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Clock-time and Psychological Time in Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”

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    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. -Virginia Woolf

    The purpose of this paper is to take a more insightful look at how time is perceived and felt by human beings, while analyzing the characters’ external interactions and their inner dialogue in Mrs Dalloway, whilst also placing the focus on women’s role in society during that period of time and the mental health of the characters.

    Starting from Virginia Woolf’s quote, we notice in her work an interest in differentiating between clock time and psychological time and presenting these two elements in opposition. In Mrs Dalloway, the theme of time is the crucial standpoint from which the whole story evolves. One of the most important aspects that places an emphasis on the notion of ‘time’ is the fact that the narration of the book is set during the length of a single day. Despite this, most of the action does not happen during the summer day that is described in Mrs Dalloway. Instead, we get a glimpse inside the minds of the characters and we get to know their most intimate and private thoughts that extend far back in time.

    One of the most significant motifs of the novel is represented by Big Ben. The book is not divided by chapters, but by the sound of the clock as it strikes during certain hours. Essentially, the novel is made up from all the memories, thoughts and interactions that tie one character to another. All the people in the story, except for one, are in distress at the notion of time. The single character that is not affected by this is the woman singing at the Regent’s Park Tube station, since she sings the same song over and over again, as a testament of the circularity of life and time.

    Humans are the the only species over which the perception of time has such a tremendous influence. It is something that creates anxiety, fear and discipline; it controls our life painstakingly without most of us realizing its power over us. It is subconsciously where we are most affected by it. Clarissa Dalloway, perhaps the main protagonist of the book, tries to lead a fairly normal and happy life. While the story begins with her getting prepared for a party she will hold in the evening, we get to witness her most personal thoughts: she is lively and exuberant externally, yet she is very self-conscious and puts a lot of thought into what others might think of her. Despite her apparent carefree and wealthy life as the wife of an upper-class citizen, Richard Dalloway, she is afflicted by constant worrying about tragedy and death. During the period of time the novel takes place, women’s role in society wasn’t a significantly important one. They were not guided to follow higher education or careers, but their sole purpose in life was to be good mothers and wives. Elizabeth, Clarissa’s daughter, is now a young woman and doesn’t need her mother’s guidance and care, which makes Clarissa feel lost and confused about what she is supposed to do with her time. She finds that the only thing she’s in control of is organizing parties and preserving a good image in society, despite of how she truly feels inside. While taking a walk around the city, she has worrying thoughts regarding death and the passing of time. She realizes that she is now a middle-aged woman, and struggles to find comfort and embrace her sexuality due to her aging body. Women, during that period of time, were not influenced to accept and appreciate themselves, as complex human beings and embrace their intellect, but also their beauty at any age. Thus, Virginia Woolf’s novel treats the question of time in concordance with the issue surrounding women’s rights and feminism.

    When Clarissa meets Hugh Whitbread, she feels intimidated by his presence – he is a well-dressed, good-looking man, something that only makes Clarissa feel “very sisterly and oddly conscious at the same time of her hat” (Woolf, 4). She finds it difficult to find her appeal and sexuality, and feels rather silly and insecure in her garments. Furthermore, Clarissa’s doubts go much deeper: despite the fact that she has been married for a long time, Clarissa’s most intimate, romantic and intense memories are related to Sally Saton, a woman she met at Bourton and appreciated dearly in her youth: “Sally’s power was amazing, her gift, her personality”(Woolf, 28). The young women shared an emotional connection and Clarissa felt with Sally the strongest communicative bond she had ever shared with someone: “She (Clarissa) knew nothing about sex – nothing about social problems. There they say, hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world.”(Woolf, 28) Unfortunately, in those times it was socially unacceptable to express fondness and be involved with someone of the same gender, so Clarissa has to carry the burden of not fulfilling her true desires and conforming instead to a trivial and traditional, while becoming more and more aware of the fact that time is fleeting and she cannot do anything about it.

    In spite of how many years have passed until she last saw Sally, those moments still feel recent, electric and powerful: time could not affect their significance.

