Virginia Woolf uses the “leaden circle” chimes of Big Ben to connect characters to each other and give the novel with its underlying structure. For Woolf, the one of the fundamental concepts of life as portrayed in art was that it should not be a series of representative events strung together in a narrative, but the spatial zone occupied by common life and the time it occupies; in terms of Mrs Dalloway, the novel is not, for example, about the political activities of the Prime Minister, but his (supposed) car's movement and its effect on the inhabitants of a London street as it passes by. Woolf uses the techniques of the cinema to show the nature of her characters, and explore how a character sees his/her relationship to the world they inhabit.
Mrs Dalloway is a novel whose pace is often dictated by sounds or moving exterior objects. The Prime Minister’s car is important only in that we follow its progress along Bond Street, before prominent characters such as Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus and Lucrezia Smith, and other ‘pedestrians’ such as Edgar K Watkiss, with his tube of lead piping (who, as benefits a non-serious character, carries a mockery of a visual instrument, something telescopic in shape but dense and hollow). As Elaine Showalter says: “...the elegant closed motor car going up Bond Street provides a visual object upon which many people project their fantasies, allowing Woolf to pan from mind to mind with great economy and directness.”
‘Panning’, is, of course, a cinematic technique and in her introduction, Showalter affirms “Mrs Dalloway is very cinematic. Woolf makes use of such devices as montage, close-ups, flashbacks, tracking shots and rapid cuts...Such transitional devices would have been familiar to her readers who were flocking to the new cinema houses...” (In fact, one of the novel’s earliest reviews, in the Times Literary Supplement, disapprovingly noted the effect of “the cinema-like speed of the picture [which] robs us of a great deal of the delight of Mrs Woolf’s style.” But does the use of such techniques make Mrs Dalloway a more cinematic film than To the Lighthouse?
In one sense, yes; it is easy to visualize the vast sweep of Mrs Dalloway, to appreciate the need for the transitions and bridging techniques Showalter mentions, yet while the rhythm is cinematic, the action is not. For instance, early in Mrs Dalloway, we follow Clarissa as she goes shopping in a way that seemingly mimics a camera crew, waiting for some dramatic incident to record. Ironically, when a “pistol-shot in the street” rings out, an event which might propel a
Taking Mrs Dalloway’s shopping expedition as a for instance, we see these “thoughts and memories” take shape within the text itself, with no momentous event needed to trigger remembrances; just bumping into Hugh Whitbread sparks “scene after scene at Bourton,” memories the camera could not pick up from a visual representation of the text. Later, we read of Elizabeth’s ‘adventure’ towards Fleet Street, after taking tea with Miss Kilman; nothing occurs except Elizabeth’s thrill at venturing into new territory: “For no Dalloways came down the Strand daily; she was a pioneer, a stray, venturing, trusting.” We follow Elizabeth as we followed her mother, waiting with her for something to happen. Instead, we receive a lesson in the ‘continuity editing’ method Trotter talks of as being perfected by Hollywood, which “made it possible to situate the spectator at the optimum viewpoint in each shot, and to keep that viewpoint on the move as the story developed.”
In the screen of our mind, Elizabeth is the focus and viewpoint as she wanders the streets, taking in the surroundings and contrasting them with her life. But, were this a film – and in 1923, when the novel is set, it would’ve been a silent film – we would learn nothing of Elizabeth in this sequence, aside from whatever her facial expressions would have told us, the “infinite gesticulation” and the “scowl and grimace” of big screen Anna Kareninas and Vronksys. At the same time, we also enjoy those “obvious sources of interest...the wonders of the actual world...the fascination of contemporary life – the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus” (Woolf, ‘The Cinema’). The method is filmic, the narrative is not; Mrs Dalloway depicts a reverse to the spectacular of conventional movies, while using the methods that keep them conventional. However, To the Lighthouse takes this idea further; we don’t so much follow the characters and hear their thoughts, as move around them, between them, through their minds and along their glances and gazes. They are not followed by cameras – they are our cameras.