Empathy in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. And the Relevance of Focalization and Free Indirect Discourse

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016
23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Framework
2.1 What is Empathy? - A Differentiation
2.2 Triggering Empathy - The Relevance of Focalization and Free Indirect Discourse
2.2.1 Focalization
2.2.2 Free Indirect Discourse
2.2.3 The Effect of Internal Focalization and Free Indirect Discourse on Empathy

3 Analysis: Triggered Empathy in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway
3.1 Historical Context
3.2 Analysis Passage 1: Septimus Warren Smith
3.3 Analysis Passage 2: Clarissa Dalloway
3.4 Analysis Passage 3: Peter Walsh

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Numerous scholars agree upon the capability of literary fiction to arouse the readers’ empathy, “[…] which would eventually lead to more pro-social behavior […]” (Hakemulder, Koopman, Effects of Literature 79). By immersing in a narrative, the readers’ empathic imagination is encouraged, which leads to the process of accompanying characters or the narrator throughout the plot and seeing things from their perspectives, including any issue-influencing circumstances or occurrences whatsoever (cf. ibid.). Theories of art reception claim that people, readers and even cinema visitors, perceive and experience fiction ‘through’ the characters themselves, which, as a consequence, makes people relate to them and sympathetically take part in their experiences and actions (cf. Mellmann 416). Literary fiction, therefore, can serve as an experiment, by which the reader either generates propinquity or distance towards certain characters or events (cf. Hakemulder, Koopman, Effects of Literature 79). Different literary techniques prompt the reader to make cognitive conclusions and thereby train their cognitive abilities and the theory of mind[1] (cf. ibid.).

According to Vera Nünning (2015), reading fiction, hence, enables people to “[…] simulate the thoughts and feelings of others […]” and elicits spontaneous perspective-taking, meaning that reading spurs the readers to take the point of view of certain characters or the narrator (Nünning 45, 48). This goes along with the necessity of understanding the characters’ or narrator’s motivations, thoughts and emotions in order to make sense of the story as a whole. In literary fiction, this process is implemented by various narrative techniques which either support or inhibit the readers’ empathic sharing. Referring to Nünning (2015), the three strategies which support perspective-taking are focalization, engrossing comments by an overt, heterodiegetic narrator[2] and the generation of suspense by, for example, exposing characters to dangerous situations (cf. ibid.). Focalization, above all, guides the readers’ fictional experience on an elementary level, enables the reader to fully take over the perspective of one or more characters and to “[…] simulate their thoughts and feelings […]” (Mellmann 416, Nünning 48).

The strategy which the analytical part of this essay is based on is the former. With the aim to confirm the proposition that internal focalization, more specifically, free indirect discourse in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, triggers empathy on the part of the reader, three exemplary passages of Mrs Dalloway will be analyzed and examined regarding empathy/ perspective-taking. Prior to the analytical part, definitions of empathy as opposed to sympathy and emotional contagion, focalization and free indirect discourse will be provided. It will be explained, in what way internal focalization and free indirect discourse influence the readers’ perception and evoke empathic sharing. Furthermore, a short historical outline of the time in which the novel is set will be given.

2 Theoretical Framework

The following chapter serves to provide fundamental definitions and, in the course of this, clarify the differences between empathy and other psychological phenomena, which are frequently confused with it, such as sympathy, also known as emphatic concern, and emotional contagion (cf. Coplan 141). Next, the relevance of internal focalization and free indirect discourse concerning the establishment of empathy will be elaborated.

2.1 What is Empathy? - A Differentiation

The term “empathy” dates back to the early twentieth century and is a translation of the German expression Einfühlung (“feeling one’s way into” a person or an object) , which was introduced by the aesthetician Theodor Lipp and adopted by the experimental psychologist E. B. Titchener (cf. Keen 64).

Suzanne Keen (2010) describes empathy as a “[…] vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect, [which] can be provoked by witnessing another’s emotional state, by hearing about another’s condition, or even by reading” (Keen 62). It represents a highly significant feature for relating to other indivuduals’ emotions (cf. Mellmann 431). The ability to perceive other people’s feelings and their points of view constitutes an important component of any moral demeanor (cf. Meuter 39). Empathy, which provokes sympathy, therefore, “[…] is by definition other-directed, whereas an over-aroused empathic response that creates personal distress (self-oriented and aversive) causes a turning away from the provocative condition of the other” (Keen 62). Empathy makes people sense what they think to be the feelings of others, which is why it is assumed to be affective as well as cognitive (cf. Keen 63).