    During her stroll around London, Clarissa thinks of another important person who was once part of her life. Peter Walsh was a man Clarissa nearly married. Her memories of Peter are pleasant, yet there can be a certain tension sensed in their dialogues:”

    “But Peter – however beautiful the day might be, and the trees and the grass, and the little girl in pink-Peter never saw a thing of all that. He would put on his spectacles, if she told him to; he would look. It was the state of the world that interested him; Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul. How he scolded her! How they argued! She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.”(Woolf, 6)

    Although Peter might have been harsh towards Clarissa, we can draw the conclusion from their whole interaction that Peter did love her in the past, and he was still in love with her after all these years. Peter was coarse towards her and seemed somehow distant, being too caught in his own thoughts, which made their relationship take a wrong turn and eventually end. He made fun of Clarissa and teased her about marrying a man from the good society and keeping parties – something which bothered Clarissa and hurt her feelings, but something that turned out to be true.

    Seeing her again created a tumult of emotions inside Peter. He visits Clarissa, and they discuss their current lives. We find out that Peter is married but going through a divorce, and that his feelings for Clarissa are still as strong as before. He is nervous and cannot stop wondering about what his life would have been with Clarissa, while Clarissa asks herself if she would have been happier if she had married Peter instead of Richard Dalloway: “She looked at Peter Walsh; her look, passing through all that time and that emotion, reached him doubtfully; settled on him tearfully; and rose and fluttered away, as a bird touches a branch and rises and flutters away. Quite simply she whiped her eyes.” (Woolf, 37)

    Peter Walsh, despite what his behaviour in society might seem like, is a very insecure and troubled man. He is liked by people and he is a pleasant company, but he is also greatly belittling of himself, while he projects his insecurities even on others, such as on Clarissa. Peter constantly has to remind himself that he is not in love with Clarissa anymore, nor that he cares about what she or Richard Dalloway think of him: “He was not old, or set, or dried in the least. As for caring what they said of him – The Dalloways, the Whitbreads, and their set, he cared not a straw – not a straw.”(Woolf, 43). The continual positive affirmations Peter makes to himself only reinforce the idea that he actually believes their opposite meaning to be true. The reality of time’s constant and interminable movement is taking a toll on Peter’s mental health, and the anticipation of a certain and possibly close death is afflicting him. He is so frightened at the thought of his life being depleted of meaning that he follows an unknown, young woman in the streets of London, creating a new reality for a short period of time, in which he forgets about his anxieties.

    The shift of the story moves then, to a married couple in the park. Septimus and Lucrezia Smith are a young couple facing problems. Septimus suffers of mental illness ever since he came back from the war, and his Italian wife is his only support. Sir William Brandshaw and Dr. Holmes, Septimus’ doctors, are rather harmful to him – they either say that there is nothing wrong with the young man, or if their methods of treatment don’t work on him, then he is the one to blame. Sir William Bradshaw has little consideration for his patient and claims that if his therapy doesn’t bring positive results on him, Septimus will be declared insane.

    In the end, Septimus is constrained to commit suicide. He doesn’t want to die, but he considers death a better alternative than to surrender his soul to his doctors. He feels restrained to take part in Dr. Holmes therapy. Despite the fact that the man had given many indicators regarding his attempts to suicide, nobody wants to take the blame for letting him commit the act. Instead, William Bradshaw and Dr. Holmes name it an impulse, and condemn his ‘insanity’ as a factor.

    Septimus is said to be Clarissa’s parallel character in the book. When she hears the news about the young man who committed suicide during her party, she felt furious that someone would bring up such a bleak subject during what’s supposed to be a pleasant gathering. Soon after, she finds herself thinking about the stranger who took his life. She starts to appreciate Septimus for being brave enough to choose death instead of a controlled life. Clarissa then proceeds to feel guilty and remorseful for marrying Richard and choosing a normal and comforting life, when she could have been more courageous and follow her own passions. Again, Shakespeare’s line from Othello comes back to her mind, “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy.” Clarissa finds comfort in these words and comes to terms with her aging and the that sooner or later she is going to die.

    Clarissa, Septimus and Peter are characters who worry about the passing of time and about the way they have lived their existences. Their pessimistic views and depression are a constant distress, while Septimus also suffers of post-traumatic stress disorder and cannot get any help. It is a tragic realistic portray about how humans need to feel listened and understood, about the importance of freedom and the need for companionship while preserving the need for privacy. As Michael Cunningham has said, Mrs Dalloway is “one of the most moving, revolutionary artworks of the twentieth century.”


    1. Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway. London: Vintage Classics, 2016. Print

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