by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway Theme of Time
One of the amazing things about Mrs Dalloway is the creative use of time. The novel starts in an early morning in June 1923 and ends the next day at 3am; that means fewer than twenty-four hours pass during the course of the story. This compact use of time means that you have to read closely because every moment counts. Because of this, a lot happens in the course of just a few minutes (usually in thoughts more than in actions). For example, characters will flash back to the past at Bourton, and recall elaborate stories, while in present time only a few minutes have passed. We (and the characters) are constantly reminded of time by Big Ben, London’s giant clock tower, which is sounding off the hours through the entire novel. This is particularly poignant for Clarissa whose preoccupation with time relates to her fear of death. She’s deeply aware that as time passes, she gets closer to death, and she feels odd that life will go on just the same without her. Just as she knows that time existed long before her, she’s aware that it will go on long after her bones have turned to dust.
Questions About Time
- How does the novel’s short time span affect the way we read the story? What would be different if we were reading about an entire year of these characters' lives?
- Why does Woolf allow Big Ben to interrupt the story so many times?
- Does Clarissa live in the moment or does she dwell on the future and past? What about Septimus? Peter?
Chew on This
Time is a terrible thing, at least as Clarissa sees it.
The story would have been more complete if we saw more than one day of the characters' lives: then we could get to know them all better.