Empathy creates an eclectic and multifaceted psychological experience which makes use of various competencies people have in order to come in contact with any aspect that surrounds them. The cognitive facet of empathy concerns the power of imagination, which is based on the ability to “[…] shift from one’s own cognitive perspective to the cognitive perspective of the target individual” (Coplan 144). Psychology calls this phenomenon “role-taking” or “perspective-taking” (cf. ibid.). The emotional aspect of empathy concerns the imaginary takeover of the emotional condition of the one empathized with.

According to Amy Shuman (2007), empathy must be viewed as an alignment issue, which implies that, referring to personal narrative, already existing alignments can be either endorsed or renewed. It can, as well, cause misalignments or challenge already recognized alignments. “Empathy requires either reframing experiences to find common ground or accepting the possibility that some experiences cannot be shared” and it stands for the activity to comprehend things across time and space (Shuman 179f.).

Both psychology and philosophy distinguish empathy from sympathy, “[…] in which feelings for another occur” (Keen 63). The major difference, therefore, lies in the fact that sympathy implies caring for someone else’s wellbeing and not mentally experiencing his or her emotional condition. As a result, one can sympathize with someone else, not intending to see things from his or her point of view as well as empathize with someone, not bothering about his or her wellbeing (cf. Coplan 145). Keen (2010) provides an illustration, which makes this difference more plausible:

Empathy: I feel what you feel.

(à I feel your pain)

Sympathy: I feel a supportive emotion about your feelings.

(à I feel pity for your pain) (Keen 63)

This example quite clearly shows in how far both phenomena deviate from one another. While empathy is characterized by the ability to relate to somebody’s feelings and situation, sympathy, beyond that, comprises the readiness to respond appropriately to the other person and his or her emotions (cf. Meuter 39).

Emotional Contagion, in contradistinction to the previously explained phenomena, describes “[…] the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally” (Hatfield, Cacioppo, Rapson 81). It is an innate element of empathy, which is linked to our physical and social perception and which depends on our cultural background (cf. Keen 63). Besides that, emotional contagion only occurs with a restricted number of emotional behaviors and reflexes, such as crying, laughing or yawning and, thus, cannot be responsible for a general transference of feelings or emotions from one person to another (cf. Mellmann 432f.). The process of emotional contagion can be seen as a ‘catch’ of emotions, since one experiences certain emotions “[…] as his or her own without realizing that they have originated outside of him in another individual. The experience is typically automatic, uncontrollable, and unintentional” (Coplan 144f.). The major difference to empathy, accordingly, lies in the fact that emotional contagion happens rather automatic than conscious. In relation to narrative, emotional contagion occurs in our reactions to narrative, since human beings are, too, “story-sharing creatures” (cf. Keen 63).

Putting empathy in context with narrative fiction, one can conclude that by immerging in a narrative, the readers’ emphatic imagination can be quickened. Readers follow characters or the narrator and imagine what it would be like to be in their situation, “[…] with certain motives, under certain circumstances, meeting with certain events” (ibid. 91). This might serve as an explanation for why narrativity can lead to an expansion of the readers’ awareness which particularly comprises fellow human beings. Fiction allows the reader to take the narrative as an experiment, challenging him- or herself and building distance or proximity to characters or events. The reader can adopt the position of one particular or several characters, who he has nothing in common with (Hakemulder, Koopman, Effects of Literature 93). While reading, imaginary models of the narrative world, which include characters and their purposes, are made which is based on the fact that “[…] human interaction is the most central aspect to literary reading […]”, for narratives are mostly based on relationships among individuals (ibid. 97). According to many scholars, making conclusions about characters or their actions can lead to empathy for the characters and their situation. Reading fiction, therefore, can also serve as a training for the ability to conclude other peoples’ emotional states and perspectives (cf. ibid.). “Through the process of simulating others’ experiences, readers might eventually feel more empathy for others outside of the narrative world” (Hakemulder, Koopman, Effects of Literature 97). Dealing with narrative fiction and, thus, intellectually simulating social situations presented in a narrative can indeed “[…] improve or maintain social skills, especially skills of empathy and social understanding” (Mar, Oatley, Peterson 408). It appears that a “[…] ready capacity to project oneself into a story […]”contributes to the ability to project oneself in other peoples’ minds to make sense of their psychological states and feelings (ibid. 421).

2.2 Triggering Empathy - The Relevance of Focalization and Free Indirect Discourse

This chapter addresses the function of focalization and free indirect discourse with regard to the genesis of empathy on the part of the reader. Beforehand, definitions of Gérard Genette’s different concepts of focalization, namely external and internal focalization, and free indirect discourse will be provided.

