Reading Virginia Woolf's novel



                                                     A Double Perspective

     With twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes.

Mrs Dalloway




The narrator, not a disembodied voice in Mrs Dalloway, is a subject for careful linguistic analysis. Discourse issues from the narrator and the character simultaneously such that conceptual ideation does not belong solely to the character concerned; therefore a systematic equivocation complicates the issue (McHale 278). Such is the importance of understanding the technique called Free Indirect Discourse, often abbreviated as FID. In Free Indirect Discourse, “everything is interpreted as if it were quoted literally from the character’s original speech or thought,” but through mingling the voices of narrator and character (Maier 5). “There is always a relationship between two distinguishable minds … in the sense that the narrator speaks for the character” (Miller 187). It is through this double role rather than “omniscience” in the discourse when ironic observations appear to issue from the narrator and the character’s opinion colors the truth.  There is, instead, a “peculiar double vision of the style, the sense of the narrator peering into the character’s mind and scrupulously reporting its contents” (Ohmann 125). These thoughts, mixed with a character’s opinion, cannot be accepted as valid in drawing any genuine understanding.

This technique blurs the distinction between direct and indirect discourse; “the narrator disappears, merging with the consciousness of the characters” (Minow-Pinkney 152). Represented utterances exhibit a distinctive formulation which distinguishes “which ‘meanings’ belong to a character, which to the narrator” (McHale 272). In FID the voice of the character is imitated, usually without quotation marks, and is given with that character’s intellectual qualities including factual errors, idiomatic expressions, and stylistics of parlance as well. Understanding this distinction allows the character to appear cynical and the joint effort of the narrator extravagantly coy; this is necessary for making a correct reading of the novel.

Stylistically, exposition in Free Indirect Discourse “belongs to a clearly elevated plane” according to the linguist Monika Fludernik (400). In Mrs Dalloway it is featured as one of the attributes of Alexandrian art, a subjective and personal way of writing (Daiches 78; Hammond 42). It appears as a familiar technique of point of view in the novels of Jane Austen (see Helen Dry). Yet the term FID as identified in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway demonstrates a narrated perception often with the flavor of the character’s mind yet seen through the narrator’s eyes, at once self-concealment and self-presentation. Some theorists have considered it an index of “literariness” (McHale 283). There are many helpful markers for discovery of FID which should be examined since details are always limited by the character concerned, and ambiguity is featured in questioning the reliability of the intelligence supplied. 

A careful study of instances of Free Indirect Discourse disambiguates readings involving both the bland voice of the narrator (”the voice of authority”) and the character’s more colorful opinions and observations. For this reason, when evaluations of Clarissa Dalloway or Peter Walsh are given in FID, they should not be necessarily accepted as truth. For example, Peter’s penchant for character analysis such as his assertion that Clarissa is frigid may refer, allusively, to the statue of Alcestis which is a “cold-comfort” for her husband; his claim of Clarissa’s “woodenness” may figure as the Trojan horse of literary contents. Recognition of the compelling allure of this device is essential to a competent reading of the novel. This summary and a few examples may help.

Speaking stylistically, FID must be understood if only to see that it is neither exposition nor stream-of-consciousness, the style relevant in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Even more, it is not always the character’s words but rather those of “the consciousness whose point of view is reflected in the exposition” (Dry 99). Although the omniscient narrator’s traditional observations are apparent, grammatical diction such as clichés, interjections, idiolectical usages and other dialectical features mark the utterance as belonging to the character’s style. As FID is an amalgam of character and narrator we should understand that this might constitute a feature of the unreliable narrator; it may compose the unreliable character’s perspective just as well.

