The Role of Setting and Landscape in “Mrs. Dalloway” and “On the Road”

“Mrs. Dalloway” by acclaimed novelist Virginia Woolf is an interesting literary piece with several distinctly remarkable features. The author utilizes a stream-of-consciousness technique records ‘the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall… tracing the pattern, however disconnected… in appearance, in which each incident scores upon the consciousness’ (Woolf, 1) to bring out the innermost thoughts of the characters in a manner which effectively weaves together the elements of memory and time.

Prior to the early 20th century fictive literature had emphasized the primacy of plot and detailed descriptions of the characters and the settings, with externalities serving as the most significant turning-point in the story, effectively limiting the innermost workings of the characters’ minds to a more secondary role, mainly that of providing the motivation for the external occurrences in the plot. Going against the grain, Woolf’s refinement of the stream-of-consciousness technique – the representation of multiple consciousness lingering around a locus – is definitely one of her lasting contributions to the literary world, as evidenced by her novels.

In “Mrs. Dalloway” the plot can be described as generated by the inner lives of the characters, i.e. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus, whose natures are revealed through the ebb and flow of their emotions, impressions, thoughts and feelings. This in turn effectively transforms the rather ordinary events in their lives into the extraordinary, particularly as their consciousness appears to slip in and out through time conceptualized not merely as a linear series of events but also as cyclical.

Focusing on the two distinct worlds of the primary characters – gracious London society matron Clarissa Dalloway with a stable life in London’s high society and young Septimus Warren Smith thought to be suffering from a metal affliction brought about by the loss of a friend in World War I – the novel explores their seeming parallel thought processes despite differences in social station and the fact that they did not know each other and had never met, within a single eventful day in June.

Both appear to experience exhilarating shifts in their moods, eerily similar to bouts with manic depression which Woolf apparently suffered from: profound joy over the simple beauty of spring and the appearance of its fresh, tiny leaves, apprehensive dread over what they perceive as the on-rushing of time, alarm over their impending demise, and what could only be described as overt guilt over the crime of being human with its accompanying sensibilities, awareness, failures and shortcomings.

In the concluding chapter of the book the reader finds Clarissa finally being acquainted with the character of Septimus posthumously when his distinguished doctor’s wife explains to their hostess Mrs. Dalloway the reason for their tardiness – the suicide of a patient earlier in the day, leading her to internally remark that ‘Here is death, in the middle of my party’ (Woolf, 108). A peak at Mrs. Dalloway’s mind reveals a rather emphatic understanding of the sensitivity, despair and ultimately defiance besieging her symbolic double.

In admirable literary fashion, despite all events happening within the 24-hour p of a single day, the setting and landscape appear to be effectively adequate for the story to unfold. The seemingly fluid nature of time the author utilizes allows the effortless weaving of the characters’ thoughts from the present to the past and vice-versa, even allowing the creeping up of thoughts about the future. Despite the cornucopia of ideas taking shape in the characters’ minds and the feelings such thoughts evoke, the clever use of time imparts order to the fluidity of thoughts, memories and encounters populating the world of Mrs. Dalloway.

Big Ben that seemingly solid symbol of a strong England sounds out the passing of time hour after hour, a constant reminder to the characters painfully aware of the grip of time over their lives. Yet when the hour is chimed, the sound disappears as if its “leaden circles dissolved in the air” – signifying the ephemeral nature of time which most people in their wary obsession with time still fail to understand. Woolf skillfully introduces the notion of time not merely as having a linear character but a circular aspect to it as well when the reader is introduced to the ancient woman singing the same song for a seeming eternity at the Regent’s Park Tube Station.

In terms of the visual landscape, the author captures the beauty of a London summer day in June with the abundant images of trees and flowers in the story. The variety of flowers appearing throughout the text is suggestive of the characters’ fleeting emotions. In the opening pages of the book, the reader is acquainted with Clarissa Dalloway on her way to the flower shop.

Clarissa, deep and profound in her thoughts, revels in the beauty of flowers and trees, while the stiffer, more aloof members of the English establishment trained in the art of keeping their emotions in check all the time are represented as awkward in the way of handling flowers (Richard treats the bouquet of flowers as if it was a weapon while Mrs. Bruton appeared to be at a loss with the flowers offered to her, eventually stuffing them into her dress, the femininity and grace of the gesture surprising even herself) and traditional in their choice of blooms – roses and carnations as picked by Richard and Hugh.

In tune with the reflective tone of the novel, the significant abundance of trees with their far-reaching root systems appear to signify the extensive reach of the human soul, even as the two protagonists wage their own personal battles in a struggle to protect their souls. The element of water appearing in the characters’ fluid thoughts as on-rushing waves evokes images of the washing away of the old to be replaced by the new in an endless cycle of the waves lapping at the shore (the appearance of which increases in intensity until it reaches the shore, only to fade into another), i.e. death as the fate awaiting us all.

