Structures--Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf was well known to have little patience with Ulysses.  Joyce Carol Oates, in her book The Faith of a Writer suggests that part of this may have been the jealousy of one genius admiring the aplomb and power of another.  Following is a quotation from Virginia Woolf's diary available from Fathom.

"I have read 200 pages [of Ulysses] so far," Virginia Woolf writes in her diary for 16 August 1922, and reports that she has been "amused, stimulated, charmed[,] interested ... to the end of the Cemetery scene." As "Hades" gives way to "Aeolus," however, and the novel of character and private sensibility yields to a farrago of styles, she is "puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned"--by no grand master of language, in her characterization, but "by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." No artifact of elite difficulty, Ulysses becomes for Woolf the "illiterate, underbred book ... of a self taught working man," a class-spectacle on which she summons the proper company: "we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating" (emphases added).

Obviously, Ms. Woolf was piqued, or shall we say provoked by Joyce's masterwork.  It is interesting that even within the span that she enjoyed, there is sufficient evidence of "underbred"-ness to put off a great many people. But how such an astute and formidable critic as Ms. Woolf could find Ulysses illiterate is puzzling and provoking (in a quite different way) in itself.

Regardless of a hasty opinion recounted in a diary (often seen as snobbish, but more likely simply piqued, provoked, and annoyed) Ms. Woolf certainly seems to have employed some of the devices and methods that Joyce introduced in Ulysses.  Contrary to the normal course of a novel, both Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway take place in the course of a single day.  In both works we dart in and out of the consciousness of many characters, but reside primarily within two in each.  In Ulysses these are Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and in Mrs. Dalloway they are Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. But the main borrowing I'd like to focus on for a moment is structural.  Because it is her adaptation of one of Joyce's innovations in structure that shows one of the marvelous strengths of Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf as a writer and innovator herself.

The "Wandering Rocks" episode of Ulysses (please note that while Joyce certainly had these designations in mind and shared them with close friends and interpreters of Ulysses [most notably Stuart Gilbert*], they do not show up anywhere in the print editions of Ulysses) Joyce charts the voyages of nineteen (or more) sets of characters in their travels at about the lunch hour in Dublin. Sometimes the paths overlap, other times there are jumps between characters in distant parts of the City.  Interestingly, Joyce keeps you firmly grounded in Dublin, with clear and concise descriptions of where you are.  Also of interest is that this section--at the  midpoint of numbered sections (though not at the midpoint of the bulk of the novel) is more likely extracted from the Argonautica than it is from Joyce's model The Odyssey.  The clashing rocks were one of the tests set for Jason, not for Odysseus. Some sources said that Joyce wrote this section with a map of Dublin and a stopwatch to time the actual sections of the walk.  I haven't been able to verify this, but if so, it is a remarkable case of creating verisimilitude, not equivalent to, but certainly reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert.

So, in this remarkable chapter we follow groups of characters, some of whom we've encountered before and will encounter again, others of whom we may not have met or may only have glimpsed and whom we may not see again in the course of the work.  (I haven't combed through to check this statement--but I'm certain if you're interested one Joyce Scholar or another has tracked all of these people down and can give a blow by blow indication of where and when they appear.) The structure is sometimes overlapping and sometimes leaping.

It is this device, this structure that Virginia Woolf so deftly lifts, refines, and reuses in Mrs. Dalloway.  Or perhaps that is overstating the case.  Perhaps one could argue that the same notion occurred to both writers at different times and was employed to different ends, for after all I can't prove that Virginia Woolf had "Wandering Rocks" in mind when she began composition of Mrs. Dalloway.  Perhaps traces of it, wisps of memory, as it were, shaped the structure of Mrs. Dalloway.  However it happened, Woolf elaborated upon this structure and turned it into the graceful and sometimes startling turns and runs of Mrs. Dalloway.  To see how deftly she employs the device of allowing crossing paths or shared incidents to lead to the exchange of narrative consciousnesses, go to the Dalloway link below and search for "The violent explosion which made Mrs. Dalloway jump. . . ." Read the section immediately prior to it and immediately following, and you'll have a sense of how Virginia Woolf handles the transfer of consciousness.

That she was able to take this one mechanism and turn it into the entire stream of Mrs. Dalloway (I'm sure there are some narrative diversions I'm not taking into account, but for the most part, it is this type of shared incident that allows the consciousnesses to overlap and the story flow to take over) is a demonstration of her strength and her deft handling of difficult material.  Is it the outcome of the struggle of genius against genius?  I can't say for certain.  But I can say that if Ulysses was an influence, it was one that effected another powerful transformation of narrative.  The use of the narrative techniques of Ulysses in other works may have had more ultimate influence on literature than the direct application of Ulysses itself.  And I say this as a profound admirer of Joyce and of Ulysses.  But the truth of the matter is that Ulysses is so crammed full of all sorts of invention that it would be hard to imitate the whole work rather than discrete parts.  Moreover, Ulysses is so overwhlemed with narrative devices and games that it serves almost as a sourcebook of influence, because even in the robust world that is Ulysses not all of the inventions could come anywhere near to being played out.

To refresh your memory, or to become acquainted with it, here is episode 10 of Ulysses (published 22 February 1922).  Mrs. Dalloway is available hereMrs. Dalloway was published 14 May 1925

*Please note, I DO NOT recommend Mr. Gilbert's book for the first time reader unless he or she is on the point of completely throwing the project over.  The use of the book makes reading Ulysses more like solving a problem than reading a novel and can detract from the real and substantive pleasures of encountering Ulysses as a novel for the first time.  I would advise reading the novel first, and then, if so inclined, consulting Mr. Gilbert's opus.


  1. Don't be so hard on Gilbert. He just comes from a different time, and his "opus" reveals enough of the mechanics of Ulysses to be a worthy exegesis. The same (*) could be said of Thornton's "Allusions in Ulysses," but that doesn't mean it doesn't hold a value, even in a use coterminous with a first reading.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    What I said wasn't meant to be critical of Gilbert as such, but critical of the mindset that one could not approach Ulysses without such a guide. I think the ordinary reader who really wishes to read through the book stands to gain a great deal (obviously not the entire Joycean world) just by reading the book itself. If guides make it less daunting and more fun, then I'm in favor of using them. What I'm not in favor of is the implication that the work absolutely requires that to be enjoyed. You'll note my advice in the footnote includes consulting Mr. Gilbert's opus after one has read the whole book on one's own. There is a good deal of material in it that is both worthwhile and arcane.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and to encourage everyone to consider this great (arguably the greatest) 20th Century Opus.



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