2.2.1 Focalization

Focalization presents the foundation for a form of a complex view of a narrative (cf. Kubicek 183). As introduced by Gérard Genette, information in fictional narratives can be conveyed either “[…] in the form of a linguistic account” by a narrator “or it can be transmitted through the perceptions and consciousness of a psychological centre of orientation” by perceiving subjects (Neumann, Nünning 31). Focalization, hence, “[…] designates the perspectival restriction and orientation of narrative information relative to a character’s perception, knowledge, attitudes and imagination”, which can be associated with the question ‘Who sees?’ (ibid.). As opposed to the function of a narrator, focalization is mainly used to indicate “[…] the non-verbal perception of the fictional world” (ibid.). A focalizer acts as the center of orientation through which certain events are screened, comprising “[…] processes such as thinking, feeling and remembering, in addition to sensory perception” (ibid.). All in all, “[…] focalization describes the various means of regulating, selecting, interpreting and channeling narrative information, particularly of ‘seeing’ events from somebody’s (usually a character’s) point of view - no matter how fallible this point of view is” (ibid.). An important aspect to be emphasized is that a focalizer never addresses the narratee, since he is not a narrator (cf. ibid.).

Genette’s concept of focalization is differentiated into external and internal focalization, which differ in the extent of knowledge that is shared by the narrator and the character (cf. Berendsen 141). Focalization is ‘external’ when “[…] the focalizing subject is located on the level of narrative transmission and ‘internal’ if the focalizing subject is located on same level as the characters, i.e. if the focalizer is part of the story” (Neumann, Nünning 95). In the case of external focalization, the story is related by exclusively making use of visibly apparent and external information about certain events, characters or characteristics. The narrator does not possess any knowledge about the characters’ feelings, plans, intentions or thoughts and therefore only recounts externally identifiable things to the reader, which is comparable to a camera. Hence, this kind of narrator only gives account of the characters’ statements or behavior without adding any sort of judgmental or interpretive remarks and is therefore also known as ‘narrator-focalization’ (cf. ibid.).

Internal focalization presents the only relevant type of focalization in the course of the later following analysis of passages of Mrs Dalloway concerning the generation of empathy within the reader. In the case of internal focalization, information is limited to the perception of one or more characters (‘character-focalizers’), from whose angle the narrative actions are displayed. It deals, for the most part, with what is going on in the characters’ minds. Genette classifies internal focalization into three types, namely fixed focalization, in which events are perceived only from the point of view of one character throughout the whole story, variable focalization, in which the fictional events are presented from the point of view of several characters, and multiple focalization, in which one certain event is repeatedly presented, each time from the point of view of a different character (cf. ibid. 95f.).

Relating to Mrs Dalloway, “[…] [t]he change in point of view and focalizers is one of the characteristic stylistic features of Woolf's novel” (Al-Thamery 20). In the novel, two different kinds of internal focalization are used. Firstly and predominantly, variable focalization, by which various actions are presented through the eyes of different focalizers, as for instance Clarissa’s, Richard’s, Peter’s, Septimus’ or Rezia’s. Secondly, a fourth kind of focalization, that is “a ‘shifting’, collective” one, which is characterized by plural narrators or a group of story-internal characters (Edmondson 19). According to Genette, a narrative which puts the narrator in the rear and makes use of internal focalization is a covert heterodiegetic one (Neumann, Nünning 93f.). Stanzel calls this instance a figural narrative situation. In figural narratives, the narrator recounts the internal focalizer’s perceptions and thoughts but since he mimics the focalizer's inner perspective, “[…] the traces of narrative transmission are barely noticeable” (ibid. 85).

2.2.2 Free Indirect Discourse

Free indirect discourse is a means of representing a character’s speech or thought. It is, therefore, differenciated into free indirect speech and free indirect thought, the latter of which is also known as “narrated monologue” and the most commonly used instance of internal focalization in modernist fiction since “[…] writers were not interested in realistic depictions of the external world but in presenting it as seen through the eyes of a character” (vgl. Oltean 535, Neumann, Nünning 133).

Free indirect speech is characterized by an intermixture of a character’s and the narrator’s voice, in which the character’s speech is indirectly presented in a way that it is very similar or identical with his or her oral language. “Thus, free indirect speech combines the original expressivity of the characters’ utterances with the tense and pronominal reference system of the narrator’s or framing discourse” (Neumann, Nünning 111). Free indirect thought or narrated monologue generates “[…] the illusion of offering immediate insights into the perceptions and internal processes of a character” (Neumann, Nünning 116). In both cases, however, the narrator addresses the character in third person, mostly uses past tense and the sentence structure is rather informal and syntactically free, making use of deictics, ellipses, subjective phrases and exclamations. Both forms of free indirect discourse do not make use of verbs of speaking or thinking, which is why the quoted discourse is presented in a non-subordinate clause. Tenses and pronouns are adapted to the third-person past-tense narrative and the character’s words or thoughts are reported in his or her own mind style (cf. ibid.).