Set against the background of post-war London, traditional English society is presented as if a tide pulling down those who fail to adapt to the pressing changes plaguing England, and one such casualty was Septimus Warren Smith who had ultimately failed to accept and understand his vastly altered concrete social realities following the end of the war and the irreparable scarring of humankind.

In contrast, Clarissa appears to have navigated the murky waters of London high society quite admirably (a “silver-green mermaid” in Peter Walsh’s eyes) yet underneath the veneer of dutiful wife and mother is a kindred soul who identifies with Septimus and his wish to struggle against the oppressive pressures of society, attempting to strike a balance between privacy and open communication with the significant people in their lives. In the last analysis, she refuses to succumb to the temptation herself, and veers away from the outlet chosen by Septimus.

In a similar manner to that of Virginia Woolf, the American writer Jack Kerouac, who founded the so-called “Beat Generation”, could also be considered as a pioneer in terms of contributions to the literary field. Though Kerouac was of a different generation and genre from the English author, the two share the similarity of going against convention in their own lifetimes in a bid to assert their own ideas on crafting literary pieces. His novel “On the Road” could be described as an attempt to inspire readers to go out there and seize the day – “Carpe diem!” as the French say, so to speak – and live life.

“On the Road” we meet the young, somewhat naïve writer Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, whom the narrator describes as “tremendously excited with life” in their adventure traipsing around America to test the limits of their “American Dream.” Various settings, e.g. a small town in rural Virginia, a jazz joint in urban New York, a Mexican whore-house,  and landscape are utilized by the author in their full extent to present the reader with images of the USA and its new-world wonders – urban jungles, sleepy towns, the American rural wilderness, vast expanse of desserts – the only tangible connection between them being the road, the need for a generation to get out of their seeming confinements limited by space, to break out and seek freedom unchained by any imposed-from-above belief, sentiments or ideology.

These youths, overwhelmed by the lack of fulfillment and the overriding sense of desperation in their lives made them feel that “the only thing to do was go,” providing the impetus to search for their own personal freedoms, the pleasure of which they found in sex, drugs and jazz music. For Sal, “…life is holy and every moment precious,” which may perhaps account for Dean seeming “to be doing everything at the same time” as a fear and wariness of death appeared to haunt the gang in their sojourn throughout America (“…death will overtake us before heaven”), manifested by visions of a great spirit trailing after them across the desert of life.

Yet this fear did not prevent them from living their life not held by the sway of materialism, that “mad dream-grabbing, taking, giving, sighing and dying just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island.” As their travels together come to an end, Sal and Dean find themselves in the poverty-stricken city of Mexico, where among the brothels, barefooted old women, and simple meals, Sal notices that “[b]eggars slept wrapped in advertising posters torn off fences” (Kerouac, 248).

An excited Sal declares “This was the great and uninhibited Fellahin-childlike city that we knew we would find at the end of the road” (Kerouac, 248). They had found a world where people could apparently live in bare, unadorned simplicity not harassed by the pressures of a materialistic culture, a timely reminder that despite the pretentiousness of the relatively affluent 20th century, people’s possession of goods, or the lack of it are not the sole determinants of being human. Such an idealistic message in a work of fiction attempts to counter the overriding negativism and corruption of the corporate fantasy dominant in American culture, of which its inherent conflict with other needs and interests of the human spirit continues to be played out in contemporary societies up to the present.

The two novels, “Mrs. Dalloway” and “On the Road” utilize landscape and setting to the full extent, resulting in powerful narratives which allow the reader much visual power, i.e. the reader is transported to post-War early 20th century London and a modernizing 20th century America. Yet the authors use setting and landscape in rather different ways. In the case of Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway, she employs the setting and landscape in an interestingly novel manner which complements her stream-of-consciousness technique, while Kerouac resorts to a rather typical use of setting and landscape to paint a picture of the America of the Beat generation in “On the Road.” The techniques they used might be different yet the end result is the same – stunning literary narratives which are undoubtedly some of the excellent works written in their respective periods by writers of their generation.


Clark, Tom. “Jack Kerouac” New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1984.

Dunphy, Mark. “Call Me Sal, Jack”: Visions of Ishmael in Kerouac’s “On the Road” in Melville Society Extracts, July 2002.

Hunt, Tim. “Kerouac’s Crooked Road: The Development of a Fiction.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Kerouac, Jack. “On the Road.” New York: Viking Press, 1957.

Woolf, Virginia. “Mrs. Dalloway.”originally published 1925. Accessed through the University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection, on 28 November 2007


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