Mrs Dalloway While writing and revising Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf was corresponding with E.M. Forster, who was working on A Passage to India. In September of 1921, she records in her diary: “A letter from Morgan [Forster] this morning. He seems as critical of the East as of Bloomsbury, & sits dressed in a turban watching his Prince dance” (Diary 2.138). His novel came out well before she finished hers; she read it and noted, “Morgan is too restrained in his new book perhaps” (Diary 2.304).
A note of the Anglo-Indian society that dominates A Passage to India resonates in Mrs. Dalloway’s background, sounded in part by returning Indian traveler, Peter Walsh, but also heard and overheard in conversations and oblique references scattered throughout the narrative. Reinforcing its literal presence in the novel, an echo of India appears in Mrs. Dalloway’s narrative rhythms. Like the intricate percussion of the Indian tabla, the fabric of Woolf’s narrative comprises a polyrhythmic texture that subtly undermines London’s booming metronome: Big Ben.
The beautiful and complex narrative of Mrs. Dalloway seems to defy readers’ powers of description. David Dowling’s Mapping Streams of Consciousness exemplifies a sense one must “reconstruct” the text in order to understand it. In a section entitled “A Reading,” Dowling dissects the novel into neat structural packages so the reader can easily study its anatomy. He includes maps of London showing various characters’ movements and intersections, an hourly chronology of the day of Clarissa’s party, character sketches condensed from details scattered in the text, and, in the appendix, a kind of “miniature concordance” that provides counts for some 32 words (“India” appears 25 times).
Other studies of Mrs. Dalloway are less detailed but serve as well to illustrate the difficulties of describing its narrative patterns. In “Metaphor, Metonymy, and Ideology: Language and Perception in Mrs. Dalloway,”: Teresa L. Ebert discusses binary structures–“counterpointing..visions” (Ebert 152)–in the novel’s language.
Building on Nancy Topping Bazin’s Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Vision, she explores how female and male polarities in the text are resolved in images of androgyny. Instead of metaphor and metonymy, Caroline Webb examines the “anti-allegorical” nature of the text (Webb 279). In “Life After Death: The Allegorical Progress of Mrs. Dalloway,” she argues that the narrative invites us to look for a “hidden story,” but ultimately frustrates our expectations (Webb 279). Focussing on the narrator as a specifically created presence in the work, Sharon Stockton refers to classical physics and phenomenology to show Woolf “deconstructing the conventions of authoritarian representation” (Stockton, “Turbulence in the Text: Narrative Complexity in Mrs. Dalloway” 51). The novel’s narrative has also been described specifically in terms of its metrical effects.
In “`On the Floor of the Mind’: Sentence Shape and Rhythm in Mrs. Dalloway,” Elizabeth Dodd explicates the poetic qualities of Woolf’s prose. She not only points out relationships between sentence rhythm and specific characters’ thought patterns, she also shows that Woolf turned to poetry for literary inspiration while revising Mrs. Dalloway. Calling the reader’s attention to Woolf’s June 21, 1924 diary entry–the same one in which Woolf commented on Forster’s A Passage to India (above)–Dodd shows the extent to which poetry was on the writer’s mind: “I think I grow more & more poetic” (Diary 2.304). Undoubtedly, poetry does inform Woolf’s work, and Dodd’s argument to that effect is convincing.
While the sentences in Mrs. Dalloway are metrical, however, “poetic” alone does not encompass the full rhythmic force of the narrative. Ebert’s term “counterpoint” and Stockton’s metaphor of “turbulence” both evoke kinds of rhythmic structures as well, but in very different contexts. Indeed, Woolf consciously draws influence across diverse media in her quest to “[throw] away the method..in use at the moment” (Woolf, “Character in Fiction” 432). Robin Gail Schulze points to Woolf’s use of tonal music to show how she breaks with literary tradition in her novels, but she concludes that “Mrs.
Dalloway, by Woolf’s definition, remains a conventional novel” (Schulze 8). I suggest, however, that Mrs. Dalloway’s chronology, the poetic meter of its sentences, its turbulence and counterpoint, are all vectors in the intricate matrix of its polyrhythmic structure. Borrowed from the field of musicology, “polyrhythmic” describes a percussive structure unfamiliar to many Westerners. Because it is not based on regular repetitive patterns marked by even measures, polyrhythmic percussion may sound chaotic to the unaccustomed ear. These characteristically non-Western rhythms are somewhat analogous to several different metronomes, each generating a different pattern based on a different downbeat. The rhythms generated by these metronomes would bear mathematic relationships to each other; the downbeats will intersect in various combinations and, at long but regular intervals, all metronomes will sound their downbeats simultaneously.
