In our fast moving world, especially for young people the concept of time means different than for people in the past. Nowadays, people are always in a hurry and it is said that today’s generation cannot appreciate the moment and experiences. Later, they realize that although, they lived many decades, they forgot to live the life itself. Time is for free, but at the same time it is said to be priceless. In the novel of Virginia Woolf time has a significant role, which can be measured in many different ways. The present essay is going to depict measurements of time in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Firstly, at the beginning of the novel, Clarissa says that she feels very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. It could mean that basically she is young, but also feels old because of the numerous experiences from the past. According to Jörg Hasler, “a mere glance at Virginia Woolf’s bibliography reveals her deep and constant preoccupation with the phenomenon of time” (145). The story includes many flashbacks and details about the characters, from which they can be introduced more precisely.
Secondly, there are moments in the novel, when the presence of greatness is depicted, for instance when people do not know who is in the car, but they feel something extraordinary; which means that they feel the significance of the moment. What is more, Clarissa wonders about death, and how life will go on without her after she dies, which indicates that time is limitless; she thinks that after her death she will be still present and remembered, so in a way she will become immortal. These examples show that time can be subjective; it has a different meaning for everybody.
Furthermore, there are moments in our lives when we feel that we pass hours, but in real life it is only a few minutes or on the contrary, when we realise how time flies and we spend hours reading a book thinking that it is only a few minutes. Reading can give that particular feeling, especially when the story is fascinating and we cannot stop reading it. It does not always matter what time it is according to the clock, but it is more important how we feel our inner time. It is like the same when we are asked about how old we are. Basically, it does not matter, because it is more important how we feel ourselves. The human consciousness has its own time system, which shows the duration of emotions and experience. The time system of the mind is subjective and personal, whereas the clock indicates time that is objective and public.
Basically, there are two different types of time, which include the time that the calendar and clock tell and time in the human mind. These two types of time can be separated from each other. Clock time orders events in a chronological sequence according to when they happened in time. It is what history is made of: minutes, hours, days, weeks, years and centuries.
The other type of time is the experience in the human mind, which is flexible and can be compressed or extended. It is the reason why in the mind seems to pass very quickly in comparison to clock time. It is still in question why the human consciousness is able to create an individual time-system, but it can give us unforgettable moments in our lives.
The novel does not have a chapter indication; it is presented as one large chapter entitled Mrs Dalloway. Although, the novel does not have chapters, the narrative is divided into units as Big Ben strikes the hours. The lack of a chapter division in the novel also creates a continuous flow of psychological time.
In her biographical novel Orlando, published in 1928, Virginia Woolf voices her fascination with the contrast between clock time and psychological time:
The time of man works with strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer elements of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented by the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation. (qtd. in Hasler 147)
The flow of psychological time can also be represented by the seemingly random associations of the mind. A character recalls a certain moment in the past, which is relevant to the present situation, so the function of recollection is not only to reflect on the past. Memories can have such a significant role, they have an impact on our personality.
Peter Childs argues that Woolf uses the striking of Big Ben to contrast private with public time, which is essentially the same as psychological and clock time. As Childs mentions
Virginia Woolf may start to describe a character’s thoughts when a clock begins striking the hour, report those thoughts for several pages and then return to the character’s awareness of the clock finishing striking. In public time only a few seconds have passed, but in the character’s mind it may be nearer to several minutes. (171)
Big Ben is an image that repeatedly reminds the characters and the reader of the fact that reality keeps running according to clock time. It also reminds us of death, indicating that we are closer to it with every single minute. Death is the moment when clock time has run out. Although, we get to know several stories and events, the whole novel takes place in a single day, which means that most of the happenings emerge from the past and we also get to know the character’s thoughts. In a general sense, the thoughts are not only connected by the sound of the Big Ben as it strikes the hour, but also by other external events in the world, such as the sound of a motorcar or the sights of an airplane in the sky.
The clock has an important role in the novel. As Peter Childs says “the striking of the clock “breaks up the novel into hours and sections” (Modernism 171). Beside breaking up the novel, it also breaks up the characters’ psychological time flow, indicating that they all belong together in the world of reality. It also may be remarked that that the passing of time is irregular, the number of pages used to describe a certain amount of time changes. For instance, the moment from a quarter to twelve until twelve o’clock takes thirty pages and the next two and a half hours take the same space in the book. Some moments are more important than others and take more space in the text.
Anna Benjamin indicates why Virginia Woolf uses clock time:
When time is stated exactly by Woolf, it is 1) to indicate the simultaneity of certain acts; 2) to provide a transition from one character to another; 3) to provide a transition from the present to past; 4) to suggest the fact that characters are bound together by time. (217)
Memories from the past explain who they are, so with the help of memories we get to know them better and realise what happened in the past, so in consequence we understand their behaviour. Furthermore, memories are a necessary part of understanding the present and it has an impact on our lives and personality. World War I has a significant role in Septimus’ life. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning back from the war. In this case the war and his illness can be interpreted as a type of measurement of time, because war is a defined period in history and we can compare events to it; what is more, the life of individuals can also be a form of measurement of time.
Beside the striking of the clock, Clarissa is the one, who brings people together by organising the party, but at the same time she loses herself. As it is mentioned in the novel
Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. Oh if she could have had her life over again! she thought, stepping on to the pavement, could have looked even differently! (7-8)
As we can see, Mrs Dalloway feels that she wasted her time on people, whom she does not even like. She always wanted to gain their sympathy, so as to become popular among them. However, she realizes that she does not live her life as she imagined before, but she does live her life as other people require and she is afraid of the dwindling of time and life. As it is depicted in the novel “she feared time itself, and read on Lady Bruton’s face, as if it had been a dial cut in impassive stone, the dwindling of life” (22).
Everybody thinks that they have time, but it is not true. We tend to live a life that we do not want to and waste it for not being ourselves. The so called mindfulness is the key to feel every moment; to be able to live our lives not only survive.
• Hasler, Jörg. “Virginia Woolf and the Chimes of Big Ben.” English Studies. A Journal of English Language and Literature. vol. 63, no. 1/6, 1982, pp. 145-147.
• Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway
• Childs, Peter. Modernism. London: Routledge, 2000.
• Benjamin, Anna S. “Towards an Understanding of the Meaning of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature. vol. 6, no. 2, 1965, p. 217.