The Ineffable Self and Memory in “Mrs. Dalloway”

By: Emily Holt.

Literature has the ability to act as a vehicle through which the effects of consciousness can be explored. The limitations and influences of individual consciousness inherently prove to be obstructions in the pursuit of a true connection with another being; sharing thought and experience within the context of what it means to be another. Virginia Woolf, in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, attempted to observe and surpass key limitations of consciousness, including the ineffable self and the effect of memory on perspective through characters’ relationships with themselves and others. Each character is confined to the limitations of their own mind and perspective, a comprehensive trait of the human experience, ultimately creating a dichotomy between the real world and how each person individually experiences it. The novel insists on following individual vision closely, while simultaneously grappling with the ineffective nature of articulating perspective linguistically. Within the rift between perception and reality lies the effect of memory and the inability to wholly define oneself, and therefore be understood by another individual.

The key characteristic of the human condition is the consequence of an isolated consciousness- restricting individuals to only truly knowing themselves. Existence is the only pretense to knowledge, as every moment in time, even if habitual, is new and offers new experience. Liesel Olson, the author of the article “Virginia Woolf’s ‘cotton wool of daily life’”, suggests that every moment is new through the shift of time itself, “In a novel where nothing happens twice, but much that happens presumably has happened before… Woolf suggests that no event is the same event, even if it appears everyday” (Olson). In an excerpt of one of Woolf’s argumentative essays, “Modern Fiction”, she supports the idea of habits compiling daily life and the importance of detailed documentation in pursuit of communicating that existence, “The mind, exposed to the ordinary course of life, receives upon its surface myriad impressions… from all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms… as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday,” (Zhang). Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist of the novel, experiences this keen sense of isolation as she wandered the streets of London as the novel opened, “…sliced like a knife through everything… She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone,” (Woolf, 8). The unperturbed nature of human consciousness demands isolated individual experience and reflection. One person may know another in terms of appearance, habits, actions, and memories; but never through their interior thoughts. Each human knows themselves in a way in which they cannot know others, and people are linguistically incapable of capturing the essence of their human experience. Ultimately, Woolf suggests that the ineffable in modernism is what each individual knows too well to describe: themselves.

If exposure to self, through the foundation of existence alone, is the beginning of building a base of knowledge through experience, it also signals the end of description. Due to the human inability to succinctly describe their moment-to-moment existence, taking into account all previous events and memories that could provide context to perspective, humans fail to be completely understood by one another. Clarissa introduces the term ‘supreme mystery’ to the novel as she watched her elderly neighbor through a window,

Big Ben struck the half hour. How extraordinary it was, strange, yes, touching, to see the old lady (they had been neighbours ever so many years) move away from that window, as if she were attached to that sound, that string. Gigantic as it was, it had something to do with her. Down, down, into the midst of ordinary things the finger fell making the moment solemn. She was forced, so Clarissa imagined, by that sound, to move, to go-but where? … Why creeds and prayers and mackintoshes? when, thought Clarissa, that’s the miracle, that’s the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing table. She could still see her. And the supreme mystery… was simply this: here was one room, there another, (Woolf 192-3).

Ultimately, Clarissa’s epiphany regarding the ‘supreme mystery’ exposes her, at least subconscious, interest in understanding how people exist in the same stream of time (as represented by the chimes of Big Ben), and are visible to each other externally while remaining alone in their own minds. In understanding this, Clarissa moves beyond the tired trope of a simple-minded housewife and is exposed for what she is: a human being capable of philosophical introspection and awareness of others.

