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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If you were wondering what those omnibusses bustling around London in Mrs. Dalloway would have looked like, here you go. This is a 1923 specimen of the London General Omnibus Company.


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Close Reading (and Annotation)

Students at the Eberly Writing Center at Dickinson College have created this YouTube video on techniques for close reading (and, implicitly, annotation). Take a look.

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Clarissa Dalloway Walks

Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) conceived Mrs. Dalloway as an experiment in writing

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, by her friend Roger Fry (1917)

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, by her friend Roger Fry (1917)

“party consciousness”–the thoughts, feelings, and sensation of people in an intensified social situation. As she wrote, she expanded that idea. You might say the novel portrays consciousness in a quickly modernizing world; the shell-shocked consciousness of soldiers returned from World War 1; the consciousness of sanity and insanity; the consciousness of social class. And, famously, it portrays the consciousness of an urban walk, as Clarissa makes her way through the busy streets of London, responding and contributing to its sights, sounds, and smells, its varied environments, its flux of human relations.


Clemson University professor E.K. Sparks created this map of the various walks taken by characters in the novel. It should help you visualize their travels. Professor Sparks was also kind enough to include a Powerpoint slideshow to accompany the map, including photographs of sights the characters would have seen along the way. Take a look at the link for a key to map and to download the slideshow.


Finally, I thought you might want to see a photograph of Woolf, to compare with Fry’s painting.

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Woolf’s Atoms

In Lodge’s Thinks…, Helen Reed quotes Virginia Woolf’s essay “Modern Novels” (published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1919): “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall.”

I thought I’d share the full sentence:

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”

Woolf is making an argument that too many novelists, especially Victorian ones,  dealt too much with what she called “furniture”–the busy work of life–rather than with the thoughts and feelings of characters. Like many other Modernist writers, Woolf experimented with forms of writing that might capture what it feels like to be a conscious human being. Literary critics often refer to that “what it feels like” as “interiority.” You’ve probably heard this term before. The term suggests that the mind is inside, but inside? Where? That’s a difficult question to answer. We’ll discuss it when we read Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

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Annotating a Passage

To “annotate” means to make notes or comments on a text or document. It’s a good idea to get in a habit of doing this regularly with texts we read for this course–particularly if you’re going to write about them.

To get started, select a passage of about 100 – 150 words from Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Perform a “close reading” of the passage by first annotating it. Offer commentary in the margins, on any word or phrase that stands out to you as relevant or interesting. This might include identifying rhetorical techniques, defining unusual words, noting repetition, identifying images or symbols, or pointing out ways in which the passage reflects course themes or discussion.

Send your annotation to your writing group and to me, via email, by midnight on Thursday, February 7 at midnight. Include a few sentences explaining why you annotated the passage the way you did.

Read the annotated passages members of your writing group send you. Then, send a brief reply to each, making observations about the annotations. Point out details you think are interesting. Suggest other interesting details. If you understand any of the details in a different way, mention that.

You may choose to make your notes directly on the page of your copy of the book. If you do this, you’ll have to scan the page so you can send it to the group. Alternatively, you may retype the passage and use a word-processing program or html to make your notes. You can use boldface, underline, colored text, etc. If you’re using a program like Microsoft Words, you can insert comments.

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Writing Groups

Over the course of the semester, you’ll work in writing groups–exchanging work and offering each other feedback. We’ll start the writing groups off with the annotated passages you’ll do over the next couple of weeks.

We may decide to shake things up and form new writing groups halfway through the semester, or we may decide that the continuity of the groups is a good idea. Let’s see how that goes. For now, these are your writing groups:

Adrian,  Arefa, Chris, Tracy

Debra, Charlene,  Anthony, Danielle

Ariel,  Hong,  Jennifer

Robert, Sadia, Sam

Shahana,  Shannon, Nishant

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Reading Questions

We talked about these questions in class last week. It’s a good idea to keep them in mind as you read for this course (or any course). They’ll help you get a handle on the motives of the writers–and help you think more about your own motives when you write. Sometimes I’ll ask you to think about these questions explicitly, but you should try to have them in the back of your mind when you read anything for the course.

How would you describe the writer’s audience?

What are the writer’s motives with regard to this audience?

Where would you position yourself relative to that audience?

How would you evaluate the writer’s success relative to the goals you mentioned?

What’s your favorite element of the text? Your least favorite?

Did the text challenge or change the way you think in any way?


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Oliver Sacks on Memory

Neurologist Oliver Sacks has written a really interesting article on the intricacies of memory, entitled “Speak, Memory,” for the New York Review of Books. The article is engaging and surveys some of the most current research on the subject, through the lens of Sacks’s always philosophical eyes.

This could end up be a great source for a research project. It’s full of information about additional sources too.

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Writing Contest

CUNY Writing Contest

CUNY is hosting a writing contest. Here are some details:

The prize money is substantial ($1000 for first place, in each category), and the subject matter (“work” or “labor”) is also germane to the experience of many of our students. The deadline for this year’s contest is March 1, 2013.

There are four categories for students to submit: fiction/creative nonfiction; poetry; essay; and art/photography. The prize money, per category, is as follows:

1st place–$1000
2nd place–$500
3rd place–$250
5 honorable mentions: $100 has the full submission guidelines.

Labor Arts 11 x 17

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