Need help with Mod A? In this article, we will help you with understanding Mrs Dalloway and The Hours for Module A. We cover the themes and context of Woolf's novel and Daldry's film.
Are you confused by Mrs Dalloway? Don’t get the point of The Hours? Don’t worry, in this article we’ll help you develop you understanding of Mrs Dalloway and The Hours for Module A so you can tick off that Band 6 result.
What are the fundamental things you need to know to do well in a comparative essay on Mrs Dalloway and The Hours? This blog post examines the key contextual information, formal elements, and themes in both texts.
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Module A pairs two texts together that are clearly related to one another. They are ‘in conversation,’ usually because one is a reimagining or reinterpretation of the other.
The Module is a comparative study, which means you need to compare the similarities and differences between the texts. Some of the differences come from the form of each text (in our case the difference between a novel and a film) and some from the contextual influences on the text (how have values changed in the time gap between the texts).
In the Module A Statement from NESA, it says that students will…
“…develop skills in analysing the ways that various language concepts, for example motif, allusion and intertextuality, connect and distinguish texts and how innovating with language concepts, form and style can shape new meaning.”
In other words, the module asks you to consider how the formal techniques specific to each text type create meaning: What does a film do that a novel doesn’t, and vice versa? The Module also says,
“By comparing two texts students understand how composers (authors, poets, playwrights, directors, designers and so on) are influenced by other texts, contexts and values, and how this shapes meaning.”
It’s not enough to analyse what the texts are doing at a formal level.
While these two texts might share a similar or related focus, you need to show how they contain different values because of the different contexts in which they were created.
Mrs Dalloway and The Hours were created 77 years apart: they are not going to contain exactly the same values in relation to their key themes. For example, general understandings of gender equality changed drastically in the 77 years since Mrs Dalloway was published. You need to show how some of the differences between the texts are because of the different contextual values shaping each text.
One of the first points to consider about the context of this novel is that it was written in what we often call the Modernist period of English literature. Modernist novels sought to break away from the strictures of the Victorian novel.
Woolf was critical of conventional writing at the time:
The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour.
In Mrs Dalloway and her other novels, Woolf employs multiple competing perspectives, disjointed narrative style, free indirect discourse, stream of consciousness – all of which were highly experimental devices in their time. She believed that these new ways of writing were able to represent more accurately the realities of modern life and the mind. She was in correspondence with Sigmund Freud whose influential new ideas about the mind emphasised a powerful and unwieldy unconscious that seems to be represented by Woolf’s innovative focus on the internal worlds of her characters.
First wave feminisim
Woolf lived during what we sometimes call the first wave of feminism, where certain women protested for the right to vote and to gain other basic rights. Woolf herself was a prolific feminist writer who advocated for working women, women’s education, and women’s autonomy, among other things. In one of her most famous feminist essays, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Woolf criticised women’s exclusion from centres of power in society.
Woolf’s personal life is often referred to when discussing the queer themes in Mrs Dalloway. Woolf had a passionate affair with Vita Sackville-West that lasted a decade. Her analysis of the line ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ has been interpreted as an analysis of lesbianism in fiction, which due to the restrictions of censorship had to be written about in covert, euphemistic ways (as is the case in Mrs Dalloway).
After the end of WWI, many returned soldiers suffered from what at the time was called shell shock (which we now call PTSD). This had significant personal and cultural effects on post-war nations. The lack of development in medicine at the time meant that these men were often inadequately treated.
Woolf herself suffered from various mental health issues and was subject to the dehumanising powers of the medical establishment. She was often kept isolated without her consent in what was called a ‘rest cure’. This involved patients being forced to rest in bed; they were disallowed from talking, reading, writing; sometimes they were force fed and subject to electrotherapy.
Woolf’s eventual suicide is perhaps foreshadowed in Mrs Dalloway and is certainly reflected in The Hours.
The experience of time
Henri Bergson’s notions of time were contemporary to Woolf’s writing and may have influenced the way time was depicted in her work. Bergson believed in a differentiation between clock time and internal time (or ‘pure duration’). He believed that internal time was not subject to the linear separation of moments in scientific clock time.
Memory, and internal thought weaves us in and out of interconnected pasts, presents, and futures in the mind.
