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Analyzing Themes in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Waterland

When comparing the evolution of a character in a work, the structure of the narrative is essential in understanding not only the complexity but the absolute definition of the character in question. In examining Virginia Woolf’s character, Clarissa Dalloway, an exciting study can be made.

Clarissa is shown in different contexts in three very distinct works. While hinted at in The Voyage Out and Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, the richness and complication of her “inner life” comes to the forefront only in Mrs. Dalloway. Conversely, in Waterland, the protagonist is shown in view of his history; he is an echo of the very thing he is trying to reconstruct. For both characters, comparing the structure of time and history and how it is exemplified in the narrative absolutely defines the character within.

In her novels, Woolf repeatedly sets the individual life against human life in perpetual change while the indifferent clock of time ticks away the life of this individual. Her characterization portrays a need of awareness of the “inner life,” that flow of consciousness that only the individual can understand. In the inner life, chronological time is irrelevant; however, we are beings living in a society driven by the ticking of a clock’s hands.

In order to overcome this perceived limitation, Woolf constructed a literary world in which chronological time was secondary to the time dictated by the inner life. In this world, which takes place in the mind, time is a fluid, wild creature with no adherence to a structured paradigm. Woolf had to imitate this freedom within her narrative and portray the inner life only within the boundaries of a freely flowing entity, able to move in any way, at whatever pace, the mind dictated. The synthetic structure applied to human life is stripped away in this sense, and is vigorously replaced with a blatant questioning of order within disorder. A chronological narrative is eschewed for a more temporal, spatial framework in which the inner life, given cues only from emotion and true consciousness, can blossom without the restraints of an artificial, imposed edifice. It is within this gloriously freeing world that Clarissa Dalloway exists in Mrs. Dalloway.

All of the characters portrayed in Mrs. Dalloway are connected, although the relation between them is not immediately evident. The association is rooted, essentially, in time and space; however, the relationship also consists of a psychological and spiritual component. In this tale, Clarissa is getting ready for a party; from the very start, however, the reader is given a glimpse of the other characters in the novel through Clarissa’s view. This is essential to Woolf’s structure, as we see the major characters initially filtered through the mind of Clarissa and a personal connection to them is immediately felt.

The most poignant relationship in the book is seen between Clarissa and Septimus. While seemingly opposite, with Clarissa excited with her party and Septimus suffering with tortuous mental anguish, these two lives are inextricably intertwined. Though Septimus and Clarissa never meet, they are connected by moments in time; we see the opposition of their thoughts in their reactions to the motor car explosion. While Clarissa is excited at the noise and the prospect of seeing royalty, Septimus could not be more terrified. Though the reactions are different, they are still connected by the halting of life and the created organization of time. For just a moment, “everything had come to a standstill. The throb of the motor engines sounded like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body” (Mrs. Dalloway 24). The pause in chronological time allows the feelings of two very different people to converge, unifying in an inner life.

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We see this convergence again several times throughout the book, with thoughts and emotional experiences connecting those who couldn’t seem farther apart in both social status and sensitivity to their surroundings. This connection of that which seems so far apart is characterized in Clarissa’s thought as she prepares her dress for the party: Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them very lightly to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, over-balance, and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more says the heart. Fear no more, say the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the waves breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking. (88)

In this passage, the sea represents not only the ebb and flow of the time in the inner life, but the connection between that which is not immediately apparent. The waves echo the separate lives that melt together through circumstance. The poignance of Clarissa saying “Fear no more” echoes, like the waves, the Shakespearean refrain that Septimus uses as a mantra: “Fear no more the heat of the sun” (96). This resonance of the two minds, so physically distant but so emotionally connected, weaves together the very consciousness of these very different people; Clarissa connects with Septimus, a man she does not know, in a way she can never connect with the men she has loved in her life. The very construction of time, in this sense, defines who Clarissa Dalloway is; it is through this structure that the reader gets such a rich view into the mind of this incredibly complex, outwardly artificial woman. While the world sees her as a mere party-giver and as the wife of an important man, the reader gets a privileged view into her sensitive and unique world view.

Mrs. Dalloway isn’t the first vision Virginia Woolf gives us of Clarissa Dalloway, however. Her first appearance, in The Voyage Out, shows a very different portrait of the much younger Clarissa. In this very different story, a chronological framework is used throughout, with the tale being told from the 3rd-person point of view of young Rachel, who is a passenger on a ship upon which the Dalloways happen to board. The very organization prohibits the reader from getting so intimately entwined in Clarissa’s mind and gives the reader only an outward view of this very complicated woman. To the young Rachel, Clarissa, though likable, appears very self-absorbed and superficial. She has the wonderful zest for life that appears in Mrs. Dalloway, but in the light of The Voyage Out, this excitement is less than flattering and has a hollowness of character about it. When speaking to Rachel about a young man she met, she states:

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“I agree that it’s the worst one can possibly say of

any one…How much rather one would be a murderer

than a bore!” she added in her usual air of saying something profound.
“One can fancy liking a murderer. It’s the same with dogs. Some dogs are
awful bores, poor dears.” (The Voyage Out 58).

