Methods of Characterisation in Woolf’s 'Mrs. Dalloway'

BA-thesis in literature

Bachelor Thesis, 2007
32 Pages, Grade: 6.0 (CH)
Stella-Maria Stejskal (Author)




1. Stream-of-consciousness
1.1. Free-indirect-discourse (FID)
1.2. Characterisation through perception and perspective
1.2.1. Characterisation through perception
1.2.2. The individual perception of London as a means of characterisation
1.2.3. Charactersation through perspective
1.3. Memory as a technique for characterisation

2. The role of foil characters




Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is one of the great classics of literature that still manages to fascinate readers. I propose that the subtle strength of observation and the creation of its characters contribute to the strength and provide the main point of interest in this novel. According to Abbott, “[o]ne truism about narrative is that it is a way we have of knowing ourselves” (123). Abbott emphasises characters, as well as action, as being among the principle components within narrative. He goes even further by arguing that “[…] it’s only through narrative that we know ourselves as active entities that operate through time” (123). This paper will examine in detail the creation of characters with reference to Mrs Dalloway.

The Handbook of Literature states that there are three fundamental methods of characterisation in fiction:

(1) the explicit presentation by the author of the character through direct EXPOSITION, either in an introductory block or more often piecemeal throughout the work, illustrated by action;
(2) the presentation of the character in action, with little or no explicit comment by the author, on the expectation that the reader will be able to deduce the attributes of the actor from the action; and
(3) the representation from within a CHARACTER, without comment on the character by the author, of the impact of actions and emotions on the character’s inner self, with the expectation that the reader will come to a clear understanding of the attributes of the character. (Holman and Harmon 81)

There are however many more methods of characterisation that elaborate on those three fundamentals and in this paper I will describe which methods Virginia Woolf uses to craft Mrs. Dalloway. I will begin with an overview of the stream-of-con­sciousness and free-indirect- discourse methods and then, by closely analysing the literary text, show how Woolf uses this technique as a mode of characterisation. Memory as a technique of characterisation will then be discussed followed by an exa­mination of characterisation through perception and perspective. These two aspects however are strongly linked to, and can therefore be considered a subcate­gory of, the method of free-indirect-discourse. Particular attention will be given to showing how the perception of London serves Woolf as a tool for characteri­sation. Finally I will investigate the role of foil characters.

1. Stream-of-consciousness

A stream-of-consciousness passage according to Hafley is a “[t]ranscription of verbal thought so direct that it seems to bare a human mind” (73). The author gives the impression that no parts of the character have been selected, rejected, or corrected, and the reader receives the impression that nothing is concealed. Whether or not Woolf uses the stream-of- consciousness technique has been heavily debated and critics are far from reaching agreement. Hafley, for example, writes that, “Although Mrs Dalloway does take place on a single day, it does not employ the stream-of-conscious technique. Virginia Woolf […] never did use it – here or elsewhere” (Hafley 73-4). Friedman on the other hand argues that: “There are many technical variations possible within the stream of consciousness form, chief among them that of the interior monologue. The technique of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is recognizably different from that of The Waves; yet they both exploit stream of consciousness” (Friedman 4). Mc Laurin takes the middle ground and argues that Virgina Woolf is a “[s]tream of consciousness writer who does not use the stream of consciousness technique” (Mc Laurin 31). To discuss these quotes any further requires clarification of the exact meaning of the term. The Oxford Companion to Literature explains stream-of-consciousness as follows:

Stream of Consciousness, a phrase coined by W. James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe the flow of thought of the wakening mind, but now widely used in a literary context to describe the narrative method whereby certain novelists describe the unspoken thoughts of their characters, without resorting to objective descriptions or conventional dialogue.[…] The ability to represent the flux of a character’s thoughts, impressions, emotions, or reminiscences, often without logical sequence or syntax, marked a revolution in the form of the novel, and extended passages of stream of consciousness are now so familiar that they no longer strike a reader as avant-garde. (Drabble 955)

Woolf may be described as a stream-of-consciousness novelist, from that point of view, since she frequently describes the private thoughts of her characters, and resists the use of objective descriptions and conventional dialogue (Drabble 995). There are however, at least two techniques for rendering this stream-of-consciousness: free-indirect-discourse (FID) and interior monologue. It appears that Woolf frequently uses the former but rarely the latter. The technique of FID aims to give readers the impression of being inside the mind of the character, which Abbot describes as an internal perspective that highlights both plot and motivation in the novel, and creates a feeling of connectedness, and especially of depth of the connections between characters (Abott 70-1). Virginia Woolf herself confirms this when she states her aims for Mrs. Dalloway (the novel’s working-title was The Hours).

