Mrs Dalloway vs To The Lighthouse- A Woolf Comparison

Having read To The Lighthouse just before embarking upon another Virginia Woolf classic, I was expecting a novel that was similarly philosophy-driven rather than plot-driven. This was my main issue with To The Lighthouse (hereafter referred to as TTL), the stream of consciousness was great in its own right, but it lacked a plot that satisfied me.

Mrs Dalloway on the other hand, I found, was pleasingly different. The same writing style was used but the plot came through a lot stronger and the characters were presented in a more direct way- in a way that I found easier going.

There are three points of comparison which cry out to me having read both texts so I will concentrate on them in this post. They may not be the comparisons which are the most noticeable for others or the most significant, so feel free to argue your case in the comments!

Mrs Clarissa Dalloway vs Mrs (?) Ramsay

In many ways the characters of Mrs Dalloway and Mrs Ramsay are similar. They are both the main characters in their respective novel and more than that they have a great influence over the people around them. From the outset in TTL, Mrs Ramsay’s effect on her son James is substantial. It says: “to her son, these words conveyed an extraordinary joy” and that to him she spoke with “heavenly bliss”.
Similarly it says that Clarissa (Mrs D) fills Peter Walsh with “terror”, “ecstasy” and “extraordinary excitement”.

However, a notable difference between the two characters is that Mrs Dalloway is given a first name but Mrs Ramsay isn’t. Clarissa is Dalloway’s first name and she is called that at nearly every occasion in the novel however in TTL, Mrs Ramsay remains just that throughout.
This might seem like a minor difference but I think it can be explained by the central theme of marriage and identity in each novel. Mrs Ramsay is always seen in light of her husband and outwardly she is very submissive to his blunt, negative attitude. She therefore can be seen to have been swallowed entirely by her identity as his wife and her traditional role of women in the family, thus her first name is irrelevant.
Clarissa on the other hand is not totally dominated by her husband and in many respects quite the contrary as she is the one that organises the large party which is the centre of the novel’s focus and she is still draws the attention of a number of other men and women. In a sense she is freer than Mrs Ramsay and so it would seem more likely that she would have a first name given to her, she has more of an independent identity.

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Time is infinite

Or it is said to be in a stream of consciousness style of writing and so it is no surprise that time plays an important role in both texts, in the way that it is used to represent a new beginning or a new unfolding of events. However it is used differently in each case. Time in TTL is very significant structurally as the novel itself is split up into three sections with the second section being called “Time Passes” and the two other sections being a number of years apart. Therefore the narrative can be seen to span over a lifetime of events and indeed the middle section covers a lot of events in little detail so as to bridge the gap in time.

Time in Mrs Dalloway is also important but as the narrative is based on one party being held on one evening, the time span is a lot smaller than in TTL. Also unlike in TTL where each section is dictated by a particular time period, Mrs Dalloway is broken up into chapters largely irrespective of time. Instead within chapters, the reader is reminded that time is passing because of the references to Big Ben chiming in the background: “For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, a suspense before Big Ben strikes”. Time in Mrs Dalloway therefore seems more fixed and rapid than in TTL where the pace is a lot slower because of the larger time span.

Men and their knives

In both novels, I was struck by the perhaps unusual association between male characters and knives. In Mrs Dalloway a knife is associated with two of the main male characters and in different circumstances. It is firstly the one thing that Peter Walsh is playing with inside of his pocket (all the time, he doesn’t stop!): “He opened the big blade of his pocketknife” when entering Clarissa’s party and it is also mentioned again when Septimus Warren Smith is deciding what to use to kill himself.

In TTL the association between men and knives does not recur so much however notably Mr Ramsay is said to be “lean as a knife… as narrow as one” and James cuts out a paper knife with some scissors near the start. In this case again knives have the connotation of danger but also of

The knife can be seen to represent danger in both texts but also a means of defence. Septimus is looking for a way to kill himself to protect himself from his doctor and James can be seen to want to use it to protect his mother from his father. It can also be seen to be phallic imagery too, particularly in the case of Peter Walsh.

Both of these Woolf novels are worth a read in my opinion but if I had the choice again, I would read Mrs Dalloway first so that I could be eased into Woolf’s style of writing before reading the ‘heavier’ To The Lighthouse.

“I prefer men to cauliflowers” – Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Photo taken from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Double_face.jpg Author: Pierre EmD Date: 03/07/13

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One response to “Mrs Dalloway vs To The Lighthouse- A Woolf Comparison”

  1. Jnana Hodson says :

    Oh, my, I really do need to revisit these two, along with The Waves, which bowled me over as a teen. First, though, Orlando is sitting near the top of the to-read pile.
    Thanks for the thoughts and the prompting.

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