In contrast to direct discourse, free indirect discourse does not use quotation marks and generally less accurately relates speech or thought. Contrary to ordinary indirect discourse, it renders more subjective information and hardly ever uses reporting clauses. It represents the character’s speech or thoughts and emotions and the narrator’s voice and, hence, combines a character’s subjectivity and language with the narrator’s discourse (cf. Hakemulder, Koopman, Readers Closing in 41f.). Leech and Short (2007) claim that free indirect discourse, therefore, holds the property to “[…] give the flavour of the character’s words but also to keep the narrator in an intervening position between character and reader” (Leech, Short 326). The role of free indirect discourse is of great relevance in this essay, since Mrs Dalloway constitutes a typical instance of its frequent usage. It is interesting in this regard that Woolf predominantly relies “[…] on free indirect thought, which sometimes has the feel of a soliloquy”, rather than on free indirect speech (Jones 78). Mezei (1996) argues that Woolf and other Modernist fiction writers favored free indirect discourse because the “[…] undecidability inherent in the structure of FID[3] makes it an appropriate space for the complicated interchange between author, narrator, character-focalizer, and reader […]” and stimulates the reader to participate in the generation of meaning (Mezei 67f.). Those so-called “consciousness novels” of the late 19th and early 20th century served the exploration of the “individual mind[‘s]”operations and “[…] modernist writers developed the sub-mode of free thought to represent the free and associative flow of a character’s verbal and non-verbal thought processes” (Neumann, Nünning 132). Woolf predominantly made use of free indirect thought or interior monologue in order to represent the characters’ consciousness and to dispose of the “[…] mediating and ordering voice of the authorial narrator. […] The workings of fictional minds – the tracing of the character’s associative thoughts – become a primary focus of Woolf’s novels […]” (Neumann, Nünning 135).

2.2.3 The Effect of Internal Focalization and Free Indirect Discourse on Empathy

Now follows an elucidation on the influence of internal focalization, more specifically free indirect discourse, on the readers’ perception and empathic sharing. According to Rimmon-Kenan (2002), free indirect discourse elicits empathic sharing in the reader since “[…] the tinting of the narrator’s speech with the character’s language or mode of experience may promote an empathic identification on the part of the reader […]” (Rimmon-Kenan 115). In this way, characters are brought nearer to the reader, which, as a result, makes them more accessible and facilitates identification. Furthermore, free indirect discourse may prompt the reader to better understand indecent or immoral actions of certain characters and “[…] help readers reconstruct the implied author’s attitude toward [a] character” (Hakemulder, Koopman, Readers Closing in 43). On the one hand, it may raise the readers’ empathy as well as sympathy for a character or it may increase distance towards him or her (cf. ibid.). Using McHale’s words (1978), “[…] [free indirect discourse] is routinely naturalized both as a mode of ironic distancing from characters and as a mode of empathetic identification with characters” (McHale 275f.). It makes the characters’ mental processes more apparent to the reader and, thus, leads to a better understanding of their behavior and actions. Apart from that, research renders evidence that the higher the level of free indirect discourse in a novel, the more likely readers identify with certain characters or events (cf. Hakemulder, Koopman, Readers Closing in 43). Scientists also discovered that internal focalization makes readers, who feel for a character “[…] explain this character’s behavior in situational terms rather than dispositional terms. Since people are also likely to explain their own behavior in situational terms, this means that focalization as well as the more specific narratological device of FID make a character’s behavior more understandable” (ibid. 45). Summing this up, internal focalization, in particular free indirect discourse, can effectively trigger the readers’ empathic sharing and facilitate perspective-taking. It may encourage readers to put themselves in a character’s shoes, to perceive things from his or her perspective and to understand their actions in a sympathetic way (cf. ibid 46).


[1] The theory of mind describes processes which occur when accounting for or analyzing thoughts and emotions of others. It, thus, stands for the ability to empathize with others and to recognize that other peoples’ opinions or attitudes may deviate from one’s own (cf. Nünning 46).

[2] An overt heterodiegetic narrator, according to Gérard Genette, is “an individualised speaker and concrete persona” who is not present on the level of characters in the story, unlike a homodiegetic narrator, who is one of the characters in the story (cf. Neumann, Nünning 93f.).

[3] FID is the abbreviation for free indirect discourse

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Empathy in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. And the Relevance of Focalization and Free Indirect Discourse
University of Wuppertal
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virginia, Woolf, Focalization, Dalloway
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Patrycia Gellert (Author), 2016, Empathy in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. And the Relevance of Focalization and Free Indirect Discourse, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/428967


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