Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about time: its quality, its depth, and its composition. Woolf conveys the complexity of time by drawing attention to her characters’ unique struggles to create meaning for themselves within the confines of passing time. The entire novel takes place within one day, lengthening the experience of time, and exploring time below its ordinary surface of passing events. Ricoeur characterizes the dimensions of time Woolf’s novel as follows: monumental time is the time of history, and it is determined by “figures of authority and power;” characters in the novel experience a constantly advancing “clock time” through their individual actions (buying flowers, walking in the park); and individual reflection burrows below time’s surface, investigating its depths through “ample excursions into the past.” These dimensions render a vision of time as a fabric, woven by those strings of personal experience (Ricoeur’s “clock time”), individual reflection, and memory, and held together by the monumental time to which all of Woolf’s characters must conform. There is no single experience of time in Mrs. Dalloway; instead, the multiple dimensions of time to which Woolf exposes the reader interact with each other to create the network that forms a single narrative.
Characters in Woolf’s novel waver between the different dimensions of time, engendering a “temporal depth” comprised of experience, reflection, and memory. Clarissa Dalloway’s actions in the novel – going out to buy flowers, mending her dress, speaking with Peter Walsh – are amplified by concurrent excursions into memory and thought. From the very first phrases of the novel, these parallel processes are evident: “Mrs. Dalloway said that 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.” These three sentences represent a single moment; Clarissa has a thought, and makes a declaration. Yet this moment contains at least two experiences of time. There is both the action of Clarissa’s words – she will “buy the flowers herself” — and the contemporaneous thought behind those words. The action is part of clock time — the events that constitute the minutes and hours of each day – while the thought that Clarissa has in consideration of her maid, Lucy, is a reflection on that action. In this instant, Clarissa experiences two dimensions of time at once.
In the sentences that follow, Woolf confers an additional level of depth to this single moment in time: “And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach…For so it had always been to her when…she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.” Here, Clarissa thinks of the past, considering her present action and thought in light of her memories. For Ricoeur, this process gives depth to time in the novel. He describes this mixture of thought, action, and memory as an “entanglement of the narrated present with the remembered past.” Even while events progress, and actions take place in the present, the reader is drawn into the past. This process brings the reader’s attention to the inner complexities and turmoils of each action. The experience of time is deeper than it appears on the surface, for it is enriched by concurrent thoughts and memories.
Just as Woolf’s characters experience this temporal depth, so do they struggle to find ways to orient themselves to the constraints of monumental time. Ricoeur describes monumental time as a secretion of historical events (“monumental history”), and explains that chronological, clock time is its expression. Clock time is continually advancing as a summation of individual experience. But while individual actions take place along its continuum, clock time is ultimately pushed forward by those with power, and characters are forced to make meaning of their lives within the confines the time of authority: monumental time.
Clarissa Dalloway struggles to reconcile her personal experiences with this monumental time. She races against time in an effort to make meaning of her life in spite of its apparent emptiness. The bells of Big Ben mark this struggle, and punctuate Clarissa’s day. Clarissa feels “…a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense…before Big Ben strikes.” She feels great anxiety about the passing of time, and worries on each occasion that she is reminded of the time that she has not led a meaningful life. There is a conflict within Mrs. Dalloway; the monumental time of Big Ben’s ticks and tocks demonstrate that she is getting older, while her thoughts and memories still seem young. She feels “very young; at the same time, unspeakably aged,” worried that her life is approaching its natural end, yet confidant she has much more to give. She often wonders what would happen “…if she could have her life to live over again…” Clarissa feels lost in the moment, a victim of time’s vicious and constant advance.
Septimus faces a parallel struggle with monumental time. He and Clarissa face the same dilemma: how to orient themselves so as to be able to find meaning within the bounds of monumental time. But while Clarissa confronts monumental time in the hourly strikes of Big Ben, Septimus comes face to face with it the forms of Dr. Bradshaw and WWI. Septimus is tortured by the death of his friend and fellow soldier, Evans. Though the two were close, Septimus was numb to his death because of the war: far from showing any emotion when Evans was killed or recognizing that here was the end of a friendship, he congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably.
Yet news of the death engenders a sense of guilt that tortures him subconsciously. Septimus repeats over and over again that “he could not feel,” claiming that “his brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then – that he could not feel.” He feels guilty for not having felt sad when his friend died, and is incapable of proceeding forward in time because of that guilt. Here, again, is Ricouer’s monumental time; a tormented Septimus blames “the world,” but it is figures of authority, and power – figures of monumental time — that really torture him. Monumental time is everywhere: in the car backfire that sends Septimus hurdling back to the battlefield, and in the faces of strangers that remind him of his dead friend. The war stole his friend and his ability to feel remorse, and time makes him a victim, reminding him incessantly of those losses:
The word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree…
‘For God’s sake don’t come!’ Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead.
Time tortures him, displaying everywhere the ghosts of his past. It is time that drives him crazy, and forces words of insanity to burst from his lips involuntarily — “without him making them.” Here, Septimus clearly demonstrates that time elicit his madness. And the figures of monumental time that remind him of his inability to deal with loss render him incapable of discovering any sense of personal meaning in the world.
Woolf depicts the tension her characters’ experience between monumental time and personal meaning as the greatest of life’s struggles; but anyone who hopes find some measure of contentment must resolve that tension. Both Septimus’ and Mrs. Dalloway’s fates can be understood in terms of their ability to meet this challenge, and triumph over this struggle. Clarissa is able to overcome her sense of disorientation by reveling in the beauty of moments: “these flowers,” “[t]his moment of June.” Ultimately, she returns to her contention that there is meaning and beauty not in the approval of others, but in those simple things of life that are important to her. Septimus never achieves such clarity. He believes that his only chance is to “…escape, without letting Holmes know; to Italy – anywhere, anywhere, away from Dr. Holmes.” Unlike Clarissa, Septimus seeks to escape the authority figures of monumental time instead of searching for ways to reconcile himself with their confines. This proves to be impossible. Septimus realizes that he will not triumph over time. Just before he throws himself out the window, he exclaims to himself, “So he was in their power! Holmes and Bradshaw were on him!” From that moment onward, Septimus’ contest is over. Clarissa triumphs over this same struggle; her final impression, from the perspective of her first love, Peter Walsh, is simple – “For there she was.” Clarissa goes on living, resolving to find meaning in the beauty of existence, while Septimus is forced to take his own life to escape the confines of the monumental time with which he cannot come to terms.
In the end, do these struggles – to reconcile the progression of monumental time with personal meaning, to investigate the meaning behind the surface actions of “clock time,” to expose the way that memory interacts with thought to influence how characters act – result in a single experience of time? In fact, they result in just the opposite; the experience of time in the novel is so complex, so multidimensional that it is anything but singular. On the other hand, monumental and clock time, memory, thought, and personal experience are all interconnected: not just for each individual character in the novel, but amongst them all. Woolf’s vision of time renders a single, interwoven network that puts forth a sympathetic vision of mankind. Her desire to understand people beyond their individual actions, which may portray them in an unflattering light, reveals Woolf’s belief that people are not simply the sum of their actions, but the sum of all those thoughts, experiences, and memories that can be discovered below the surface. Those among us who end up like Septimus should not, therefore, be judged, but understood and forgiven as victims of a ruthlessly advancing time.
Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative: Volume Two. Translated from French by Kathleen
McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Woolf, Virginia et al. The Mrs. Dalloway Reader. Francine Prose, ed. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2003.