Thus, here are a few examples. An assertion such as this, “Clarissa would send an invitation” appears as a form of FID. It is not this narrative, “Clarissa said she will send an invitation”; nor is it, “I will send an invitation.” As in the first example there is no introductory expression in FID such as “Clarissa said.” Quotation marks are suppressed in FID yet the sense is of what Clarissa has said; it also has the configuration of narration in the form called historical style. However, the verb tense “would” has been back-shifted from “will” as it might have appeared in a quote, and first person qualities are converted to third person. The pronoun “she” has been adjusted from “I” as Clarissa would have spoken of her self. This is the general form of FID although there are many refinements which indicate a compound mentality at work. It is an unusually nuanced form of written discourse. Such is the opening of the novel, the reported words of the title character: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”; these are followed by markers of FID, the tense and pronouns adjusted and Clarissa’s cliché, “For Lucy had her work cut out for her” (MD 3). Narrators do not use clichés.

This first chapter, made up of narrated monologue, is constructed largely from techniques of free indirect discourse, a vehicle for Clarissa’s reveries. Expressives (“What a lark! What a plunge!; “how fresh, how calm”) are frequent markers of FID. We find verbs “backshifted” as to tense, from have to had, and first person pronouns adjusted as to the person concerned. “The past perfect tense triggers an FID reading” (Fludernik 191). The epistemic phrase of non-certitude, “For so it had always seemed to her,” is an FID indicator, a participle which does not bear a factual burden.

A causal indicator, the conjunction “for”, provides a logical sequence, or according to Daiches, “a pseudo-logic” (Daiches 71-2). The  deictic expression relative to the context of Bourton and not Westminster, “standing there,” is considered a marker of FID. In the description of Peter’s letters, “awfully dull,” the modal auxiliary fits the criteria of FID markers, these being value judgments, expressions which are not attributable to a narrator but which rather are sentiments belonging to the thought of Clarissa Dalloway as indicators of her perceptions, measuring her consciousness. 

This is followed by lines of exposition: “She stiffened a little on the kerb” when the mind of Scrope Purvis is entered, the pronoun “one” (“knowing her as one does know people”) being a narrated marker of an upper-class speech habit appropriate to her neighbor; later the narrator’s words merge in the brief narrated monologue of Edgar J. Watkiss, a workman, containing the dialectical expression, “The Proime Minister’s kyar”, also with obtrusive narratorial influence (MD 20, 4). Clarissa’s account of London’s “roar” with its “triumph and jingle,” (“For Heaven only knows why one loves it so” --“so” being a modal lexical filler) preserves the logic and resumes the personal idiom and detail of Clarissa’s observation but with the structure and syntax as a mark of the narrator’s presence. This serves as “a measure of the human consciousness” (McHale 278). A reader who cares to keep matters sorted out as to time, place, and person in such complex passages finds that a study of FID assists in accurate comprehensions.

Similar manifestations appear among the narrated monologues of Peter Walsh, often with interpretive obstination: once FID has begun the reader will continue processing the text in this frame (Fludernik 285). This first passage consists of  several indirectly reported sentences which are “understood” following the opening sentence (McHale 268): “It was at Bourton that summer” (MD 88-89) opens in the mind of Peter Walsh with a temporal deictic, “that summer” and a modal auxiliary in the manner of his love for Clarissa, “so passionately.” Verb tenses are “backshifted”: he had forgotten, he had married and she had been brought, followed by other modal auxiliaries, “an awful visit,” and  “She was absurdly overdressed.” The inverted sentence structure, “Sally Seton it was”, and “-- an awful visit it had been” (here interrupted syntax is a feature of the expressive style) with the modal indicates his gathering of memories. Emphatic repetitions (“on and on she went, on and on”) comprise expressives in FID used to convey the character’s emotion (Dry 95). The passage ends with an epistemic non-factive, “the tea-table seemed to wobble,” which does not commit to facts (Dry 97).

