The fictive experience of time through Mrs. Dalloway

  1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: A Modernist Novel
  2. Time on the surface level of Mrs. Dalloway
  3. Time and Virginia Woolf’s novel technique
  4. The fictive experience of time through Mrs. Dalloway

Now the reader’s experience must be studied because, when all is said and done, it is the way in which the complexity of time is felt that constitutes part of the interest (part of the pleasure) we derive from reading “Mrs. Dalloway”.

‘Monumental’ time versus private time

Virginia Woolf suggests that time is not uniform, time is not the same for everyone at the same moment. The experience of time is filtered through the characters’ consciousness.

We may distinguish between two forms of time: ‘monumental time’ and ‘private time’. Monumental time is the time of the clocks: Big Ben striking the ‘irrevocable hour’, but it is also the time of the power, of the authorities, of the institutions that fix working hours and regulate the lives of ‘well-balanced people’. Private time is subjective; it is torn apart (asunder) between memory (the past) and expectation: looking forward to future events.

What Virginia Woolf subtly shows is that ‘monumental time’, for example, the chiming of Big Ben, arouses different responses and touches off different echoes according to the characters. Of course, the chiming of Big Ben is objectively the same for everyone at the same instant, however, Virginia Woolf sets out to show that they affect characters differently according to the state of mind and disposition they find themselves in, on the spur of the moment.

When Big Ben strikes half past eleven, Peter Walsh leaves Mrs Dalloway whom he has just seen again after a long absence: “…the direct downright sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour (The leaden circles dissolved in the air)” (44).

The imperious chiming of the bells first makes Peter think that Clarissa has changed, that she has hardened with age: “Clarissa had grown hard, he thought” (45).

Then, as the bells go on ringing, it dawns upon him that Clarissa has always been cold and distant: “Still the last tremors of the great booming voice shook the air round him; the half-hour; still early; only half-past eleven still!)”.

A few seconds later, when the bells of St Margaret start tinkling, Peter Walsh is overcome by a sudden emotion at the thought that Clarissa’s pallor may be a forerunner of her approaching death. Clarissa has not fully recovered from her recent illness and the fact that she could be nearing death, cannot be overlooked: “The sound of St Margaret’s glides into the recesses of the heart and buries itself in ring after ring of sound”.

Virginia Woolf investigates the subtle nuances and inflexions that chronological time – here the bells – may produce in a character’s subjectivity. She is interested in showing how the clapper of a bell may send ripples through the minds of the protagonists and awaken deep-buried recollections.

Time and the confrontation of life and death

Septimus Warren Smith and Clarissa Dalloway are the two central characters in Mrs Dalloway. It can be said that their respective relationships to time show why the former, Septimus Warren, is condemned to take his own life, while the latter Clarissa Dalloway, will survive. Clarissa will not perish because she is still able to come to terms with the ‘monumental time’: the time of the institutions.

Septimus Warren has lost touch with time; he is convinced that he is ahead of the others, that he has been elected to pass on a message and that he is informed before all the others of what is to come in the future:

“he, Septimus, was alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth.”

Then in his hallucinations, Septimus has the vision of his dead friend Evans coming towards him. Evans, who was killed during the Great War, suddenly pushes the branches aside to become visible:

“But the branches parted. A man in grey was actually walking towards him. It was Evans! But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed.” (63)

There is no longer any boundary between the dead and the living, time is ‘out of joint’. Then, in his troubled mind, Septimus imagines that the word time suddenly loses all its authority; time metaphorically breaks up into snatches of sentences; it implodes. Septimus realizes that time is an obstacle that prevents him from perceiving the unity of life experience. Time divides, separates and fragments so that suicide cannot be interpreted only negatively. Death may be the only way to escape the meaninglessness of the world, a universal insignificance that only a few writing geniuses were able to underline in their writings:

“How Shakespeare loathed humanity – the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidness of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, and despair.”

Clarissa’s relationship with time is more ambiguous. On the one hand, she is capable of submitting herself to the objective order of monumental time, yet on the other hand, the news of Septimus’s suicide touches her in her innermost self. So, in her heart of hearts, she is not fundamentally different from Septimus.

Clarissa is a lady of the world, she is a lady of fashion; she plays the ‘perfect hostess’ to the mighty, and she entertains the Prime Minister to dinner. For all these reasons, she is on the side of ‘monumental time’, on the side of the established order. Yet, paradoxically, she is also close to Septimus, whom she has never seen, let alone met. Early in the day, Mrs Dalloway’s attention is caught by two lines by Shakespeare which she sees in a bookshop window:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages

William Shakespeare, Cymbeline

These two lines are a dirge: a slow, sad lament for a funeral, extracted from Cymbeline. In fact in Shakespeare’s play, if the sun is no longer to be feared, it is because the shadow of death has fallen. Now, it must be remembered that those same words ‘Fear no more’ will be spoken by Septimus just before his suicide: “Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more.”

Clarissa’s obsession with those same lines, Shakespeare’s lines from Cymbeline, shows that, despite her love of life, she too is attracted by nothingness. There is a form of courage in daring to come to grips with death. Clarissa is convinced that there is a value attached to death which might justify the decision to sacrifice one’s life:

Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death. Through this reflection upon the meaning of death, Clarissa echoes Septimus’s own words and therefore the decision she makes to go on living appears like a challenge. It is a courageous choice to stick to life in solitude; alone, even among the community of one’s fellow contemporaries.


In our conclusion, we must try to answer our initial question, namely (viz, to wit) ‘what in the treatment of time makes Mrs Dalloway a modernist novel?’. First, we can say that Mrs Dalloway emphasizes the subjective dimension of human experience, so that time is seized through the echoes that it produces in the consciousness. Time is at all moments composed of various layers (recollections, present perceptions, a state of expectancy turned to the future), various layers that are intertwined.

Time is also perceived at the very instant when it occurs to the characters’ consciousness; the sudden chiming of the bell makes the characters become suddenly aware of what the passing of time implies for their destiny. It follows from this that time is metaphysical, it is not only used to structure the narrative, to fix landmarks, to give objective bearings, time is not merely chronology to organise the narrative: “post hoc, ergo propter hoc“, time reveals the abysses in the human psyche.

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