The Universe in Virginia Woolf’s Mind

Group 8, DQ Response

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Discussion Question: Why does Virginia Woolf add details like street names and full names for (even) minor characters?


The initial answer that I could come up with was also the most obvious: that she wanted to achieve a sense of verisimilitude for the reader so that the reader would be immersed into the fictional world she has created.

This made sense to me. The most commonly cited reason why a writer would include such specificities is to portray a nuance of realism to draw the reader in. Full names grant the reader a kind of intimacy, a kind of knowledge into the characters’ lives. Similarly, names to locales, particularly real-world locales, give an aura of place and time that helps to orientate the reader. Both of these tools, coupled with Woolf’s elaborate and ornate descriptions (what the streets look like, what the character is wearing, etc.) further propels the visual aspect of the writing, allowing the reader to further comprehend the work. The streets, cities and towns which Woolf alludes to all refer to real places (or at least places that existed in the past), and the informed reader would be able to garner further understanding through insights of the location, the environment and the setting.

Indeed, specificity and detail both add depth into the writing.

Yet, as I read the short biography on Woolf, as well as the Norton’s passage on Mrs Dalloway, I began to realize that perhaps Virginia Woolf had other, ulterior reasons to include such minute and intricate details, and that her motive was not primarily for the reader, but instead, for herself.

As a writer, I am told by the Norton, Woolf did not agree with the method of depicting topics “through gritty realism” but rather she “sought to render more intricately those aspects of consciousness in which she felt the truth of human experience lay” (2143). In essence, she prefers “stream of consciousness narration” (2144). So Woolf desires to go further than to simply inject scenes of realism through including names of locations and people, but rather, those things function as the rudimentary base of which she launches from. As the Norton goes on to say, she “found inspiration and material in the physical realities of the body and in the heavily trafficked and populated streets of London” (2144). For Woolf, she did not want specifics and details to rule as the primary focus of her work, but as the bolstering which would couch her streams of consciousness and give it structure and depth. In her own words: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters”  and “the caves shall connect” (2155). Therefore, Woolf added these details, not necessarily for the reader’s benefit, but for her own. She acquired and imagined these intricate characters in her mind to such a acute degree that when she sat down to write in her stream of consciousness manner, the specifics simply came. She had designed her characters so that they came alive in her mind and became, as it were, real to her. Similarly, for street and city names (especially the streets of London, where she resided), there were innate and intimate ideas that she has related to those places and this gives her the inspiration and authority to write about those locales with confidence.

In conclusion, once Woolf’s own personal understandings of her characters and places are solidified within her mind and her writing, the readers are also then able to benefit from the rich complexities and elaborate details of the world which she has created, not only to be experienced, but also inhabited.


Ramazani, Jahan and Jon Stallworthy, eds. “Virginia Woolf”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 2143-44. Print.

Ramazani, Jahan and Jon Stallworthy, eds. “Mrs. Dalloway”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 2155-56. Print.


John Dieu


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2 Responses to The Universe in Virginia Woolf’s Mind

  1. rwhittaker says:


    You note that Woolf added the details such as street names, and full names of even the minor characters, not necessarily for the reader’s benefit, but for her own. I found your arguments for this to be very insightful and interesting, but I think that not only did Woolf do this for her own benefit, but for the benefit of the reader as well. Woolf makes it very clear from the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway that names play an important roles, Mrs. Dalloway “had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown […] this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (2161). Woolf is alluding here that by taking her husbands name, Clarissa has lost a piece of herself, and is now invisible. Peter Walsh recalls Mr. Dalloway being introduced as Wickham, the ‘villain’ if you will of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. This is not coincidental, as Mr. Dalloway stood in the way of Peter marrying Clarissa, and thus is a villain to him. As much as I agree that Virginia Woolf used these names for her own purposes, the thought that went into the names, and what each name seems to mean does not seem purely for the reader alone.

  2. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    I liked your argument that Woolf added the details, not only for the readers, but for her own sake. I think that every author has to convince themselves that their characters are real before they can convince the reader. They need to assume the role of the character, and perhaps Woolf herself was thinking some of the same thoughts as her characters as she walked through London. However, I don’t think specificity always has to be used to create realism. For instance, while I am navigating my way to school, I often think more in terms of landmarks than street names. Therefore, I think the same amount of realism could have been achieved through descriptions of a certain sign post or tree. However, if this were the case, it would probably be more difficult for the reader to orientate themselves in regard to the story.

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