearranged the sentences so that the transition to the new character’s perspective was not the beginning of the paragraph, but embedded in it. Note also how the fact that we’ve slipped into Scope Purvis’s perspective is more immediately cued in the novel’s construction of the sentence. Apart from the perspective transition, note how the description of how this new character sees Clarissa is enriched by the bird comparison (satisfyingly carried through with the verb “perched”).
Another example of a transition to the thoughts of a character who’s looking at the character whose thoughts we were just getting (the “she” in the first paragraph being Maisie Johnson):
Why hadn’t she stayed at home? she cried, twisting the knob of the iron railing.
That girl, thought Mrs. Dempster (who saved crusts for the squirrels and often ate her lunch in Regent’s Park), don’t know a thing yet; and really it seemed to her better to be a little stout, a little slack, a little moderate in one’s expectations.
The other common mode of perspective transition is to have a character look at something, then switch to a different character who’s looking at the same thing. Take the first time we get the perspective of Septimus, which happens after a motor car has made a noise in the street that draws everyone’s attention:
Was it the Prince of Wales’s, the Queen’s, the Prime Minister’s? Whose face was it? Nobody knew.
Edgar J. Watkiss, with his roll of lead piping round his arm, said audibly, humorously of course: “The Proime Minister’s kyar.”
Septimus Warren Smith, who found himself unable to pass, heard him.
We’re then with Septimus and his wife for several paragraphs, until Woolf uses the car to transition back to Clarissa, following an omniscient paragraph that is located in no single character’s head:
The motor car with its blinds drawn and an air of inscrutable reserve proceeded towards Piccadilly, still gazed at, still ruffling the faces on both sides of the street with the same dark breath of veneration whether for Queen, Prince, or Prime Minister nobody knew. The face itself had been seen only once by three people for a few seconds. Even the sex was now in dispute. But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand’s-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth. The face in the motor car will then be known.
It is probably the Queen, thought Mrs. Dalloway, coming out of Mulberry’s with her flowers; the Queen.
After a few paragraphs with Clarissa we then get a couple of more omniscient paragraphs about the car, which the observing people are then distracted from by a plane flying overhead drawing letters against the sky; Woolf then uses an omniscient paragraph about the plane to transition us to Rezia’s perspective:
It had gone; it was behind the clouds. There was no sound. The clouds to which the letters E, G, or L had attached themselves moved freely, as if destined to cross from West to East on a mission of the greatest importance which would never be revealed, and yet certainly so it was—a mission of the greatest importance. Then suddenly, as a train comes out of a tunnel, the aeroplane rushed out of the clouds again, the sound boring into the ears of all people in the Mall, in the Green Park, in Piccadilly, in Regent Street, in Regent’s Park, and the bar of smoke curved behind and it dropped down, and it soared up and wrote one letter after another—but what word was it writing?
Lucrezia Warren Smith, sitting by her husband’s side on a seat in Regent’s Park in the Broad Walk, looked up.
Part of what makes this book so groundbreaking is the extent to which it dwells in consciousness while keeping the reader aware of where the character is literally in space and time. If we’ve strayed into an intense and consuming train of thought, Woolf will often slip in a parenthetical reminding us where we are physically:
But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing—nothing at all.
I am alone; I am alone! she cried, by the fountain in Regent’s Park (staring at the Indian and his cross), as perhaps at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it, lying cloudy, when they landed, and the hills had no names and rivers wound they knew not where—such was her darkness; when suddenly, as if a shelf were shot forth and she stood on it, she said how she was his wife, married years ago in Milan, his wife, and would never, never tell that he was mad!
Such are the visions which ceaselessly float up, pace beside, put their faces in front of, the actual thing; often overpowering the solitary traveller and taking away from him the sense of the earth, the wish to return, and giving him for substitute a general peace, as if (so he thinks as he advances down the forest ride) all this fever of living were simplicity itself; and myriads of things merged in one thing; and this figure, made of sky and branches as it is, had risen from the troubled sea (he is elderly, past fifty now) as a shape might be sucked up out of the waves to shower down from her magnificent hands compassion, comprehension, absolution.
(You can see in that last passage that parentheticals are not expressly reserved for location reminders.) Often Woolf will do the inverse, providing a passage that’s predominantly describing what the character is physically doing at that moment, but then slipping in a thought fragment:
The rich benignant cigar smoke eddied coolly down his throat; he puffed it out again in rings which breasted the air bravely for a moment; blue, circular—I shall try and get a word alone with Elizabeth to-night, he thought—then began to wobble into hour-glass shapes and taper away; odd shapes they take, he thought.
Finally, to return to the beginning, though that might be somewhat against the spirit of a novel that may affirm forward movement toward death rather than dwelling on the past, the unavoidable forward movement of time–but then, clocks do measure linear time in a circle–here are a couple of the Big Ben passages, marking off the hours:
It was precisely twelve o’clock; twelve by Big Ben; whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London; blent with that of other clocks, mixed in a thin ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke, and died up there among the seagulls—twelve o’clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed, and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street.
Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one.