Comparing Joyce’s and Woolf’s stream of consciouness writing techniques

Before tackling the comparative reading of the two excerpts, published below, a brief introduction to both.

Ulyssesis James Joyce‘s most renowned novel. The entire narration takes place in a single day which lasts 18 hours and involves especially Leopold Bloom, the central character, who is Joyce’s common man: a middle-aged ad canvassar for the Freeman’s Journal and non-practicing Jew. The action is about his wandering throughout the day in the streets of Dublin while running errands, stopping at the office and going to a funeral. He is ladden with two deep emotional burdens: the unsolved grief over his baby son’s death which occurred years before the action of the novel and the crumbling relationship with his adulterous wife.

Needless to say that Joyce’s novel is full of symbolism, starting with the title that directly evokes Homer’s Odyssey and from which he draws inspiration for his novel’s complex structure, furthermore the allusion to the journey contains the theme of the novel: the quest of life which means suffering, falling, but at the same time the effort to cope making through. Moreover, here the author masters all his different writing techniques going from the stream of consciousness to the cinematic technique transposed in literature with flash-backs, close-ups, dramatic dialogue, or the juxtaposition of events and creating the ‘collage technique’ through which he brings unity and order from the apparent randomness of the events narrated. The language too is full of symbolism along with a richness of various registers and a lavish range of vocabulary and imagery; in addition, Joyce endows his Ulysses with countless quotations and hints to other literary works. Finally, the description of Dublin in which the novel is set, is so realistic and detailed that it is imbued with a heartfelt atmosphere making the city itself become a character among human characters.


Mrs Dalloway, too takes place on a single day during which the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, is busy running errands and making plans for the evening dinner party she is having that night. Virginia Woolf focuses her narration in outlining the depths of human nature through the various characters Clarissa runs into that day, or simply brushes during her daily activities. Woolf’s characters are also described, while carrying out their day, as engrossed in their train of thoughts providing the readers with fragments of their past experiences allowing them to glimpse at their personal background history so as to give her characters a more round and profound existence even if apparently concerned with the immediate happenings of their day. It’s as if present burdens and future plans are, nevertheless blended with the past. It is also a novel that deals with a society plunged in deep technological changes and the way her characters react to such changes, the frequent reference to clocks chiming time is a way of emphasizing not only the endless changes that the society of that time undergoes but also the way time is perceived, the way the passing of time flowing towards death is felt.

There aren’t many characters involved in the narration, mainly three: Clarissa Dalloway, a fifty-one London society lady married to Richard Dalloway, a Conservative MP, a marriage that wasn’t of her choice, on the contrary a marriage that forced her to give up her true love for Peter Walsh. She is battered between her need for independence and self-fulfillment and class consciousness. She is obsessed with the perfection of her home, order and her strenous effort to live up to her ideal of womanhood, however in this endless struggle that makes her feel a failure to her own eyes, she forces herself to deny her most natural emotions limiting them to the point that she is in constant inner conflict. The second character is Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s foregone love, who visits her home unexpectedly bringing back memories of their past mutual feelings and who also casually sees Septimus Warren Smith and his wife going to Sir William Bradshaw’s for an interview. Peter Walsh will also cross the ambulance carrying the dying Septimus while walking back to his hotel. The third character is Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shock case of World War I, he is portrayed by Woolf as being a sensitive young poet who, as many others did then, enlisted to join the war for patriotic reasons and is berated by guilt because of his best friend’s death in the war while he survived. Despite the medical treatments he has sought he is often prey of panic attacks and a sense of inadequacy that will drive him to committing suicide immediately after his interview with Dr. Bradshaw. It is the Bradshaws who will inform Clarissa that evening at her party of Septimus’ death.

Even though Clarissa and Septimus never actually meet during the entire unfolding of the novel, they are connected in many ways. As a matter of fact there is a theory that considers Septimus as Clarissa’s double. Septimus is unable to separate outside reality from his inner personal responses to it, he relies on his wife for stability and expects her to protect him from the harshness of human life for which he doesn’t feel properly equipped so much so that it is because of his inability to react and the way he gives in to fear and psychological collapse that eventually bring him to commit suicide. Clarissa, on the other hand, is always fully aware that the outside world is totally separated from her inner self and in the end she does come to terms with her self-deceptions and delusions, she accepts the passing of time, the approaching old age and the idea of death so she finnaly allows herself to move on.

Ulysses (1922)

“Mr Bloom stood far back, his hat in his hand, counting the bared heads. Twelve. I’m thirteen. No. The chap in the macintosh is thirteen. Death’s number. Where the deuce did he pop out of? He wasn’t in the chapel, that I’ll swear. Silly superstition that about thirteen.

Nice soft tweed Ned Lambert has in that suit. Tinge of purple. I had one like that when we lived in
Lombard street west. Dressy fellow he was once. Used to change three
suits in the day. Must get that grey suit of mine turned by Mesias.
Hello. It’s dyed. His wife I forgot
he’s not married or his landlady
ought to have picked out those
threads for him.

The coffin dived out of sight, eased down by the men straddled on the gravetrestles. They struggled up and out: and all uncovered. Twenty.


