Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" on the Intersection of Literature, Art and Cinema

Discover the influences of Impressionism, Cubism, Stream of Consciousness and Cinema on Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway"

There are some literary works that cannot be defined or explained only using literary techniques: they span numerous areas of human culture, without limiting themselves to literature only. Undoubtedly, one of such works is Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, a novel that appeared in cinema and art as much as in literature.

One of the most important artistic influences of the novel is Impressionism. The term first appeared at the end of the 19th century to describe a group of paintings, whose aim was to show usual things at unusual angles, to show them as literally "still-lives", and to convey the emotion of the depicted moment. The artists of this movement, among whom are Édouard Manet, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, often experimented with light, angles, and subject matter of the paintings. The impressionists rejected the idea of a "message" in a work of art, their paintings are often blurred and at times not quite graspable. They believed there shouldn't be any "plot", just a sketch of life. A thought is substituted by impression, reason — by instinct.

"Poppy Field" by Claude Monet
"Poppy Field" by Claude Monet

Clarissa Dalloway, the main character of Woolf's novel, sees the world in a very similar way, and Woolf's mastery is in verbalising this extreme beauty of a moment:

And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

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;

Another major influence for Virginia Woolf was Cubism, another art movement, which, unlike Impressionism, tries to depict an object from numerous different viewpoints. In other words, cubists try to represent an object in space from several different angles and perspectives, taken at different times.

"The Bathers" by Albert Gleizes
"The Bathers" by Albert Gleizes

Cubist influence can be seen in the novel in the way Woolf constantly switches between different narrators and describes objects from their viewpoint. An example of this is technique is the episode with "sky-writing", where an advertisement plane flies over London:

The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. There it was coming over the trees, letting out white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted, actually writing something! making letters in the sky! Every one looked up.

But every person who looks at the aeroplane sees different "writing". Mrs Coates, a woman with a baby, sees in the writing the word "Glaxo", the name of the baby food manufacturer. Many people see the advertisement for "toffees". But for Septimus, a war veteran who suffers from shell shock, these are personal messages from the gods:

So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks.

20th-century art had another revelation that had great influence both over painting and literature. It was the understanding that it was no longer possible to grasp time with human intellect. Time was no longer logical and subsequent, it could no longer be measured with a clock. One of the most famous artistic representations of this idea is Dalí's "The Persistence of Memory"This painting actually couldn't have influenced Mrs Dalloway as it was created 6 years later, but the idea was definitely up in the air, which is also often called "The Melting Watches":

"The Persistence of Memory" by Salvador Dalí
"The Persistence of Memory" by Salvador Dalí

For Woolf, the problem of time is also very important. She contrasts time as characters feel it with the time that Big Ben is striking. Clarissa Dalloway, for example, wants to stop time, or at least slow it down as much as possible. She is already 51 and understands that her death is getting nearer and nearer, but the one thing that doesn't allow her to forget time is the sound of Big Ben striking every half hour. The sound of the clock always breaks into the character's thoughts:

But what an extraordinary night! 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 art wasn't the only influence for Virginia Woolf. At the beginning of the 20th century, cinema appeared with its innovative ways of depicting reality. Montage, one of its most popular techniques, allowed directors and editors to display objects in a manner similar to cubism — from different perspectives and at different points in time. Sergei Eisenstein, one of the pioneers of montage, used it in his iconic film Battleship PotemkinReleased in 1925, the same year as Mrs Dalloway to convey the chaos of the mutiny.

In literature, this technique found its implementation in the narrative mode of stream of consciousness, which seeks to display the processes of inner thinking. Virginia Woolf explained her understanding of it in her diary:

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.

We can observe this kind of narration throughout the novel, for example in the following passage, where different "atoms" (thoughts) are highlighted in different colours:

For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,—one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.

What is also characteristic of the stream-of-consciousness literature and Woolf's works, in particular, is the way the writers blur the difference between direct and indirect speech, which is often called free indirect speech. We can see this even in the paragraph above, where this is a kind of third-person narrative, but with obvious insertions of Clarissa's first-person thoughts, like "There!" or "how many years now? over twenty".

The use of all these techniques makes Virginia Woolf one of the most prominent Modernist writers, and an explorer of the boundaries between literature, cinema, and art.