Parallel Between 20th Century Psychology and Modern Fiction in Mrs. Dalloway

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

The early 20th century, the golden era of modernism, was a remarkable time in the history of literary world as this modernist paradigm had brought a radical shift in aesthetic as well as cultural sensibilities in all fronts of life, including in literature. It was not only the sense of war, the economic disruption or political turmoil that led to such significant alterations in the worldview of individuals, rather, the dissemination of newfound knowledge throughout the society played a crucial role in this shift. With the emergence of newly discovered knowledge, especially in the field of psychology, writers began to observe and look at things with a completely new lens.

Radical experimentation in literary form and expression were developed through new insights provided by new ideas of psychology and a sweeping shift took place, changing the focus from the previous description of external reality to an attempt at description of inside. Therefore, the new subject matter of psychology was an integral part of this avant-garde movement and of its attempts to break free from the earlier conventions of a novel, and in its pursuit to find new forms and techniques to portray the disillusionment of the modern society. This new focus of attention was considered to be revolutionary and came as a shock to many, as such notions of inner experiences was never, up until this period, explored in depth in the workings of literature. To elaborate this emergence of an emphasis on subjective experience in modern fiction, this paper will look into the novel Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, and will highlight how Woolf had used the new subject matters of psychology of the 20th century to interrogate and explore the psychological dimensions of her characters.

Virginia Woolf and the Dark Places of Psychology

Virginia Woolf’s literary focus on consciousness and the human mind has often been a site a discussion for many critics and authors over the years. She is known for depicting the subjective realities of her characters, rather than being engulfed in “materialism” like the earlier writers, as Nicholas Marsh states “the novel had been taken into a dead-end, then: the real life of characters, which is the raw material of literature, was being ignored by the writers of Woolf’s youth. The novel form needed to evolve, or be reborn”(187). For Woolf, the nucleus of characterization lay in the framework of human consciousness and how it functions in moments when we are alone or with others, as reflected in these lines, “Meaning for Woolf is mental, not physical. The novelist’s objective should, therefore, be to show the reader the mind of literary characters from within, from the perspective as to how it creates sense, and not to tell about it from without.”(Venetis ). By positing Woolf’s work in relation to its timeline, it becomes straightforward to trace parallel developments between early 20th century psychology and her own work. The developments of psychologists like William James and Sigmund Freud had wiped out the conventional means to perceive the human mind, as their concentration no longer pertained to conscious actions and intentions, but rather shifted to the hidden impulses and instincts of human behavior. This new wave of ideas allowed Woolf to focus on free and genuine expression of human life, where the irrational impulses of the mind could be discussed without restrictions.

Mrs. Dalloway. Since all of these groundbreaking developments were occurring in parallel with the emergence of the modernist era, much of these ideas collided with the structure and themes of the avant-garde writing approach of Virginia Woolf, and Mrs. Dalloway is a fitting example of this. This novel plays a crucial part in the literary revolution that these modernist writers aimed to achieve, as it had changed the entire concept of a novel, by going across the previous limitations and opening up new realms. In this novel, Woolf puts a great emphasis on the nature of human psyche and was committed in portraying the stream of consciousness of each character in the novel. Some of the basic elements of our consciousness, such as perception, memory and time have been demonstrated in this novel, and Woolf uses experimental novelistic conventions to precisely mirror the workings of these components in the individual mind.

The story is comprised of two interwoven sub-plots, which seems to connect only on the basis of the characters being at the same place at the same time, and it takes place in a single day, however is not limited by it, as we move back and forth in time through the character’s consciousness. The central characters in Mrs. Dalloway are Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, two anxiety-ridden individuals who have confined themselves in the depths of their own complex minds, trying to make sense of their own existence. In the course of this seemingly regular day, these characters pass through a complex journey with an influx of memories and sensations. On one hand, Clarissa Dalloway seems to be incarcerated by her past choices and her present identity, and on the other, Septimus Warren also seems to battling with his trauma from the war and his present disillusionment, which eventually leads him to end his painful existence. The novel relies heavily on the internal psychological experience as the readers are immersed into the individual consciousness of each character, using the different aspects of the psychological developments of that time.

On the outset, it seems as though the novel lacks any actual story as there is not much action in the plot in its traditional sense, nothing particular happens throughout, and the story focuses on ordinary moments and commonplace tasks that each character experiences, however, by focusing on a typical day in the minds of these characters, Woolf tries to highlight that these seemingly mundane moments reflects bits and pieces of our identities. As Woolf had said in her essay, Modern Fiction,
“The mind receives a myriad impressions-trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpest of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old…Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (1984)
This feeling of the “semi-transparent envelope” of life, surrounding and creating consciousness, is what Virginia Woolf had intended to attain in Mrs. Dalloway.

