Turning Inwards: the journey from intertextuality to metafiction in Mrs Dalloway and Atonement

Intertextuality refers to the relationships between texts and can take many forms, both overt and covert. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf employs overt intertextuality to create meaning, reinforce the text’s themes and ultimately to place her work within a cultural and literary context. In addition, covert forms of intertextuality are present in the form of narrative structure, parody and indirect allusion to other works. The intertextuality in Mrs Dalloway can further be viewed as a covert form of metafiction, because Woolf’s allusions to other fictional works emphasise the fictional nature of her own text, causing the reader to question the purpose of their reading and the meaning that can be derived from it. McEwan’s Atonement utilises the same forms of intertextuality, alongside an overt metafiction that is central to the novel’s plot, and thus raises the same questions. The progression from intertextuality in Woolf’s modernist work to the postmodern technique of self-referential metafiction in McEwan’s novel begs both readers and writers to question the very nature of fiction, the place of the novel in our culture, and the pleasure, meaning and purpose that can be derived from it.

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Narrative techniques and psychological realism in Death in Venice, Mrs Dalloway and The Great Gatsby

In the narrative fiction of the 19th century, many writers achieved a form of realism using an authorial third person narrative voice and conveying meaning through description, plot and dialogue. Societal changes, psychiatry and modernity in the 20th century brought new modes of thinking and an increased emphasis on psychological realism, driven by the idea that a character’s inner thoughts and perspective reflect human reality more accurately than external observation. Death in Venice, Mrs Dalloway and The Great Gatsby demonstrate that psychological realism can be achieved using a variety of narrative techniques: free indirect discourse, stream-of-consciousness and complex symbolism allow Death in Venice and Mrs Dalloway to portray the internal mental state of their characters, while the first person limited narration of The Great Gatsby foregrounds the protagonist’s perspective and emphasises the true unknowability of other people.

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Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

This has long been a favourite sentence of mine, and since I’m re-reading this for study purposes, here we are:

“As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical methapors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can.”

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, by Virginia Woolf

An essay on the importance of character and truth in literature. This is from the conclusion—I had to include even more than a single paragraph, let alone a single sentence:

“In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves; that they know more of Mrs. Brown than you do. Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graes on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time.

Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have and overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.”