Mrs. Dalloway and Narrative Homelessness

by Anastasia Foley

In the discipline of genre studies within literature, many critics have noted that the novel, as a form, necessitates questions of interiority and the meaning of life. Georg Lukács explores this idea in terms of “transcendental homelessness,” or the novel’s individuals’ search to reconcile “a fundamental dissonance of existence.” (Lukács 62) Theorist Walter Benjamin expands on this idea by implying that the struggle to define life’s meaning comprises the catalyst for the novel form. In his essay “The Storyteller,” he writes that “the ‘meaning of life’ is really the center about which the novel moves.” (87) Accordingly, Nancy Armstrong’s theory of the rise of the novel in terms of modern individualism revolves around the idea that novelistic characters embody the desire to transcend their social station and think “about the difficulties of fulfilling oneself as an individual under specific cultural historical conditions.” (Armstrong 10) The novel’s exploration of interiority is fueled by the desire of characters to know themselves as individuals in a world in which social mobility and the transcendence of birth order are now uniquely possible.

Looking through the lens provided by these theorists, the search to define one’s self in relation to the narrative and historical world around her is an essential consideration of what makes the novel genre tick. In Virgina Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this question gets taken up on the levels of both content and form. Writing about interwar London through the perspectives of a handful of characters, Woolf explores the themes of identity, interiority, and the passage of time through her narrative. These concerns can also be read as playing into the larger objective goals of the novel, as explored by theorists such as Lukács, Benjamin, Armstrong, and Banfield. The existential helplessness in relation to social identity which Mrs. Dalloway explores on the level of content is embedded in the structural form of the novel itself as evidenced in Woolf’s portrayal of character and narrative time through represented expression.

Woolf presents Mrs. Dalloway as a narrative about the contentious relationship between personhood and the self, and social status from the very beginning of the novel. About Clarissa, the titular character, she writes that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible…there being no more marrying…but only…this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.” (11) Woolf embodies in Clarissa’s narrative the experience of lacking a sense of inherent identity in that she no longer sees herself as “Clarissa,” but as an extension of her husband. Clarissa’s struggle to come to terms with her own sense of individuality is, of course, what gives the novel its name. We can understand the estrangement she feels between her marital status and her personal identity in terms of Armstrong’s notion of relationship between an individual’s social status and her consciousness. Armstrong writes that “to create an individual…requires the novel to offer an interiority in excess of the social position that individual is supposed to occupy.” (8) Clarissa’s lack of fulfillment in her marriage can thus be read as an attempt to transcend her status through an unsatisfied interiority. In addition to Clarissa’s literal social positioning in the historical world, her uncertain sense of identity aligns with Lukács’s idea of “transcendental homelessness” (Lukács 61). Lukács’ description of “transcendental homelessness” refers to “the homelessness of a soul in the ideal order of a supra-personal system of values” (62). While Clarissa’s physical position in the world is ingrained in her status within the value system of marriage, we know from Woolf’s use of represented expression that she is still trying to resolve what she feels as the “lack of direction of life as a whole.” (Lukács 62) Lukács sees this as “the fundamental structural element” of the novel, suggesting that without Clarissa’s existential dread, we have no novel at all. (Lukács 62) Clarissa Dalloway therefore embodies the novelistic heroine because, despite her concrete existence within the social order of her surroundings, her identity is called into question with regards to her marital status and her search to reconcile her interiority with the outside world.

The character Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway similarly represents the transcendental homelessness which defines the novelistic individual. Septimus, a soldier who has just returned to London after the war’s end, is characterized by the fact that his experience is necessarily at odds with the world around him. He does not, as the epic hero did, exemplify the plight of his community. His consciousness is marginalized and presents as atypical within his surroundings. As Septimus’s wife Lucrezia is musing that “she must have a son like Septimus…but nobody could be like Septimus…so clever,” Septimus is thinking to himself that “one cannot bring children into the world like this. One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals” (Woolf 89). Woolf establishes Septimus’s individuality by making his interiority  irreconcileable with the interiority of those around him. Woolf’s moving between interiorities through her use of represented expression helps present Septimus as an individual who is coming to terms with “a fundamental dissonance of experience.” (Lukács 62) This is a characteristic unique to the novel in that “the hero of the novel is the product of estrangement from the outside world,” an argument which Lukács makes with regards to the novel’s deviation from the epic. (66) Lukács argues that the logic of the novel “posits every soul as autonomous and incomparable.” (66) Woolf’s positioning of Septimus’s consciousness as atypical within his surroundings aligns with this theory of how the novel conceives of characters. In addition, Septimus’s tragic end is in line with what Walter Benjamin suggests makes the novel’s characters interesting: the inevitability of their death. (Benjamin 88) He postulates of the novelistic individual that “the ‘meaning’ of his life is revealed only in his death” (88). This way of understanding the novel helps us understand why Woolf decides to include this tragic story within Mrs. Dalloway, suggesting that for some, the struggle to find oneself in a fragmented world is fruitless and ultimately doomed. Without the definitive or symbolic death of Septimus, we would not be able to read him as an individual, for it is only in his ending that his meaning is made clear. Therefore, Septimus is not only interesting for his atypical psychology, but also because his experience of interiority and eventual suicide align with the objectives and logic of the novelistic character as theorized by Lukács and Benjamin.

