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The Use of Time in Mrs. Dalloway

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Towards the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, philosophers like William James and Henri Bergson came up with theories, which opposed the idea of time as an objective reality. According to them, time is never objective because it always depends on private experience of an individual. They claimed that time, like human consciousness, cannot be seen as linear, moving from one moment to the next, because time in human mind changes constatntly. It moves without any logic or reason from present to past and future. Simply, in our mind past, present and future can be experienced at the same moment. In his theory of duration, Henri Bergson explains that there are two times: private, or internal time, which is the real authentic time, and standard, public or clock time, which is, in fact, a mere social, artificial construct.[1] Modernist writers, such as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf were fascinated by the theories of time, which influenced greatly their works. In Mrs Dalloway, (1925), which may be considered 'the first important work of the literary period initiated by Ulysses'[2], Woolf is concerned with both, public and private time. In Mrs Dalloway, the public, or the clock time, is represented by the striking of Big Ben, the symbol of England and the precise time. The striking of the hours is repeated throughout the novel as a reminder of time, which restricts the lives of the characters, reminding them constantly of the time and their life passing, of their mortality. Clarsissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh are in their middle ages, period of lives, when they tend to think about their past and contemplate if they had made the right decisions. The constant presence of the hours striking interrupts their thoughts and warns them that the time passes: 'Big Ben was beginning to strike, first the warning; musical; then the hour, irrevocable.'[3] (Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.129). To escape from the cruel reality, measured by the public time, Clarissa wanders around London, thinking about the important moments of her past, tries to inhabit the lives of people she randomly meets in the streets and organizes parties. The parties, which might seem useless at first, are in fact quite important for Clarissa for two reasons. Firstly, she can escape from reality by preparing the party and worrying about small problems. Secondly, the party itself is a distortion from the constant flow of time. The party takes place in a timeless realm, which could be indicated by the fact, that the striking of Big Ben does not interrupt it. The function of the public time is not only to contrast the private time experienced by the individual characters, but it also operates as a kind of frame of the novel – it begins in the morning, moves to the afternoon and finishes towards the end of the party. It could be even stated, that the public time keeps the structure of the novel and keeps the individual characters together. Within a single page, for instance, the focus shifts from Clarissa to the Warren Smiths through the medium of Big Ben striking twelve: 'It was precisely twelve o'clock; twelve by Big Ben; whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London; blent with that of other clocks, mixed in a thin ethereal way with the clouds and wips of smoke and died up there among the seagulls – twelve o'clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed, and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street. Twelve was the hour of their appointment.' (p.104). This method is used many times in the novel, to shift without any explanation from one character to another. The private time is the prevailing time in the novel because the most of it is written in the technique of the stream consciousness, a potential of which Virginia Woolf recognized in this novel.[4] Thanks to this narrative technique, the readers are allowed an insight into variety of characters – they can see into the characters' mind, where past, present and future converges at the same time, where the time is measured subjectively. The stream of consciousness is therefore the best device to show how relative time is. Peter Walsh, for example, keeps coming back to the moment when Clarissa rejected him. For him, this moment seems to be much more important, than the thirty years of his life, which passed from that time because the thirty years did not change the way he felt about Clarissa. After all the things that he experienced during this time, he is still thinking about Clarissa, he is still in love with her. Peter is only one of the many characters, who seem to be trapped in their past. Clarissa also keeps remembering her past and tries to imagine what it would be like if she could live her life again. What would be different and what would be the same? Would she marry Richard again? Would stay with Peter? She spends most of the time thinking of the period of her life, when they were a couple with Peter and she felt strongly about Sally. It is difficult for her, however, to meet them both within one day after so many years, because the meeting reminds her of how much time has gone since her youth. Septimus Warren Smith is another character, who is unable to get reconciled with his past. He is the only one in the novel, who is directly influenced by the terrors of World War One and in fact, he has mentally never returned from the war. The inaccurate treatment of his serious mental illness, which was not recognized in that time, leads him to suicide. Shortly after his death, the public time suddenly seems to have a soothing function. While in shock, Septimus's wife starts to pay attention to the clock striking and the rhythm and reliability of the hours calms her down. At the moment, when nothing makes sense, she can at least rely on the striking of the hours: 'The clock was striking - one, two, three: how sensible the sound was; compared with all this thumping and whispering; like Septimus himslef.' (p.165). When Clarissa learns about Septimus's suicide, she is deeply affected by it: 'Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here's death, she thought.' (p. 201). At first, she is mainly shocked and also irritated, that death interrupted her party, because paradoxically, the party was an attempt to forget about the passing of time and of their lives, to forget about their own mortality for a few hours. By Septimus's suicide the message that death is unavoidable and could come any time is communicated. Clarissa thinks about his reasons of killing himself and also about the details of the act and in the end she seems to understand and even admires him. She interprets his suicide as an act of communication, which is often missing, or incomplete in the novel: 'They went on living […] they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. 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.' (p. 202). The relativity of time is demonstrated at many places throughout the novel. An important term, which reoccurs in the text, is “moment”. Each character remembers moments in their lives, which were so strong, so important for them, that they have kept them in memory even after many years. Single moments seem to be more important and precious to them these years of their life. A good example of it is Clarissa's thinking about Sally: 'Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turn upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally.' (p.40). This was such a strong moment for Clarissa, than she can picture it into the slightest detail even after thirty years. There are many good examples of the treatment of time in modernist texts in Mrs Dalloway. Unlike in Victorian novels, which were obsessed with chronology and logical passing of time, modernist texts show that time exists in different forms. The prevalence of private time in modernist fiction allows the writer to explore the mind of characters and it also makes the texts more poetic. The plots of novels like Mrs Dalloway or Joyce's Ulysses take place during a single day, but even within this relatively short period of time, the readers get to know details about the characters and their lives because they are made to think in terms of their personal time.

Fleishman, Avrom, Virginia Woolf. A Critical Reading.(Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975)
Kavanagh, Stephen, 'EN386 Modernism – Lecture I', 23 February 2009, National University of Ireland, Galway. Blackboard Academic Suite 25 March 2009.
McNichol, Stella, Virginia Woolf and the Poetry of Fiction, (London and New York: Routledge, 1990)
Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway, (London: Penguin Books, 1996)

[1] Stephen Kavanagh, 'EN386 Modernism – Lecture I', 23 February 2009, National University of Ireland, Galway. Blackboard Academic Suite 25 March 2009.
[2] Avrom Fleishman,, Virginia Woolf. A Critical Reading (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975) p. 69.
[3] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, (London: Penguis, 1975) p. 69.
[4] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, (London: Penguin Books, 1996) p. 129.
[5] Stella Mc Nichol, Virginia Woolf and the Poetry of Fiction (London, New York: Routledge, 1990) p. xii.

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