As well said by Fludernik, free indirect discourse “relies on the linguistic evocation of the character’s voice” (280). Maisie Johnson’s cameo appearance offers examples of her linguistic mode of thinking and her mode of expression, blended as in FID, with narration. She opens with an epistemic expression (“seemed”) joined with evaluative lexemes (“very”) (MD 38). Having sighted Septimus Warren Smith and Rezia in Regent’s Park who “seemed awfully odd” she further combines the FID markers (non-factive; back-shifted verb tense; evaluative lexeme, adjusted pronouns). She is “given quite a turn” (idiomatic expression) that she feels “positively” (epistemic lexeme). Intermittent exclamations (Oh!) are expressives which belong to her, not to the narrator. “Why hadn’t she stayed at home?”  The rhetorical question is indirectly reported with back-shifted verb tense.

Mrs. Dempster also exhibits “automatic gear shifting between narrator and character” (Fludernik 73), her charming language made opaque by style indicating the “spokenness” of thought (see McHale 270). There is no mistaking her words which foreground articulatory peculiarities in place of narration (MD 40). The idiomatic sociolectal expression, “let me tell you”, is matched with phonological dialectical traits such as “M’dear,” ”young feller,” and “out o’sight” (McHale 254). She is prone to clause-initial adjuncts (Oh, Well, Ah) including expressive punctuation  (that aeroplane!) in a sentence fragment typical of her style in FID coupled with the emotional “away and away … away and away” repetition. Colloquialisms, (Mrs. Dempster wagered, the expression “I’ll wager” converted to FID with her proper name replacing the first person pronoun), indicate subjectivity. Her interrogatory “Hadn’t Mrs. Dempster always wanted to see foreign parts?” which reflects her voice contains the verb tense back-shift and the third person noun adjustment to her proper name typical of FID as above.

Lucy, the housemaid whose “work is cut out for her” indulges in an imaginary account of herself as a party hostess with exclamations, ejaculations, obsolete vocabulary spoken for her “guests”: They would come; they would stand; they would talk in mincing tones which she could imitate. … . Behold! Behold! (MD 56), the modal auxiliaries “would” indicating habitual behavior.

Miss Kilman illustrates typical instances of FID in which a character utters her own point of view through the consciousness of another person as in “Miss Dolby thought she would be happier with people who shared her views about the Germans”; obviously she does not fit the expected profile (MD 187; McHale 277). Miss Kilman accents her piety typographically with emphatic capitals “Our Lord” and “the path to Him smooth,” (it was so rough the approach to her God—so tough her desires) (intensifiers, inverted word order -- MD 187, 203). Her exaggerated, pompous, and verbose (pseudo-scholarly) tirade which conveys her hostility toward Clarissa includes expressives and epithets (“Fool! Simpleton! … who have trifled your life away!” (MD 189). This rhetorical attack is in contrast with Clarissa’s milder epistemic expressions which acknowledge, in FID, that Kilman “had been badly treated of course” (a lexical filler) lacking comforts like cushions “or whatever it might be”, “poor embittered unfortunate creature!” (MD 16).

FID also serves as a vehicle for abnormal mental conditions  as exterior states move back and forth from the character’s interior world to the exterior world (Minow-Pinckney 55; McHale 277). After his initial self reference (me), the indirect (he, him) prevails. “So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signaling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty … signaling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty!” (MD 31). The narrator, presumably, plays with homonyms; “for nothing (free), for ever (eternal), and for looking (manner). Indications of subjectivity (“it was plain enough”), repetitions, and the expressive punctuation convey an ironic clue that he is merely reading letters written in the sky. A continuation of his personal rambling further indicates hallucinatory impressions in FID with verb tenses back-shifted (was, could) and pronouns adjusted (he) and the interrogatory: “Heaven was divinely merciful, infinitely benignant … Why could he see through bodies, see into the future, when dogs will become men?” (MD 102). “We must interpret [this] as a representation of his consciousness if we are to reject the assertions they make as false” unless we believe that dogs will become men (Banfield 309).

