Last year I took several classes focused on Southern literature and struggled the most to keep up with the books we read by Faulkner. His use of run-on sentences and lengthy descriptions kept me scrambling to remember what the subject of the sentence had been. These sentences were additionally made difficult by the stream of consciousness method he is perhaps most famous for using in The Sound and the Fury (1929). Faulkner was the first author I had read who had used the stream of consciousness method, also referred to as interior monologue, in which the thoughts and thought processes of a character are extensively detailed and written to give the reader perspective into of character’s mind. Having finished last year feeling comfortable with the most difficult literature I had ever experienced, I was not prepared to face the difficulty of an author preceding Faulkner who had also used stream of consciousness in a novel.
This term, I am taking a class called Studies in British Fiction Since 1900. With two books under my belt, Elizabeth Bowen’s Heat of the Day (1948) and Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907), I came into my third week of school ready to tackle Virginia Woolf’s acclaimed novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925). I had been forewarned that Woolf used the stream of consciousness technique but I wasn’t worried. After all, hadn’t I just spent an entire year studying Faulkner, a frequent employer of the method? I’ve got to say, Virginia, I didn’t see you coming.
Upon opening Mrs. Dalloway, I immediately realized that it is brimming with interior monologue. Woolf deftly jumps from the mind of character to character, some of which never even cross paths in the novel. In a scene describing an airplane writing an advertisement for toffee in the sky, Woolf gives the reader insight into the minds of at least three different people witnessing the same event from various places around the Westminster area of London. I was prepared for this. Reading Faulkner had taught me to pay close attention to the subject of every sentence, and I found myself able to track these mind-jumps rather well, although I did occasionally have to look back to the beginning of some sentences to reestablish whose perspective I was currently in.
What makes Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway so difficult to read is not this constant changing of character perspectives, but rather the lack of definitive breaks. Within the book, which is around 190 pages depending on the edition and formatting, Woolf never breaks up the plot with chapters. While Faulkner is difficult, he at least adheres to some sort of structure, often creating different sections for each individual character. Woolf is not so kind. The book reads from beginning to end with no obvious breaking point, as if the entire novel is abiding by the stream of consciousness technique and continuing on without stopping. In a way, it is almost as if Mrs. Dalloway has a mind of its own.
Regardless of the challenge involved, Mrs. Dalloway is a wonderful example of how an author can utilize stream of consciousness to give the reader an intimate look into the lives of the characters involved. While I never thought I would pick up a book that would stylistically challenge me more than a book by William Faulkner, I’ve got to hand it to Virginia Woolf, she has Faulkner beat.
– Katie Toomb