In addition to concerns of character and identity, the way in which time unfolds in the narration of Mrs. Dalloway is in accordance with how the novel as a genre explores the supposed totality of conscious experience. As Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of one day, the passing of literal hours is very ingrained in the textuality of the book. Woolf writes from the perspective of Richard Dalloway that “Big Ben was beginning to strike, first the warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.” (117) Simultaneously, “the sound of Big Ben flooded Clarissa’s drawing room, where she sat, ever so annoyed, at her writing-table; worried; annoyed.” (117) The pervading passage of time both unites the plots of multiple characters in the same temporal moment, but also acts as the context in which the interiority of those characters is explored. The physical distance between Richard and Clarissa in this singular moment symbolizes the emotional distance between the pair, but the representation of Big Ben’s two strikes also mimics the anxious repetition of “annoyed…worried; annoyed” to describe Clarissa’s consciousness. Lukács theorizes as quoted in Benjamin that “only in the novel are meaning and life, and thus the essential and the temporal, separated: one can almost say that the whole inner action of a novel is nothing else but a struggle against the power of time.” (Benjamin 87) Utilizing this theory in relation to Mrs. Dalloway, we can see Woolf’s use of time as bringing to bear the dichotomy between “meaning” and “life” through the distance between interiority and exteriority. This is especially relevant in this text because the meaninglessness of life is consistently referred to by both Septimus and Clarissa. Thus, we might say that Woolf uses the passage of time to provide contrast with how the characters feel about the lack of meaning in the world, considering the temporal and the essential are necessarily at odds in the novel genre. The strict temporality of Mrs. Dalloway as a finite object stands at odds with the transcendental musings of its characters, a relationship which is exemplified in the study of the novel as a form.

This novel utilizes a sense of universal time by exploring a single event through the perceptions of multiple characters. Bringing together multiple consciousnesses in these moments allows Woolf to express the illusion of totality through her positioning of multiple characters in the atemporal moment. An example of this is the car crash scene at the beginning of the narrative. Woolf describes a variety of individuals attempting to understand the event, writing that “the motor car…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.” (16) While multiple interpretations of the crash are explicated, mainly through the three different opinions of who could be behind the glass, a definitive consensus is never reached. Woolf’s use of represented expression is critical for the way she uses time to create the illusion of totality to express how interiorities are irreconcilable. As Ann Banfield theorizes, the use of represented expression in literature allows narratives to make objective claims about the world that are unique to specific characters. Banfield explicates this relationship between the objective and the subjective in narrative speech by saying that as opposed to the discourse of dialogue, this narrative way of thinking “can be seized and subjected to a self-conscious, objective scrutiny…when it is separated from its human author and incarnated in the text” (530). While in real life individuals can not analyze in an objective sense what others think, in literature these perspectives can be brought together in a single, collective narrative moment. This representation of the subjective in an objective sense through narrative voice relates to Lukács’s notion of novelistic totality. Lukács writes that “the novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given…yet which still thinks in terms of totality.” (56) While the meaning of life is under scrutiny in an immediate way within the novel, its structure continues to present experience as universal. Thus, Woolf’s use of “the language of represented consciousness” in the car crash scene is not only a stylistic choice, but aligns with the project of the novel genre as calling into question to what extent experience can be represented as totalizing. (528)

Mrs. Dalloway not only uses the atemporal moment to scrutinize a shared experience, but highly individualized timelines are represented as simultaneous within the text. In the climactic moment of the novel, Woolf makes the world appear totalizing in an artificial sense by converging the consciousnesses of Clarissa and Septimus. It is during Clarissa’s party at the end of the novel, when Clarissa learns that Septimus has committed suicide, that Woolf writes, “the clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on.” (186)  Woolf then writes, “[Clarissa] felt somehow very like him— the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking.” (186) While in the car crash scene the passage of time is put on hold so that the narration can move between perspectives, here the repetitive striking of the clock juxtaposed with Clarissa’s thinking demonstrates how her interiority operates against the inevitability of time. The text also refers to historical time, as Clarissa refers to “all this going on.” The non-specific language of “all this” and “going on” implies that Clarissa is reflecting on her inability to understand the present historical moment. At the same time that Clarissa is represented as completely isolated from the party, she feels a connection to Septimus’s consciousness in that “she felt somehow very like him” because she understands what motivated him to take his own life. Bringing together irreconcilable experiences is reflected in Lukács’s notion of novelistic totality. He writes in his chapter that “all the fissures…which are inherent in the historical situation must be drawn into the form-giving process and cannot nor should be disguised by compositional means.” (60) Woolf does not present this revelation as a singular moment in order to give the impression of an idyllic human connection. Rather it is her exploration of the simultaneity of consciousness that brings to bear “the fissures and rents” of her Clarissa’s historical moment which is otherwise absent in the narrative. The supposed singular experience of Clarissa and Septimus in this passage is  motivated by a uniquely novelistic sense of what it means to try to think and operate in terms of the wholeness of experience.Considering Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in terms of the objectives of the novel illuminates the ways in which the text leverages character, narrative, and time to represent the inability to understand the meaning of life. Clarissa and Septimus are each novelistic individuals not only because they are not meant to be representative of humanity itself, but because they embody Armstrong’s understanding of the interior search to ascend one’s social station and the inability to reconcile the distance between one’s life and one’s destiny as described by Lukács. Represented expression, in Ann Banfield’s understanding, works in this text not only as a stylistic choice by Woolf, but as a technique which aligns with the reckoning of objective and subjective experience which the novel form necessitates. The convergence of consciousnesses into a singular moment in Mrs. Dalloway is not for the end of representing an idyllic ahistorical moment, but acts as a way to “construct the concealed totality of life” which might still underlie a fragmented world (Lukács 60). Thus, Mrs. Dalloway investigates the meaning of life on the levels of both content and form in accordance with the objectives of the novel genre.

Works Cited –

Armstrong, Nancy. “Introduction.” How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900. Columbia University Press, 2005.

Banfield, Ann. from Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction. 1982. Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach by Michael McKeon, John Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” 1936. Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach by Michael McKeon, John Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Lukács, Georg. “The Epic and the Novel.” The Theory of the Novel. 1916. The MIT Press, 1974.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981.