Personal idiom in FID emerges with Septimus’s evaluative comment on Doctor Holmes, “When the damned fool came again, Septimus refused to see him.” The physician himself expresses himself also indirectly with evaluative designations among the narrator’s syntax constructions, back-shifted verb tense and pronoun adjustments, “Really (clause initial adjunct) he had to give that charming little lady, Mrs.Smith, a friendly push (Holmes’s diction) before he could get past her into her husband’s bedroom” (MD 138). Septimus’s matter-of-fact discourse, “he had committed an appalling (evaluative designation) crime” is followed by a “hedge”, or typographically marked pauses echoing the matter in direct discourse (Maier 6): “I have—I have,” he began,  “committed a crime—“ (MD 145). Similarly, Rezia Warren Smith reveals her own anguished state in FID by repetitions, fragments, expressives, and reported discourse: “She put on her new hat and he never noticed; and he was happy without her. Nothing could make her happy without him! Nothing! (Exclamatory sentence; the repetition emphasizes her emotion.) He was selfish. So men are. For (coordinating conjunction, causal indicator) he was not ill. Dr. Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him. She spread her hand before her. Look!” (MD 34). The example of direct discourse (“she spread her hand”), when individual snatches of direct discourse contaminates the narrative and are inserted into FID, is called “slipping.” There is an element of ironic incongruity between what Dr. Holmes has said and what the text conveys about Septimus.

Dr. Holmes’s admonitory lecture to Septimus incorporates many of the markers of FID as syntactic markers of subjectivity: “He had actually (epistemic) talked of killing himself to his wife, quite a girl, a foreigner, wasn’t she? (tag question, evaluative expression). Didn’t that give her a very odd idea of English husbands? Didn’t one owe perhaps a duty to one’s wife? Wouldn’t it be better to do something instead of lying in bed? (evaluative adjuncts within questions with implied responses; there are transformations of direct questions by inverted word-order). Each indicates a correct answer. “Septimus could take Dr. Holmes’s word for it,” an idiomatic expression normally in the present tense (you can take my word for it) is converted to the pluperfect (MD 139).

Richard Dalloway expresses his disinterest in Hugh’s purchases with similar FID markers: “Richard didn’t care a straw (idiomatic expression) what became of Emigration … The necklace hung stretched between Hugh’s admirable (evaluative epithet) fingers. Let him (imperative form -- Fludernik 157) give it to a girl, if he must  (deontic) buy jewels” (MD 172). There is an element of irony here through Richard’s unvoiced opinions of his friend Hugh Whitbread. Hugh is presented unfavorably: “He was unspeakably pompous (evaluative). On the other hand Hugh expresses subjective contempt: “Really, (clause–initial adjunct) after dealing here (deictic adjustment) for thirty-five years he was not going to be put off by a mere boy (derogatory evaluative designation) who did not know his business” (MD 173). Here the discourse appropriates the character’s language for comic or ironic purposes (Fludernik 334). Likewise, at luncheon “Hugh was very slow, Lady Bruton thought.” Her opinions of her guests are ironically influenced by the delay in writing the letter which is the purpose of her luncheon. “He was getting fat, she noticed. Richard always kept himself in the pink of condition (colloquial expression). She was getting impatient” (MD 164). The interior monologues with their FID markers reveal private opinions among all three of the characters which they would not express aloud, and “embeds the character’s thought in the narrative flow and in the narrator’s interpretation” (Fludernik 322).

The voice of the sympathetic beggar woman at the Regent’s Park tube station sings of love with expressives and back shifted verb tenses of her lover “who had been dead these centuries … how once in some primeval May she had walked with her lover … he was a man, oh yes (emphatic adjunct), a man who had loved her” (MD 123-124). This fragment of a touching love story conforms with the continuous love story of Clarissa and Peter which makes up much of the discourse in Mrs Dalloway.