Despite marriage, Richard and Clarissa Dalloway also proved to be vulnerable to a certain inability to communicate themselves to one another. Their lifelong partnership does not act as a cure to separate consciousness, and they struggle to interact with each other clearly throughout the novel. Richard, after a meeting, is inspired to remind Clarissa that he loved her, “The time comes when it can’t be said; one’s too shy to say it, he thought…setting off with his great bunch held against his body to Westminster to say straight out in so many words (whatever she might think of him), holding out his flowers, ‘I love you.’ Why not” (Woolf 83). With this intention firmly in his mind, the audience is given access to Richard’s perspective as he travels home. When he arrives at his destination, Richard is unable to articulate the love he feels so certainly, “He was holding out flowers… (But he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words.) But how lovely, she said, taking his flowers. She understood; she understood without his speaking,” (Woolf, 87). Richard and Clarissa come to an unspoken conclusion of their shared love, but both seem unable to articulate the depth of it linguistically. Their bond, spanning many years, externally appears to be entirely shallow; however, their connection to each other runs silently underneath the surface of their physical forms, reaching a part of their consciousness’s that cannot be expressed accurately.

Mrs. Dalloway is a prime example of circadian literature, as all the events of the plot take place within the span of twenty-four hours. While that limited time frame could potentially limit the scope and impact of the novel, time tunneling by Woolf and a focus on each character’s memories allows for a comprehensive plot spanning many decades. In a single day, time becomes limitless through exposition into memories and stream of consciousness.  The clock, despite Big Ben’s frequent appearance, does not function as the manager of time throughout the novel; but the mind of each character controls the speed at which each event is experienced with the help of context gained through flashbacks and streams of internal dialogue. Ultimately, Woolf creates a juxtaposition of two forms of time: “…the world of linear time, of past, present, and future, in which we are subject to unremittent and uncontrollable flux; and on the other hand, the world of mind time, an inner world of thought and imagination, in which the chaotic flow of experience derived from our life in linear time is reduced to order and unity, and in which we are therefore liberated” (Graham). Each character creates a space in their mind in which they can delve into their past and contemplate their motivations and actions. Thoughts, actions, and reactions can be motivated in characters two ways: internally and externally. Internal motivation is dependent upon experience previously gained, memory, and analytic reflection. External motivation occurs through forces acting upon characters in real time, eventually spurring internal motivation by establishing the event as a memory and an opportunity to gain knowledge through experience.

Motivation is an interesting character facet to observe in Septimus, as his perspective introduces a sense of immediate unreliability due to his overwhelming mental illness. His narrative does not follow the vaguely reliable reality of other characters, and is interspersed with highly unlikely visuals that dominate his view of the world around him,

A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death. There was his hand; there the dead. White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings!(Woolf, 32).

From these fantastical hallucinations, a result of mental illness sustained during the war, Septimus ultimately comes to the conclusion that he is a messiah figure anointed with the consequences and power of ultimate truth. His perceived sense of knowledge places him in extreme emotional distress, ultimately leading to his suicide, “Look the unseen bade him, the voice which now communicated with him who was the greatest of mankind, Septimus…suffering for ever, the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer, but he did not want it…that eternal suffering, that eternal loneliness” (Woolf 36). His supposed knowledge of what is unknown, a true reality as objectively experiences, demands that his barrier between his consciousness and perceived reality.

Throughout the novel, Woolf places emphasis on attempting to circumvent the limitations of individual consciousness. “Woolf is interested in the connection between minds—in what it would be like for one consciousness to blend into another, for one person to experience the thoughts of another directly and feel something of herself in the other person.,” (Anderson). Clarissa, echoing Woolf, finds solace from her own isolated perspective by attempting to create a common ground of experience and spiritual kinship through her various parties, “…let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigating the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can,” (Woolf, 77). The parties indicate to others in the novel that she is a simple-minded hostess, outwardly fulfilling her character trope, while her internal motivations were based on deep philosophical interest in the benefits of inter-personal connection, “…she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?” (Woolf, 122). Clarissa imagined her consciousness in relation to her mortality, ultimately spanning beyond her corporal self, enveloping everything that she experienced,

Did it matter then… that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself (Woolf, 9).