If we were all suddenly somebody else.

Far away a donkey brayed. Rain. No such ass. Never see a dead one, they say. Shame of death. They hide. Also poor papa went away.

Gentle sweet air blew round the bared heads in a whisper. Whisper. The boy by the gravehead held his wreath with both hands staring quietly in the black open space. Mr Bloom moved behind the portly kindly caretaker. Well cut frockcoat. Weighing them up perhaps to see which will go next. Well it is a long rest. Feel no more. It’s the moment you feel. Must be damned unpleasant. Can’t believe it at first. Mistake must be: someone else. Try the house opposite. Wait, I wanted to. I haven’t yet. Then darkened deathchamber. Light they want. Whispering around you. Would you like to see a priest? Then rambling and wandering. Delirium all you hid all your life. The death struggle. His sleep is not natural. Press his lower eyelid. Watching is his nose pointed in his jaw sinking are the soles of his feet yellow. Pull the pillow away and finish it off on the floor since he’s doomed. Devil in that picture of sinner’s death showing him a woman. Dying to embrace her in his shirt.

Mrs Dalloway (1925)


“Nonsense, nonsense! she cried to
herself, pushing through the swing doors of Mulberry’s the florist.
She advanced, light, tall, very
upright, to be greeted at once by
button-faced Miss Pym, whose
hands were always bright red, as
if they had been stood in cold
water with the flowers.
There were flowers: delphiniums,
sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and
carnations masses of carnations.
There were roses; there were irises. Ah yes – so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh, like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays, the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale – as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower – roses, carnations, irises, lilac – glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!

And as she began to go with Miss Pym from jar to jar, choosing, nonsense, nonsense, she said to herself, more and more gently, as if this beauty, this scent, this colour, and Miss Pym liking her, trusting her, were a wave which she let flow over her and surmount that hatred, that monster, surmount it all; and it lifted her up and up when – ho! a pistol shot in the street outside!

‘Dear, those motor cars,’ said Miss Pym, going to the window to look, and coming back and smiling apologetically with her hands full of sweet peas, as if those motor cars, those tyres of motor cars, were all her fault. The violent explosion which made Mrs. Dalloway jump and Miss Pym go to the window and apologise came from a motor car which had drawn to the side of the pavement precisely opposite Mulberry’s shop window. Passers-by who, of course, stopped and stared, had just time to see a face of the very greatest importance against the dove-grey upholstery, before a male hand drew the blind and there was nothing to be seen except a square of dove grey.

Yet rumours were at once in circulation from the middle of Bond Street to Oxford Street on one side, to Atkinson’s scent shop on the other, passing invisibly, inaudibly, like a cloud, swift, veil-like upon hills, falling indeed with something of a cloud’s sudden sobriety and stillness upon faces which a second before had been utterly disorderly. But now mystery had brushed them with her wing; they had heard the voice of authority; the spirit of religion was abroad with her eys bandaged tight and her lips gaping wide. But nobody knew whose face had been seen. Was it the Prince of Wales’s, the Queen’s, the Prime Minister’s? Whose face was it? Nobody knew.

Edgar J. Watkiss, with his roll of lead piping round his arm, said audibly, humorously of course: ‘The Proime Minister’s Kyar’.

Septimus Warren Smith, who found himself unable to pass, heard him. Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprenhension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world had raised its whip, where will it descend?

Everything had come to a standstill. The throb of the motor engines sounded like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body. The sun became extraordinarily hot because the motor car had stopped outside Mulberry’s shop window; old ladies on the tops of omnibuses spread their black parasols; here a green, here a red parasol opened with a little pop. Mrs. Dalloway, coming to the window with her arms full of sweet peas, looked out with her little pink face pursed in enquiry. Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked. Boys on bicycles sprang off. Traffic accumulated. And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thought, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought. Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted here, rooted to thte pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose?

‘Let us go on, Septimus.’ said his wife, a little woman, with large eyes in a sallow pointed face; an Italian girl.

But Lucrezia herself could not help looking at the motor car and the tree pattern on the blinds. Was it the Queen in there – the Queen going shopping?

The chauffeur, who had been opening something, turning something, shutting something, got on to the box.

‘Come on,’ said Lucrezia.

But her husband, for they had been married four, five years now, jumped, started, and said, ‘All right!’ angrily, as if she had interrupted him.

People must notice; people must see. People, she thought, looking at the crowd staring at the motor car; the English people, with their children and their horses and their clothes, which she admired in a way; but they were ‘people’ now, because Septimus had said, ‘I will kill myself;’ an awful thing to say. Suppose they had heard him? She looked at the crowd. Help, help! She wanted to cry out to butchers’ boys and women. Help! Only last autumn she and Septimus had stood on the Embankment wrapped in the same cloak and, Septimus reading a paper instead of talking, she had snatched it from him and laughed in the old man’s face who saw them! But failure one conceals. She must take him away into some park.

‘Now we will cross,’ she said.

She had a right to his arm, though it was without feeling. He would give her, who was so simple, so impulsive, only twenty-four, without friends in England, who had left Italy for his sake, a piece of bone.”


Images taken from Google Search

© L. R. Capuana


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