Stream Of Consciousnes

One of the major early psychological developments that can be seen heavily reflected in Mrs. Dalloway is William James “stream of consciousness”. In James new theory based on the notion of subjective experience of crowding sensations, he remarks that, “consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits…it is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it here after, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life… ” (39)

This had a profound influence on modern authors. James’s theory assumed that the external world around us is only known to every individual as an unstable and orderless flood of sensations, and that time itself was also a inconsistent and erratic phenomenon prone to distortion based on our own internal experiences, and even though it may seem like we have a grasp of our reality, we are aware of the underlying sense of chaos that persists within our consciousness. As a result of all this, we are led to an isolated consciousness, whereby it becomes impossible for one individual to truly access another’s consciousness, or understand one another or even themselves precisely. Sigmund Freud, the brainchild of psychoanalysis, which used the method of free association and relied on a similar approach of free mental flux, further popularized this notion.

According to Freud, this freely expressed stream of thoughts unmasks our hidden repression that may have been caused from major conflicts, memories, etc. and are brought into the conscious mind, rather than remaining submerged in our subconscious, “Free association is not pre-planned and is not interfered with by attempts to impose organization and structure on the mental output” (Kilk, E). All of these ideas by James and Freud was highly influential in the development of the famous artistic technique of stream of consciousness, and she had seemed to appropriate the methods of free association in Mrs. Dalloway, to capture the exact nature of this flow, using intense interior monologues. Just as how Freud would have encouraged his patients to express whatever that came to their mind, Virginia Woolf’s characters had done the same. This is evident in the fact that in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf was not interested in the physical happenings, rather she captures the nature of our consciousness meticulously, demonstrating a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the external world and our own realities. For instance, right from the beginning of the novel, we are instantly provided a front seat to the thoughts of Clarissa Dalloway, from the moment she steps out of her house in order to buy flowers for her party that very night:

“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 window and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course… looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing” (10)

It is immediately made evident that this novel’s narration will not merely allow us an in depth access to Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts and feelings, but to the essence of her thought itself: it’s conflicted nature, its swift and seemingly illogical twists and turns as memories and ideas flood her with each and every sensation that falls upon her. This style of writing reflects the chaotic and multi-leveled flow that William James and Freud talked about characterizing our mental activity, and throughout the entirety of the novel, she immerses the readers into the ceaseless nature of thoughts of each character.

Non-linear Notion Of Time

Another radical psychological development of the early 20th century, which immensely influenced modernist writers, pertained to the notion of time and time seems to be of great importance in the course of Mrs. Dalloway. William James, who had coined the term “stream of consciousness” had altered the way that people understood time to exist, meaning the earlier notions of time as line of sequential events was almost obliterated, and was considered to flow continuously and freely, similar to how the stream of our thoughts functioned. James had remarked in seminal book Principles of Psychology, “Let anyone try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”(pg). According to him, the concept of time was intrinsically interwoven with the concept of consciousness, and this idea is also reflected through all of the mental processes of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway, as each of them are predominantly occupied with their past memories. Woolf engages with this very idea of the construction of time, and as James had said “that time itself was also a inconsistent and erratic phenomenon prone to distortion based on our own internal experiences”, Woolf similarly broke away from the confinements of chronological time as she converges between different timelines and character’s memories.

Although the plot of the novel appears to be restricted to one particular day in June 1923, the characters’ consciousness suggest differently and Woolf reflects a mode of time which is much more complex than the span of just a single day. For instance, Clarissa spent much of her day reliving moments of her youth in Bourton, thinking about Sally Seton, a free spirited and carefree girl, and perhaps a former love interest who Clarissa seemed to be heavily attached to even after 30 years. We live through a particular moment between Sally and Clarissa, where they had shared a kiss, but she also recalls how Peter Walsh had interrupted and ruined that perfect moment.

Memories like these are portrayed in such a manner as though it seems that they were occurring in the present moment. We also get immersed in the summer at Bourton through Peter Walsh’s eyes, as he inevitably thinks about the time when he fell in love with Clarissa Dalloway, having met her again after all these years. The passing of time in the characters minds is not concurrent with the actual passing of time – which is also often represented through the repeated striking of Big Ben in the city of London. Human experience undoubtedly does not occur in a consistent manner, it is fragmentary and temperamental, and these instances of strong internal narration of Woolf’s characters shows the impact of fleeting impressions on our minds, how it can provide us with insights, can sweep us away into our past momentarily, or how one can make connections with the present moment and their past through such transient sensations in our everyday lives. So, time is also portrayed to be inconsequential, not following any linear pattern, as Woolf makes constant use of flashbacks and creates a sense of an interior time.

