Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Dalloway tells a story about the quality, the depth, and the composition of time. Woolf reveals the complexity of the passage of time in her novel Mrs. Dalloway by focusing attention on the struggles of each character to find their own meaning. The entire novel is set within a single day, which lengthens and explores the time beneath the surface of events. Ricoeur defines the dimensions in Woolf’s book as: monumental (or historical) time is determined “by figures of authority or power”; “clock” time is experienced by characters through their own actions (such as buying flowers, going to the park), and “individual reflection” is used by characters as they explore the depths of the past. Woolf creates a complex network of time dimensions that interact with one another to create Mrs. Dalloway’s narrative.
Woolf’s characters oscillate between time dimensions, creating a “temporal deepening” of experience, memory, and reflection. Clarissa Dalloway, in the novel, is compelled to act out her thoughts and memories. This includes buying flowers, fixing her dress, and speaking with Peter Walsh. This parallel process is evident from the first words of the book: “Mrs. Dalloway claimed that she’d buy the flower herself. Lucy was going to have a lot of work. Clarissa is thinking and making a statement. This moment is a combination of two different experiences. Clarissa will “buy flowers herself”, but there is also the thought that accompanies her words. Clarissa’s thoughts about Lucy are a reflection upon the actions she has taken. Clarissa is experiencing two dimensions of the time in this moment.
Woolf then adds a layer of depth in the sentences following: “And Clarissa thought, what a fresh morning, like one issued to children playing on the beach…For this had always been the case for her when…she smashed open the French Windows and plunged Bourton in to the open air.” Clarissa reflects back to the past as she considers her present actions and thoughts. Ricoeur says that this gives the novel depth. The reader is pulled into the past even as events take place and actions continue in the current. This brings to light the inner turmoils, complexities, and conflicts of every action. Time is more than what it seems because thoughts and memories are constantly running in the background.
Woolf’s characters struggle with monumental time, just as they do to understand its constraints. Ricoeur describes monumental history as a secretion (or expression) of monumental time. As a result of the summation and accumulation of experience, clock time advances. Clock time advances as a summation of individual experience.
Clarissa struggles to reconcile the personal events she has experienced with this historic time. She races the clock to find meaning for her life despite it appearing empty. Clarissa is punctuated throughout the day by the bells from Big Ben. Clarissa is struck by “…a sense of solemnity or hush before Big Ben strikes. The conflict in Mrs. Dalloway is that the ticks and tocks of Big Ben show her age, but her memories and thoughts still seem youthful. She feels “very old, and yet, incomprehensibly young,” worrying that her life’s natural end is close, but still confident. She wonders often what she would do “…if her life could be relived …” Clarissa is lost in the present, a victim to time’s relentless advance.
Septimus has to fight monumental time in parallel. Both He and Clarissa must decide how to navigate monumental time. Clarissa encounters monumentality through the hourly strikes from Big Ben. Septimus is confronted by it when it takes the form of WWI and Dr. Bradshaw. Septimus’s death is a torture for him. Septimus, though they were friends, was indifferent to Evans’ death. Far from feeling any emotion, or realizing that a friendship had ended, he instead congratulated his self for being so numb.
He feels guilty for not feeling sad when his friend died. Septimus is constantly repeating that he cannot feel. His brain must be perfect, so it’s the world’s problem that he can’t. He feels bad for not feeling sorrow when his close friend died. This guilt prevents him from moving forward. Ricouer’s monumental period is once again in play. Septimus feels tormented by the world but is really being tortured by figures of power. Septimus is reminded of his friend’s death by strangers and the car backfire. His friend was killed in the war, and his ability of feeling remorse was taken away. Now, time has made him a prisoner, constantly reminding him about his loss.
The word ‘time,’ split the husk. It poured all its riches onto him. And from his mouth, words that are hard, white and indestructible, fell, as if they were shavings off a plane. He belted out a tune. Evans replied from behind a tree.
Septimus shouted, “For God’s Sake don’t Come!” Because he couldn’t look at the dead.
He feels tortured by the passing of time as it displays his ghosts everywhere. Septimus demonstrates how time can make him mad. His inability in dealing with his loss is reinforced by the figures in monumental time. This makes him unable of finding meaning in the universe.
Woolf’s characters struggle with the tension they experience between monumentality of time and their own personal meaning. Anyone who wishes to be content must overcome this tension. Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway are both characterized by their struggle to overcome this tension. Clarissa overcomes her disorientation through the beauty of the moment: “these Flowers,” “[t]his Moment of June”. She returns to the belief that beauty and meaning are not found in others’ approval, but rather in her own simple pleasures. Septimus does not achieve this clarity. He thinks that his only option is to “…escape and go to Italy (or anywhere else) without telling Holmes. This is impossible. Septimus recognizes he won’t triumph in the end. He exclaims, “So they were in his power!” Just before he throws him out of the windows, he tells himself. Holmes and Bradshaw had him! Septimus has won the contest. Clarissa, too, triumphs. Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s first love, says, “For that she was.” Clarissa, on the other hand, continues living and tries to find meaning to life. Septimus commits suicide to escape this monumental time.
Do all these struggles to find a way to reconcile monumental and personal time, to understand the hidden meanings behind the “clock-time” surface actions, to explore the ways that memory influences thought in order to affect character behaviour, lead to a singular experience of time, or not? The opposite is true; the novel’s experience of time is complex and multidimensional, not singular. But monumental time and clock time are also interconnected with memory, thought, personal experience, and even the characters themselves. Woolf reinterprets time as a complex, interwoven system that gives a humanistic view of humanity. Woolf believes that people’s actions may not be the best way to see them, but that they are made up of many thoughts, feelings, and memories. Septimus’ fate is not to be judged. It should instead be seen as a victim of a rapidly advancing world.
Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative: Vol. Two. Kathleen Translated the French version.
McLaughlin, David Pellauer. The University of Chicago Press published a book in 1985 in Chicago.
Woolf, Virginia et al. The Mrs. Dalloway reader Francine Prose, ed. Harcourt Inc. published a book in New York in 2003.