Woolf created a conjunction between the separate consciousness’s by transitioning to and from minds within Clarissa’s intangible mental ‘mist’ through sound devices interspersed throughout the novel. When there is an event observed by a number of people or a noteworthy sound, perspective is vulnerable to transition trough slipping from one character noticing a detail to another noticing the same facet of the event, “Once the common attention is established, it is as if the minds of the co-attenders are joined, and that conjunction of consciousness permits the narrative line to slip from one to another… thereby smoothing over the mind-to-mind transitions that carry us through the sequence,” (Anderson). As the point of view shifts from person to person through the streets, Clarissa’s intangible fog moves forward in its blanketing of London.

A pivotal moment in the novel lies in Septimus’ suicide and how it sent a ripple far into the city, effecting Clarissa indirectly. Time, symbolized through Big Ben’s chiming, is inescapable throughout the novel as the characters and audience move swiftly into the unknown. Escaping the confines of liner time and reality demands that the barrier between the true world and the mind crumbles, either in death or madness (Graham). Septimus’ mind was debased by his experiences in the first World War, ultimately leading him to commit suicide. Clarissa hears about his death at her party through his therapist,

What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party—the Bradshaws, talked of death. He had killed himself—but how? Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt…This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death, (Woolf, 184).

Clarissa, while never actually meeting Septimus, truly connects with his character in this moment of reflection. In his death, he preserved his soul captured in a moment of time that could never be recaptured; as she and her friends marched through time, Septimus remains whole in a static memory. While Clarissa muses over Septimus’ death, she views it the event in a primarily philosophical sense, while she ignores the inherent discomfort of madness. In the event from Septimus’ perspective, including details to which Clarissa was not privy, Septimus commits suicide in a moment of panic,

Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say “In a funk, eh?” Holmes would get him. But no; not Holmes; not Bradshaw… There remained only the window… It was their idea of tragedy, not him or Rezia’s (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. (He sat on the sill.) But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun was hot… Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it to you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down…” (Woolf, 148).

In her reflection upon Septimus, Clarissa ignores the humanity that exists alongside the philosophical nature of his existence; deeper meaning hidden within the foundation of human suffering. Septimus suffered from terror in his last moments, unsure of what his pursuers wanted from him. His last words, ‘I’ll give it to you’, are incredibly ironic; he offers his physical corpse in lieu of offering the essence of his warped perspective, which he saw as truth, for psychiatric treatment and removal. His final stand was to preserve his perspective in death, separate of time, but that only occurred as a result of his human instinct to escape danger. Beyond the symbolic resonance of the event, he proved himself to be human above the messiah he felt he was.

Mrs. Dalloway, while providing an interesting plot, is most notable for its interest and exploration of perspective and individual consciousness. Defining consciousness and the human experience is ultimately prevented by an inability to articulate one’s own human experience and how perspective is warped by contextual memories. The ‘supreme mystery’ with which Clarissa struggles with throughout the novel speaks to the isolation of the human experience and the inherently unreliable narrative of all people. Humans do not have access to an objective representation of reality and can only depend on what their own mind provides them, and Woolf thoroughly explores that through each of her characters. Moving beyond the ineffable self, riddled with memory and subjectivity, is an important theme and is key to appreciating the philosophical implications of the novel.


Works Cited

Anderson, R. Lanier. “Is Clarissa Dalloway Special?” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 41, no. 1A, July 2017, pp. 233–271., doi:

Graham, John. “Time in the Novels of Virginia Woolf.” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 2 Jan. 1949, pp. 186–201.,

Olson, Liesel M. “Virginia Woolf’s ‘Cotton Wool of Daily Life.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 26, no. 2, 2003, pp. 42–65., doi:

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Macmillan Collector’s Library, 2017.

Zhang, Dora. “Naming the Indescribable: Woolf, Russell, James, and the Limits of Description.” New Literary History, vol. 45, no. 1, 2014, pp. 51–70., doi:

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