Time and Virginia Woolf’s novel technique

  1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: A Modernist Novel
  2. Time on the surface level of Mrs. Dalloway
  3. Time and Virginia Woolf’s novel technique
  4. The fictive experience of time through Mrs. Dalloway

Showing the various strata of time by taking one single day is a starting point. It is a paradox since at the end, Woolf suggests that taking one single day is an illusion: huge portions of the past are to be found behind every moment in the present. each moment of the present contains within itself different temporal layers.

Time and story-telling

How can a novelist investigate and analyse the depths of different individual minds while keeping a sense of unity? Or, put differently, how can a novelist create a coherent, well-structured novel from various disconnected subjectivities?

Woolf chose a peculiar narrative voice that could dwell and stay successively in the minds of the different protagonists, and that could register/record what goes on in the character’s consciousness. The narrative presence keeps moving from one character to the next and remembers everything. It has the power to resurrect the past in the narration, i.e. the power of bringing back the past into the present or the fiction.

This narrative voice is like a state of mind outside the characters and of which the characters themselves are not conscious. The state of mind surrounds/encloses the characters and glides/insinuates into the recesses of their minds. This narrative presence violates their inner thoughts and steals their most intimate secrets.

Thus, the form of narration of “Mrs. Dalloway” is the indirect discourse, that we will analyse.

She’s a queer-looking girl, he thought, suddenly remembering Elizabeth as she came into the room and stood by her mother.

“He thought” is the act of enunciation, the narrative voice. The act of recounting is retrospective: it is done after a thought has crossed Peter Walsh’s mind and therefore belongs to the mental process of thinking.

When the thought occurred to Peter’s mind, it was spontaneous, unpremeditated. Through the retrospective act of recounting the narrative voice reports through indirect discourse a thought that was spontaneous in the present.

The narration is a distance of time and a reflection. It is applied to the mental process, always improvised. Because of retrospective narration and spontaneous thinking emerges a unique form of writing: the stream of consciousness. Because the narrative presence is able to penetrate different minds, we can speak of an act of ventriloquism as the narrative presence speaks through the inner voice of various characters.

The narrative voice is flexible, it keeps moving from one place to another and “Mrs. Dalloway”‘s sequential structure comes from this juxtaposition of different blocks/chunks of narrative. The narrative voice cannot exist outside characters. The reader finds it very difficult when the narrative presence is expressing its own opinion since it is always speaking through different characters.

The narrative voice gives a personal opinion in the speech against proportion:

But proportion has a sister.

“Proportion” is an allusion to how social life is organized. It alludes to rational order, which hates excessive, and is also personification and allegory. In the name of proportion, some creators are seen as mad and sent to lunatic asylums. Proportion is criticised, as Woolf does not fit into the social order.

Proportion is linked to conversion, an allusion to England, busy to impose her civilisation on other countries. It alludes to the tyrannical decision to force other civilisations to accept the English one. It is Wollf’s condemnation of colonisation.

The narrative voice may become the collective voice of a whole population. It can express the general mood of a country:

Those five years – 1918 to 1923 – had been, he suspected somehow, very importnat. People looked different. Newspapers too.

The “tunnelling process”

Woolf does not talk about the stream of consciousness but of the technique known as the tunnelling process: even if the characters are closed to their own subjectivity, all minds fuse together.

Indeed, the fact of being separated only exists on the surface. Every character has his own memories but these differences between characters are only superficial. Woolf insists on the idea that there is a link, a symbiosis, a web of interrelatedness between all the characters.

The technique used by Woolf consists of finding images of unity that link characters together. For instance, the image of the tree creates unity between separate characters:

  • Fibres of the tree are present in Mrs Dalloway as she is part of the whole creation.
  • Mrs Dalloway’s mind exists also in the minds of the characters whom she has known.
  • When Septimus is sitting on the bench “and the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body”.

The tree is a whole embracing presence that permits union by breaking up the isolation of the self.

Woolf talked about “myriads of impressions”, the tree and sea images are combined together:

Myriads of things merged in one thing; and this figure made of sky and branches as it is, had risen from the troubled sea.

Isolation is transcended by the union of images. The sea represents movement, ebb and flow, a binary movement with tide in and tide out. It echoes the blood circulation, the beating of the heart. It leads to a primordial and central image.

If the stream of consciousness allows the narrative voice to enter the characters’ thoughts, Woolf suggests that below the surface, in some dark cave, each person’s mind connects with all the other minds: that is the tunnelling process.

In “A Writer’s Diary”, Woolf wrote:

“I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want, humanity, humour, death. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.

Virginia Woolf

Instead of presenting characters from the outside, Woolf brings back to the surface what is hidden in their minds.

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