I have no time to describe my plans. I should say a good deal about The Hours, & my discovery; how 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, & each comes to daylight at the present moment. (Woolf Diary, vol. 1, 263, my emphasis)

What exactly FID is and how Woolf made use of this technique within Mrs. Dalloway to “dig out beautiful caves” behind her characters shall be highlighted in the following section. It should be stated, however, that FID is not a mode on its own, but, especially with regard to focalization, is closely linked to other techniques such as perception and memory.

1.1. Free-indirect-discourse (FID)

Firstly however, the term FID warrants some discussion in more detail. Fludernik (110-6) looks at FID from the linguistic point of view. She sees in it a mode of speech and thought representation, which relies on syntactic, lexical and pragmatic features. On the syntactic level, passages of FID are constituted by non-subordination and (if applicable) temporal shifting in accordance with the basic tense of the report frame. Mezei (62-70), from the literary point of view, defines FID in segments and explains its controversial usage derived from its flexible nature. Mezei explains how FID provides the “[a]ppropriate space for interchange between author, narrator, character-focalizer, and reader” (Mezei 67). In general, FID means an indirect quotation of a character’s unvoiced thoughts through the third person narrator. Thus it is an aspect of focalization (the lens through which we see characters). The character's thoughts are reproduced directly and in a way that one would imagine the character to think, though the narrator continues to talk of the character in the third person. Since this is done freely, meaning without any quotation marks or similar indicators, it is called free- indirect-discourse (Abbott 70). As mentioned before, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is a good example for the frequent use of FID and the FID-technique draws a continuous line throughout the novel. However, the characteristics of indirect and direct speech are often mixed in such a way that it seems there is no speaker or narrator at all. This becomes especially evident within the first nine sentences of the novel.

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! For so it hat always seemed to her when, with 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. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill an sharp yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among vegetables?” – was that it? – “I prefer men to cauliflowers” – was that it? He must have said at breakfast that morning when she had gone out on the terrace – Peter Walsh. (Woolf, MD 1)

Here the impression of a narrator talking to a reader is created along with the impression that Clarissa Dalloway is talking to herself. She is doing that in the third person. The question “To whom?” remains unanswered. Another example occurs when Clarissa meets Peter again, who she has been in love with in her youth and had not seen for years. Peter admits that he came to London to press ahead with the divorce of a young Colonial English woman he has fallen in love with. Clarissa’s reaction to this statement is as follows:

‘In love!’ she said. That he at his age should be sucked under his little bow-tie by that monster! And there’s no flesh on his neck; […] and he’s six months older than I am! Her eye flashed back to her; but her heart she felt all the same; he is in love. He has that, she felt; he is in love. But the indomitable egotism which for ever rides down the hosts opposed to it, the river which she say on, on, on; even though, it admits, there may be no goal for us whatever, still on, on; this indomitable egotism charged her cheeks with colour; made her look very young; very pink; very bright-eyed as she sat with her dress upon her knee, and her needle held to the end of green silk, trembling a little. He was in love. Not with her. With some younger woman of course. (Woolf, MD 38 )

Here Clarissa Dalloway at first begins her speech in ordinary direct discourse followed by the descriptor “she said”, which could stand equally well in a novel that uses no FID at all. Woolf then proceeds to illustrate Clarissa’s inner reactions that manage to bring female disappointment and indignation to life. This again appears somewhat ambiguous since Clarissa knew that “there may be no goal” for them “whatever”. Her thoughts thus seem to contradict her feelings. This inner debate is further presented in the form of an inner monologue. The climax, I would say, is: “[a]nd he’s six months older than I am!” Here the verb is in present tense and the character whose thinking is expressed, talks in the first person. That has the effect of causing the distance between narrator and personated character to be somehow abandoned. A similar impression is created, for instance, when Peter has just left Clarissa’s house. The visit revived feelings of their love-affair from long ago at Bourton. Peter is surprised at the strength of his feelings as he is walking through London:

He was not old, or set, or dried in the least. As for caring what they said of him – the Dalloways, the Whitbreads, and their set, he cared not a straw – not a straw (though it was true he would have, some time or other, to see whether Richard couldn’t help him to some job). […] He had been a Socialist, in some sense a failure- true. Still the future of civilisation lies in the hands of the young men like that he thought. (Woolf, MD 43)

This passage is written as if Peter were talking to himself, but is again written in the third person. It almost sounds like a conscious, defensive argument with Peter arguing against himself and the accusation that he is old. The strongest statement here is arguably that “[h]e cared not a straw”, but everything else in the sentence undermines the resoluteness of this phrase. First, it is repeated, which suggests a degree of insecurity about it. It appears that he is merely trying to convince himself and that he does care after all. Secondly, the phrase in brackets seems to express some hesitation. It seems as if Peter were lying to himself. His style gives the impression that he actually depends on the people he claims to disdain. He depends on “[t]he Dalloways, the Whitbreads, and their set” to provide him with a job. Also Peter seems to have certain preoccupations with his age and states with three different words that he is not old. He concludes that the future of civilisation lies in the hands of the young men, like he once was, but is not anymore. Another time, on his way back to the hotel after having visited Clarissa, Peter finds a letter from her and through this letter he suddenly realises the impersonality of the hotel in which he is staying, in which he is treated more like an object than a human being. After reading her letter, Peter seems to be upset, which is illustrated in the following passage:

These hotels are not consoling places. Far from it. Any number of people had hung up their hats on those pegs. Even the flies, if you thought of it, had settled on other people’s noses.

As for cleanliness which hit him in the face, it wasn’t cleanliness, so much as bareness, frigidity; a thing that had to be. Some arid matron made her rounds at dawn sniffing, peering, causing blue-nosed maids to scour, for all the world as if the next visitor were a joint of meat to be served on a perfectly clean platter. (Woolf, MD 137)

Again it seems as if Peter were talking to himself. He is once referred to as “him” however, which suggests that a narrator must have spoken this sentence. Nevertheless it seems to incorporate the thought-patterns of Peter which have been introduced before. In the next passage it seems as if Peter is again addressing himself directly:

For sleep, one bed; for sitting in, one arm-chair; for cleaning one’s teeth and shaving one’s chin, one tumbler, one looking-glass. Books, letters, dressing-gown, slipped about on the impersonality of the horse-hair like incongruous impertinences. And it was Clarissa’s letter that made him see all this. (Woolf, MD 137)

However it does not seem possible here to confidently exclude the narrator from any intervention. The most striking example to illustrate this is arguably the last sentence: “And it was Clarissa’s letter that made him see all this.” This could be either an intervention of the narrator, explaining what has caused the line of thought that he had just developed, or it could refer to a realisation on his own part that this is the explanation of the direction of his recent thoughts. It seems that there is no way of separating precisely thoughts or statements made or thought by Peter to those attributed to the narrator.

In summary it can be argued that Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway, made it possible for the reader to enter the character’s mind through a frequent use of FID or as Mezei puts it, provides the “[a]ppropriate space for interchange between author, narrator, character-focalizer, and reader” (Mezei 67). To be able to examine the characters any further, the other aspects of FID, namely perception and remembrance have to be taken into account. In the following sections I will show how Woolf uses perception to show a character’s present structure and memory to give the background necessary to understand this present structure.


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Methods of Characterisation in Woolf’s 'Mrs. Dalloway'
BA-thesis in literature
University of Bern
6.0 (CH)
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ISBN (eBook)
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502 KB
Methods, Characterisation, Woolf’s, Dalloway
Quote paper
Stella-Maria Stejskal (Author), 2007, Methods of Characterisation in Woolf’s 'Mrs. Dalloway', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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