We forget about clock time when we let our mind indulge in such thought (when, as Bergson says, ‘our ego lets itself live’). Woolf’s representation of the involved inner worlds of her characters seems to reflect this distorted or non-linear experience of internal time – especially as it contrasts against the recurring presence of the clock (Big Ben).
The Hours was created in what we sometimes call the ‘postmodern’ era in cultural production. Although this term is disputed and inconcrete, there are some key features of postmodernism that we can see in the film. For instance, the appropriation and recontextualisation of Mrs Dalloway could be seen as a postmodern technique. The text is an often fragmented pastiche of multiple, recontextualised aspects of Mrs Dalloway. Its structuring conversation with the novel – its use of mise-en-abyme – makes it a highly self-conscious text and thus what we might call metafictive. All of these qualities are often attributed to postmodern texts.
3rd wave feminism
The 2000s are sometimes described as being part of the third wave of feminism or even as postfeminist. The film’s implicit critique of the restrictive 1950s gender and sexual roles (constraining Laura Brown) suggests a second or third wave feminism that was not possible to represent in Woolf’s time. Clarissa Dalloway is reimagined, partly, in Clarissa Vaughan – hers is a queer future where she is married to Sally (suggestive of Sally Seaton) – and Septimus is partly reimainged as the queer Richard, suffering from HIV/AIDS. However, Clarissa’s attachment to Richard restricts her personal autonomy and agency: the contradiction between her feminist agency and lack thereof suggests a postfeminist co-existence of feminist and anti-feminist ideas.
The stigma of difference
The stigma against queer people with HIV/AIDS is significant to the effects of the Richard Brown character. He feels ostracised because of his illness, but he also receives, or so he believes, a patronising pity because of it too. The fear and prejudice against people with HIV is highly moralised, and it was perpetuated by the medical establishment through neglect in the early years of the epidemic.
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Woolf’s novel is formally very innovative. As mentioned earlier, she employs stream of consciousness narration and free indirect discourse:
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning–fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”–was that it?–“I prefer men to cauliflowers”–was that it?
FREE INDIRECT DISCOURSE is when the writer provides the inner thoughts of a character from a third person perspective without quotations marks and tag clauses such as ‘she thought’ or ‘she said’. It takes us into the mind of the character in a free flowing way – one thought leads to another, without the clunky lag created by tag clauses. This flowing effect is also called STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS narration. What’s interesting about Woolf’s use of free indirect discourse is that it allows the narrator to move from character to character. The narrator is not restricted to a first person perspective, but we do get the stream of consciousness of several characters which creates a multiplicity of personalised perspectives.
Here, Clarissa thinks of a future where she will buy flowers, then to the present where she opens some windows, and the view reminds her of memories and emotions from her past relationship with Peter Walsh: all with specific images and details that are evoked by an active unconscious mind.
In the example above, we can see how the stream of consiousness highlights how the mind can move with rapidity and creativity. Do we have internal monologues such as this all the time or is this happening somewhere in the preconscious or unconscious? It’s hard to say, but Woolf thought that this form of narration better represented the disordered and eclectic patterns of thought occupying our minds.
The Hours contains several parallel narratives that interconnect and reflect various aspects of Mrs Dalloway. One significant characteristic of the film is the sense of continuity created between the different narratives. Several cinematic techniques are used for this purpose.
MATCH CUTS are when one shot cuts or transitions into another shot and where continuity is created by ‘matching’ something in one shot to something in the shot that follows it. In the below examples from the opening sequence of the film, one shot of Clarissa Vaughan picking up a vase is match cut to a shot of Dan Brown picking up a vase. Very soon after as Dan puts the vase down, there’s a match cut to Virginia Woolf’s maid sorting the flowers in a vase.
This sense of continuity between shots creates the sense that each timeline is interconnected with the others both thematically and formally.
Another related technique is PARALLEL EDITING. This is when related actions are taking place in different times or spaces in the film. Some forms of parallel editing might also be a match cut, but at other times, parallel editing doesn’t necessarily have to be one action or object connecting two shots in one cut. It might just be that parallel narratives or timelines might include similar imagery, objects, or action.
For instance in the below examples, Laura Brown, Clarissa Vaughan, and Virginia Woolf are all lying on their side in bed, but these shots do not take place exactly one after the other, they are just in a collection of shots that make up the opening montage.
Finally, the minimalist SCORE or music in the film created by Phillip Glass also creates continuity between the narratives.