Clarissa begins the issue with a defensive comment “that she had been right-–and she had too—not to marry [Peter]” (MD 10); there are typical verbs back-shifted and pronouns adjusted with  emphatic ironic self-assurance as to personal experience. Her epistemic lexeme, “they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced,” is followed by an inverted sentence containing subjective “valentine” imagery, suffering from “the grief, the anguish,” which she views as an arrow sticking in her heart.  She had concurred with her childhood friend, Sally Seton, that “marriage [was] always a catastrophe” (hyperbole) perhaps under the influence of her love for Sally “(and what was this except being in love)” (MD 51). Sally is a strong influence, inclined to shock people. Her “power was amazing, her gift, her personality” (MD 49). Clarissa reports that “she was untidy, Papa said” even though “Papa” admires her voice (MD 52); (intimate address indicates the source; in FID it makes a difference who says “Papa”). On the other hand, Peter “Had never got on well with old Parry” (Peter’s less intimate, less respectful reference). He had never been acceptable (by old Parry) as an appropriate suitor and perhaps his disapproval is well deserved judging from Peter’s résumé: “He had been sent down from Oxford –true. He had been a Socialist, in some sense a failure—true” (verb tenses back shifted; pronouns adjusted).

The friendship between Clarissa and Sally deteriorates partly when Clarissa errs at Richard Dalloway’s expense, calling him “Wickham” (MD 92), even introducing him as “Wickham” as Peter recalls, a metalinguistic evaluative designation alluding to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Subsequently, Richard identifies himself as “my name is Dalloway” after which Sally toys with it, annoying Clarissa who is contending with Peter’s jealousy and determination to break into their companionship (MD 53). Wickham, of course, is the cad in Austen’s novel who elopes with the youngest Bennet daughter; the nomenclature problematizes Clarissa’s marriage to Richard Dalloway, the event upon which the narrative is ironically silent. It may be Sally’s intention to come between Richard and Clarissa later when she “implores” Peter to elope, “to carry off Clarissa,” like Wickham, thus saving her from such “perfect gentlemen” (ironic epithet) as Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread, eloping being an occasional tactic if the choice of spouse is not approved socially (MD 114). This is the wild, the daring, the romantic Sally (Peter’s evaluative designations of her character -- MD 109). Only that morning Clarissa has been reminded of what her life might be like if they had eloped, if she had “run away, lived with Peter.” “If I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day” (MD 70-71).

Peter has memory lapses at first, thinking of Sally as “Betty What’shername” (imprecise point of view). Having finally placed her he sees her as a person, “hard as nails” (cliché) who “tried to get hold of things by the right end anyhow” (Peter’s idiom, clichéd, colloquial language) (Fludernik 264-265). Sally serves as a go-between on Peter’s behalf, carrying the message regarding their last assignation (MD 97). As Clarissa apparently fails to tell Peter “the truth,” whatever that might be, the relationship was over at last (MD 97).

Still, after all this, when Peter visits, Clarissa greets him with expressives: “How heavenly it is to see you again” (intensifier) as she prepares her dress “for they had a party that night” (causal conjunction, pronoun adjustment, verb back-shifted) in spite of the intensifier, remembering their courtship, “when she had tortured him so infernally” (intensification, MD 63). The discourse “typically moves in and out of the character’s consciousness” (Fludernik 318). Peter’s query, “Why wouldn’t she ask him to her party?” follows in accordance with typical markers of FID, inverted auxiliary and subject word-order. While reflecting on “the torture, the extraordinary passion of those days” when “he was in love with her then,” he concludes “that now she was in love with him” (textual italics serve as vocal intensifiers and indications of emphasis) (MD 120; Fludernik 232). By dinner time Peter has his invitation to the party with Clarissa’s reassertions, “Heavenly to see you” (MD 235-235). “To read her letter [one] needed the devil of an effort” (Peter’s idiomatic expression). He is annoyed. “After all [causal lexical filler], she had married Dalloway, and lived with him in perfect happiness all these years” (MD 234-235). Only much later does he agree to go to the party: “He would go to Clarissa’s party” (verb tense backshifted, pronoun adjusted, MD 244).

