Styles of Narration

Any English major is familiar with the basic styles of narration: 1st-person, 3rd-person omniscient, 3rd-person limited, 2nd-person (not used a lot). In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf achieves her stream of consciousness effect through a third-person narrator, but she moves freely between omniscient and limited points of view. As she does so, she also uses some techniques that place her narrator somewhere between these two poles.

This is where things get complicated, and some technical terms become useful.

Direct speech (or quoted speech) – Ordinary dialogue, found in most fiction. An example: “‘Good morning to you, Clarissa!'” (197). A more complicated example: “Peter Walsh said, ‘Musing among the vegetables?;–was that it?–‘I prefer men to cauliflowers’–was that it?” (195).

Indirect speech (or reported speech) – A narrator reports the speech of a character, without quoting it. Two examples: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (195) or “It is probably the Queen, thought Mrs. Dalloway” (207).

Free indirect speech (or indirect discourse) – A third-person narrator expresses the words or thoughts of a character without an introductory phrase like “she said”  or “she thought,” blurring the distinction between the voice of the narrator and that of the character. An example (Septimus): “He would shut his eyes, he would see no more . . . But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive” (213).

Interior monologue (often a synonym for “stream of consciousness”): A sustained dedscription of a character’s thoughts. An example: (Rezia): “For she could not stand it any longer. Dr. Holmes might say there was nothing the matter. Far rather would she that he were dead! She could not sit beside him when he stared so and did not see her and made everything terrible; sky and tree, children playing, dragging cards, blowing whistles, falling down all were terrible.” 

Woolf uses all these techniques, but she also mixes them with each other. Notice, for example, my second example of direct speech, where Woolf inserts free indirect speech between two snippets of dialogue, so show that Clarissa’s memory is filtering Peter’s speech. Also notice another variation, in my example of an interior monologue, where Rezia’s indirect speech wraps itself around Septimus’s indirect speech. This is the kind of “consciousness within consciousness” we discussed in class last time.

I would argue that the general effect of Woolf’s narrator is a product of her mixing and blending techniques that are more often used discretely. It will be interesting to see how other writers we’ll read this semester use some of these techniques with very different effects.


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