In Drumming at the Edge of Magic, percussionist Mickey Hart calls this sudden unity of seemingly chaotic structures “The One.” Multiple metronomes, though, only superficially capture the complexity of Indian and other non-Western percussion traditions. Indian classical music is based on rhythmic variation and elasticity of tempo almost unheard in Western music. The tabla, one of the most common Indian percussion instruments, consists of two small drums of different size, shape, material, pitch, and timbre. The drummer uses one hand for each drum and all the fingers on both hands to produce sometimes almost minimal, often rippling and intricate accompaniment to a droning sitar or reed-like human voice. Forster describes the effect of this kind of percussion in A Passage to India: Godbole..said a word to the drummer, who broke rhythm, made a thick little blur of sound, and produced a new rhythm.
This was more exciting, the inner images it evoked more definite, and the singers’ expressions became fatuous and languid. They loved all men, the whole universe, and scraps of their past, tiny splinters of detail, emerged for a moment to melt into the universal warmth. (286) Whether or not she used Forster as a conscious model, I think this distinctively polyrhythmic music provides a surprisingly descriptive analogy for Virginia Woolf’s narrative technique in Mrs. Dalloway. The swirling, divergent, colliding, sometimes intersecting and synchronous rhythms of Mrs. Dalloway manifest themselves in the text in various ways and on numerous levels. Rhythm emerges in the novel in literal prose references to percussive sounds, in the sound of the words themselves, and in the overarching narrative structure of the work–its pace, its pauses and plunges, its movement through time, and its movement through and around characters’ minds.
Like Forster’s drummer, Woolf’s prose breaks rhythm, makes thick little blurs of sound, and produces a new rhythm; it evokes inner images; and it ultimately melts scraps of the past and tiny splinters of detail into a final unified downbeat of “universal warmth.” One of the elemental components in the polyrhythmic voicing of Mrs. Dalloway is the percussive sound-scape Woolf creates in the novel’s background. As Clarissa crosses the street at the beginning of the novel, she plunges into a cacophony punctuated by the percussive tramping and jingling of people and traffic: In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June. (4) As Clarissa continues through town to the flower shop, the din begins to shape itself into rhythm. When an enigmatically important-looking car appears, its effects ripple and vibrate and echo through the street: The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. ..When the sentence was finished something had happened.
Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional. ..In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way. ..For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound. (18) After the ripple crests to “a general shindy” and then dissipates, another important sound, which may subtly evoke Indian music, enters the scene. Above the rhythmic sounds of life drones “the strange high singing of some aeroplane” (4), “boring into the ears of all people in the mall” (18), like the drone of a sitar or chanter whom the tabla accompanies. A similar percussive “surface agitation” ripples throughout the novel in clicks, taps, flicks, and drips; we hear it in voices chattering, twigs cracking, and in pulses and thuds.
Woolf gives us the cadence of Peter Walsh “speaking to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound” (48). Septimus Warren Smith experiences “thunder-claps of fear,” and remembers the sound of Rezia and her sisters making hats: “he..could hear them; they were rubbing wires among coloured beads in saucers. ..Scissors were rapping on the table. ..Still, scissors rapping, girls laughing” (87). The effect of these (and numerous other) sounds in the prose is subtle but significant. They not only add an important sensory dimension to the readers’ experience of the text, they give us percussive accents to reinforce the novel’s rhythmic pace. Complimenting these sounds in the prose are words and sentences that, if read aloud, convey a sense of rhythm and percussion.
A passage that nicely illustrates both sound in the prose and the sound of the prose appears when Peter Walsh is walking to the park after leaving Clarissa’s house: A patter like the patter of leaves in a wood came from behind, and with it a rustling, regular thudding sound, which as it overtook him drummed his thoughts, strict in step, up Whitehall, without his doing. Boys in uniform, carrying guns, marched with their eyes ahead of them, marched, their arms stiff, and on their faces an expression like the letters of a legend written round the base of a statue praising duty, gratitude, fidelity, love of England. (51) The words “patter,” “rustling,” and “thudding” are onomatopoeic, simultaneously referring to and embodying sound, while “drummed” specifically evokes the percussive patterns that pervade the passage. Alliterative pairs of words, like “rustling regular,” “strict in step,” “Whitehall without,” and “written round,” and the triplet “like the letters of a legend” sound when spoken like strokes on the skin of the drum. Similar structures can be heard throughout the novel, especially in Septimus Smith’s hallucinations: The earth thrilled beneath him. Red flowers grew through his flesh; their stiff leaves rustled by his head. Music began clanging against the rocks up here.