This is because each narrative does not have its own leitmotif or melodic theme. Rather the rolling, cyclical phrases, that go up and down the scale create the sense of a stream of sound (which we might liken to stream of consciousness). The flowing, non-progressive music creates the sense of continual motion that connects each narrative as if they were part of one larger musical composition.
We feel similar musical effects in the various narratives, suggesting that the different timelines share particular emotional and thematic aspects.
The fact that the narratives share conceptual themes is mirrored in the formal level through a score that connects all the timelines together.
Clarissa struggles with limitations on her independence and autonomy. The title of the novel itself highlights how she is defined by her marriage to Mr Dalloway. She does not have access to the male dominated world of politics that her husband is part of, and yet she supports him by throwing parties for their social circles.
Her interest in throwing parties is ridiculed and diminished for their perceived superficiality.
They are seen as feminine and frivolous, especially by Peter Walsh. However, by the end of the novel, Woolf gives us a sense that the social connections created at Clarissa’s parties are not only vital for creating and maintaining social worlds, but they enable personal connections that are deeply significant to several of the characters – thus creating a feminist re-evaluation of this feminised form of labour.
Clarissa Vaughan is also throwing a party and struggles with the perception (from Richard) that her life is ‘trivial’. Although she’s certainly not defined by a marriage to a man, and she has more rights as a woman than Clarissa Dalloway does, her former relationship with Richard still control a significant part of her identity.
Her feminised role as carer to Richard restricts her autonomy and her ability to move forward with her life.
In fact, all the female protagonists in this film struggle with a desire for independence. It is perhaps Laura Brown who finds the most independence by abandoning the gender role of mother – although she is demonised as a result.
Clarissa’s relationship and feelings for Sally are often interpreted as queer. While censorship meant that Woolf couldn’t be explicit about sexual feelings between the characters, the novel explores powerful queer desire that Clarissa later represses in marrying Richard Dalloway. Many also interpret Septimus’s love for his friend Evans as having queer elements too.
Laura Brown’s kiss with Kitty resembles the repressed, but also ambiguous, queer desire of Clarissa Dalloway. But other characters are more explicitly queer in their identities and relationships. Richard, a reimainging of Septimus, is explicitly queer, and so, of course, is Clarissa Vaughan – married to Sally. But Clarissa’s recontextualised queer future with Sally paradoxically doesn’t in itself make Clarissa happy – in fact their relationship is marked by tension and distance. The film seems to suggest that even after gay liberation, difficulties of the heart can exceed gender preference.
Septimus’s mental illness offers perhaps the most pronounced commentary on illness in the novel. In particular his inadequate and at times deeply problematic treatment by his doctors is a significant focus of his story. Dr Bradshaw’s intends on stripping away Septimus’s freedom of choice by enforcing rest in the country – separated from Lucrezia. Septimus’s illness brings him unique creative perspective on the world – something that Woolf may have experienced. However, true freedom from the oppression of society and his condition seems to come in the form of his suicide at the end of the novel.
Richard’s freedom and independence are similarly curtailed by the medicalisation of his condition. He pushes back against Clarissa’s attempts to control his life and habits (for the sake of his health), and he disdains the imagined pity he receives from the literary community due to his HIV diagnosis. He also suffers long term psychological trauma from the abandonment of his mother. Like Septimus, and indeed Woolf, he hears voices and is profoundly creative. However, he also seems to find freedom in suicide in a world that cannot adequately support him.
The reader is often reminded of Big Ben and of (clock) time in Woolf’s novel. At times there are anxieties about the social world suggested by clock time, especially in contrast to personal, less measured experiences of time. In many ways Clarissa and Peter live in the past. They are constantly revisiting memories of former times. Septimus is similarly haunted by his past, but his memories are perhaps less voluntary than Clarissa and Peter’s.
Richard says that he wants to write about ‘everything that happens in a moment’, clearly a reference to Woolf’s stream of consciousness narration – especially the way it elongates time by offering extraordinary detail in every moment. The film’s movement between three alternative timelines creates unique continuities and disjunctures between the narratives. Several of the characters are also haunted by their pasts, and various tensions in past narratives are reflected in future ones. As Laura and Clarissa meet at the end of the film, timelines are crossed and certain forms of closure are created as a result.
In part 2, we discuss how to develop notes, respond to questions, scaffold responses, and write a Band 6 essay.