When viewed through Rachel’s eyes, there is a definite vacancy in Clarissa’s view of life. Her joy in the world is almost embarrassing; while a fondness for her cannot be helped, as she is like a young, over-excited child, the intricacy of her very spirit is lost in the straightforward construction of the limiting chronological narrative.

A very different Clarissa is also seen in Mrs. Dalloway’s party, a collection of short stories revolving around the party world that is so important in Clarissa’s mind. In this compilation, views of the different party-goers, as well as Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, are given to the reader. It provides a deeper context in which to view Clarissa and her motives; in ASumming Up, homage is paid to Mrs. Dalloway and her ability to bring others together in a world all her own: This, she thought, is the greatest of marvels; the supreme achievement of the human race…and the thought of the dry, thick, well-built house, stored with valuables, humming with people coming close to each other, going away from each other, exchanging their views, stimulating each other. And Clarissa Dalloway had made it open in the wastes of the night. (Mrs. Dalloway’s Party 67)

Again, however, this format also limits our view of Clarissa. While giving the reader a view from the minds of the party-goers, we are not allowed into the very mind of the woman who was so captivating in Mrs. Dalloway. Without this key to her ideas and her soul, the very intensity of who she is and why she is that way is lost. Without that catalyst of a free-flowing time, the intimate connections between those in the novel cannot be felt so intimately.

Although a very postmodern novel, Graham Swift’s Waterland is also deeply rooted in time and, most importantly, history and all of its various implications. In Waterland, Swift’s protagonist, Tom Crick, follows a very crooked and tortuous path, with his memories giving the narrative a meaning that would otherwise be a mere chronicle of historical events. Within this structure, Crick is able to both portray historical events as they come to him, and then to apply meaning to those events he chooses to include in his history.

An initial look at the timeline of the story causes a bit of confusion; it, like Mrs. Dalloway, is not a chronological narrative. Instead, the reader is taken from 1943, in chapter one, to 1979 in chapter two. In chapter three, we are given a history of the fens and the Crick family from the 17th century on; the book bounces from the present (1979-80) to the past innumerable times, dipping into whatever memory serves the current purpose and portrays a deeper consequence, having one memory flow from the other until it ends with the scene of Dick’s death which happened in 1943.

In addition to being personal history, Waterland is also a family history. The Crick family is compared to the Atkinson family, both of whom have an irreparable place in Tom Crick’s past. For him, the past of both these families is inescapable and he is, in essence, trapped by the sins of the past. Intertwined in this personal and familial saga is a local history, of which both families have a place than cannot be denied. The Crick’s very existence had been shaped by the Fens; the Atkinsons, while trying to shape the Fens, have been changed and formed by the very land they try to tame. Just as there is a battle and tension between the Cricks and the Atkinsons, there is a struggle between the myths of the Fens (represented by the wetness of the land) and the dry, barren history of the larger world. Crick’s story-telling aims for meaning in the greater “big picture.” In an attempt to create this meaning in the present day, an exploration and possible recreation of the historical events happens in order to maintain connections between those most important to the teller of the tale.

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Like Woolf’s treatment of history and time in Mrs. Dalloway, Swift’s history in Waterland is not chronological. Like the water, there is fluctuation in the ebb and flow of what has happened in the past; this novel is an ocean, and the reader is plunged in to a series of events that gather meaning only when related to Crick’s connections to the story. In telling this tale and explicating his own position in it, he asserts that history does, in fact, have meaning. Crick asserts that:

when introduced to history as an object of Study…it was still the fabulous aura of history that lured me, and I believed, perhaps like you, that history was a myth. (Waterland 53)

t is in trying to understand his life and the complete failure that it seems to be that leads Tom Crick on this quest for meaning in that which could be construed as basic historical fact. By retelling his own life story in a non-chronological order, he reconstructs the events as they happened in a line of importance that matters to him and applies a significance to them which had not previously existed.

In his own past, he recalls a time before time and history defined his life; everything came to a crashing halt, however, when Freddie Parr’s dead body was found floating in the canal. Before that, “Mary was fifteen, and so was I… in prehistoric, pubescent times, when we drifted instinctively” (44). This event was the marker by which he measured every other event of his life. Before they found Freddie’s body, there was no one event to relate everything else to; after, of course, all that happened applied, somehow, to the dead boy. The world around him, his own personal present, came crashing down with the implications of historical truths and what they meant to his future. It was this moment, for Crick, that “