Peter and Sally, waiting to speak with Clarissa while she attends to duties of the hostess, together reveal their thoughts in common, “perception indicators” summarizing and renewing many of the issues already addressed (McHale 278). “The reader is juggled from mind to mind,” a series of shifts of point in view  complicating the issue of who is speaking and whose thoughts are foregrounded (Hacia; Bancroft 283). The phrase “Sally supposed” (epistemic lexeme, her conscious thought transposed from “I suppose”) appears to be a repeated linguistic peculiarity as she comments on the guest list, “that they were people of importance.” The usage which reappears in her evaluative comment regarding Richard Dalloway’s not being in the cabinet; “He hadn’t been a success, Sally supposed?, with inverted subject/predicate word order initiating the dialogue with Peter regarding the Dalloways and their marriage (MD 284). This appears as the feigned ignorance of Socratic irony. Clearly Peter and Sally already share much of the information which they leave unstated.

For himself, Peter thinks of Sally herself with his ejaculations (Lord, Lord) and an expressive appraisal (what a change) of her full-figured appearance within his perceptual reach until Sally again returns to motifs previously addressed, the metalinguistic reference to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice associated with Peter’s love for Clarissa. There was that dreadful, ridiculous scene (evaluative designations): After Clarissa’s introductory error, “She had called Richard “Wickham.” (MD 285). Soon Sally returns to her former query again in epistemic style of FID: “And the marriage had been, Sally supposed, a success” (MD 287). The matter of supposition suggests that she expects it might be otherwise. The matter approaches the unstated issue, something about the marriage, when Sally opens with the idiomatic expression – to be quite frank – she continues, “how could Clarissa have done it? (colloquial query) – i.e. married Richard Dalloway? (MD 288). Peter is in agreement that it had been a silly thing to do, “to marry like that; a perfect goose she was”  (inverted word order; ambiguous deictic; epithet) which Sally surmises that he had said out of pride, a further metalinguistic allusion to Pride and Prejudice as well, launching a systematic equivocation concerning the nature of “marrying like that” (MD 289).

Sally returns to her epistemic style with “perception indicators” which serve as a means for “making sense of otherwise ‘insignificant’ details in a novel” (McHale 278). She and Peter clearly remember Sally’s suggestion that he “carry off” Clarissa (euphemism for “elope”) who also that morning apparently recalls this and muses rather impulsively, “Take me with you” (quotes suppressed, pronouns adjusted for direct address). Clarissa implies that she imagines she “had run away, had lived with Peter, and it was now over,” but a consideration which she had rejected (MD 70-71). These matters apparently lead Sally to speculate on the current status of the Dalloway marriage, asking what Richard has accomplished with inverted subject predicate word order. “Public work, she supposed. And were they happy together?” (the word supposed has become parodic by now). This is Richard who said “My name is Dalloway,” not Wickham (MD 92).

In The Voyage Out, we recall, when Richard kisses Rachel Vinrace, there seems to have been something of the old “Wickham” remaining in him and which is currently true of the admirable Hugh, said to be guilty of “kissing Sally in the smoking-room!” (expressive, MD 111). Sally’s recollection is that it was she who had called Richard “Wickham”, and “why not” do so? she asks (the form is such as to expect justification –MD 285). It seems an insignificant issue which gathers magnitude in the context. The reader is invited to speculate as to what “marrying like that” might imply in terms of marital unorthodoxy; and in the sensational context of “Wickham” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it appears that it is Richard Dalloway, although not exactly a scoundrel, who may have been lacking in the social approval which inspired the metalinguistic allusion (Fludernik 35). In spite of Clarissa’s tendency to come downstairs in white, a bridal image, we can hardly be blamed for surmising that Clarissa and Richard (not Peter) must have eloped. (MD 51, 74, 281),

This study has attempted to illustrate the techniques exploited in free indirect discourse in Mrs Dalloway. The investigation has sought to clarify the ways that FID conveys meaning and correctly attributes them to the character or narrator or both in the discourse. It also has demonstrated how attention to markers of FID draw attention to matters concerning the love affair and marriage of Clarissa Dalloway which has not received its due attention.

                                                            Molly Hoff


Works Consulted

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