Freudian Notion Of Repression

Almost all of Virginia Woolf’s characters seem to be repressing their hidden desires and thoughts, which are often hard to come to terms with, and they tend to mask it beneath superficial thoughts and ideas. One of Freud’s major ideas was this idea of repression, “which is the ‘forgetting’ or ignoring of unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires, or traumatic past events, so that they are forced out of conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious” (Barry 92). Whenever such unwelcomed feelings or emotions come to the surface in Woolf’s character, we observe that it causes immense anxiety and often even social condemnation, and the characters try their best to keep them concealed in their subconscious. For instance, Clarissa Dalloway, who feels distanced from her daughter Elizabeth, garnered strong feelings of hatred towards Miss Kilman, her daughter’s tutor. Miss Kilman is almost the opposite of Clarissa, she is extremely religious and comes from a low social standing, whereas Clarissa lived a hedonistic life and believed that “religious ecstasy made people callous and dulled their feelings”(pg). Even though Miss Kilman never directly causes any harm to Clarissa, she seems to feel very strongly towards her, and Miss Kilman has a way of reaching into Clarissa’s innermost thoughts, pushing a nerve there. It might be due to the fact that Clarissa feels insecure and threatened about her own beliefs when she thinks of Miss Kilman, and thus she possesses this irrational hate towards her. But Clarissa does not want to admit to herself that Miss Kilman’s existence affects her in such an intense manner, and so she quickly tries to repress such thoughts, “it rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster!” through a different moment, she says to her self, “nonsense, nonsense!” and quickly dismisses all these unpleasant feelings by going into her florists shop and indulging herself in the beauty of all the different flowers and thinking about how Miss Pym, her florist, admires Clarissa.

She uses all of these thoughts to repress the feelings of hatred she was feeling towards Miss Kilman, so that she can continue to believe that she does not harbor such hate inside of her, when in reality, she did. She masks it through the approval of Miss Pym and the moment itself. Another such instance of repression can be seen in Peter Walsh’s narration after he had just left Clarissa’s house, her former lover, meeting her after 5 years, and this meeting had rekindled feelings from their love affair at Bourton a long ago. Walsh, having chosen a completely different path in life which did not abide by the social standards, was thinking about the Dalloways and the Whitbreads, and repeatedly asserting to himself that he did not care about them or their success, but then as we gradually delve into his subconscious, we see that he starts contradicting himself as he, in actuality, depends on these very people in order to get a job. It becomes clear that he was in fact insecure about his own identity, and lack of success; however, he did not want to admit it to himself. Peter Walsh is seen to be lying to himself, trying to mask his own insecurities, and this again highlights how Woolf brings in notions of repression in her characters, as he is deliberately sending his unwelcome thoughts away. One of the most important moments in the novel, Septimus’s suicide paralleling Clarissa’s party, which ties the two sub-plots together also, reflects a powerful moment related to the notion of repression.

Throughout the novel, we see that Clarissa has extremely ambivalent feelings about life itself, and about the efforts she makes in her life, as we see her often questioning even her own trivial efforts, and even contemplating about death. During her party, when Clarissa hears about the death of this stranger, Septimus, she thinks to herself, “She felt somehow very like him the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgments, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life?”(pg) In this instance, we observe that Clarissa deliberately lets down her mental defenses, and the part of her mind, which usually represses her unpleasant feelings about death, surfaces, and we enter the character’s undefended mind. Clarissa’s parties, mending her dress, such trivial preoccupations all are a part of an effort that she dedicates in maintaining her self-image as “Mrs. Dalloway”, wife of MP Richard Dalloway, but underneath that facade, lies her submerged thoughts about larger and uncertain issues like death. Clearly, Clarissa fights a battle against the meaninglessness of everyday life throughout the progress of this one-day in this novel.


Mrs. Dalloway, as a novel, had incorporated much of psychological ideas of the time as it gave special attention to the mind, to its character’s individual psychology, and their subjective experiences. Her characters mirror actual human existence living in a dynamic world. By locating Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in the context of early 20th century psychological insights like that of Freud, James who had shown the infinite depths of the human psyche, we see that writers like Woolf had also come to view their characters as a bundle of inconsistencies, with hidden desires and thoughts. The undercurrent of the human personality was explored in literature, just as it was explored in psychology. The introduction of the “dark places of psychology” opened up new avenues to explore, and thus created an artistic revolution.


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