It is a motor horn down in the street, he muttered; but up here it cannoned from rock to rock, divided, met in shocks of sound which rose in smooth columns (that music should be visible was a discovery) and became an anthem, an anthem twined round now by a shepherd boy’s piping (That’s an old man playing a penny whistle by the public-house, he muttered) which, as the boy stood still came bubbling from his pipe. (68) The onomatopoeia and alliteration appear here as well, but the rhythm is noticeably different. Instead of the quick, crisp pattering of the passage above, Septimus’s has a slower and less regular tempo. The repetition of the “h” sound and the greater distance between some alliterative words contrasts with the military precision of Peter Walsh’s perceptions. Of course, these are not isolated passages in the text; they merely illustrate some ways Woolf infuses her prose with sonic elements that contribute to the novel’s overarching polyrhythmic structure.
These important stylistic elements–this surface agitation–add texture to the fabric of the narrative. But the predominant rhythms in the novel follow a larger pattern. In a sense, Mrs. Dalloway’s disparate rhythmic voices follow closely the “Streams of Consciousness” David Dowling seeks to map (above). Each character in the novel has her or his own narrative rhythm. These rhythms emerge and retreat, diverge and intersect, approach chaos and then resolve. We could take the primary components of narrative rhythm to be time and space.
Using Dowling’s map diagrams and chronological chart as guides (Dowling 51-57), we could follow the separate time/space rhythms of Septimus, Clarissa, Peter, Richard, and Elizabeth through the day of Clarissa’s party. Hence, we could reconstruct these elements of narrative and plot–these “splinters of detail”–in a way that would be hostile to the text. In a sense, we would insist that the tabla submit to the authority of a single metronome. Time and space are important metrical components in the text, but through elastic polyrhythmic tempos and voicings, Woolf shows they are subjective components, not rigid authoritarian constants. Like Forster’s description of the effects of ritual Indian drumming, Woolf shows us scraps of her characters’ pasts as real parts of the present moment–“this moment of June.” In A passage to India the “new rhythm” brings memories and images together to form a spiritual “completeness” in the moment: Godbole..remembered an old woman he had met in Chandrapore days.
Chance brought her into his mind while it was in this heated state, he did not select her, she happened to occur among the throng of soliciting images, a tiny splinter, and he impelled her by his spiritual force to that place where completeness can be found. Completeness, not reconstruction. (286) In Mrs. Dalloway the narrator does not merely describe these moments of completeness; she creates them for us. The narrative rhythm melts past and present together for Clarissa in the first paragraphs of the novel. As Clarissa steps into the street in front of her house, her past is suddenly with her: What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a 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 and sharp and 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.
.. (3) In a manner that she will sustain throughout the novel, the narrator conveys memory and present action to us simultaneously and ambiguously. “Which she could hear now” refers, ostensibly, to the squeak of the hinges at Bourton in Clarissa’s memory. Yet “now” implies the moment of her plunge into the street, suggesting either a kind of reverie–as in, “I can almost hear it now . .
.”–or that the doors through which she now plunges also squeak. The later phrase, “for a girl of eighteen as she then was” is similarly disorienting. It locates the time of Clarissa’s bursting open the windows of Bourton, but it also implies that, through her memory, she has become eighteen again. The “then” contrasts with the earlier “now,” but neither refers concretely to its own relative time. Where Forster tells his reader that the rhythm impelled Godbole to an experience of “completeness, not reconstruction,” Woolf’s narrator causes us to experience completeness of two times with Clarissa.
Studying the passage, we may feel compelled to disentangle the threads of time in order to reconstruct chronological plot. Dowling reprints diagrams other readers have used to chart chronology in the novel–one builds pyramids labeled with algebraic letters and numbers to signify time frames and characters, another draws zig-zags connecting characters to each other (Dowling 71). But Dowling is forced to conclude, “despite the patterning in the novel, then, it remains essentially disorganized” (Dowling 73). If we try to hear the narrative with a Western ear, to mark off the measures and count out the beats, the novel will confound us. Whatever tools we use, our attempts to reconstruct will negate the sense of completeness the narrator’s rhythm impels us to. Clarissa’s plunge into the street and into the air of Bourton does, however, show a specific consciousness of the simultaneous time frames: the air at Bourton was “stiller than this, of course.” Rather than comparing the past to the present, Clarissa, through the narrator, compares the air at Bourton to “this.” Past and present are still contained simultaneously in the text, but their rhythms diverge briefly.
As the passage continues into memory, we retain with Clarissa a vague consciousness of the present moment: ..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 the vegetables?”–was that it? –“I prefer men to cauliflowers”–was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace–Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July. ..(3-4) Within the memory narrative, Clarissa’s present emerges in the repeated “was that it?” and the past becomes muted, indefinite, speculative: “he must have said it. ..” The narrative recenters on the present as Clarrisa thinks of Peter, but it mirrors the past’s ambiguity: “one of these days, June or July.” As Dowling writes, “the text oscillates rhythmically …