The Eye of the Story
Close Reading of Mrs. Dalloway
Although it might often be a cliche to say that time is of the essence, in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, it is particularly true. This paper examines her exploration of time in the novel, and the various techniques that she uses to convey different facets of how time is experienced.
On pages 10-12, the reader glimpses into Mrs. Dalloway’s mind, following her thoughts and her actions during this one seemingly mundane moment in her life, when she is walking through London to buy flowers for her party. In this moment, which probably takes up about fifteen minutes or a half an hour, on the one hand we are walking with Mrs. Dalloway up Bond Street to go to Mulberry’s, the florist shop, to buy flowers from Miss Pym, while we are also tracing her thoughts, from her displeasure at Elizabeth’s relationship to Miss Kilman, to how much she dislikes her tendency to not do things solely for herself, but to instead make a certain impression on others.
As she walks, her thoughts go to how much she dislikes her looks and would like to look more like Lady Bexborough, and from there she makes a commentary on the the ways in which women are seen in society merely as mothers and wives. She thinks about how “often now this body she wore…, this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing-nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only… this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more, this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway,” (10).
By taking us through Clarissa’s thoughts and actions, Woolf is giving the reader a glimpse into how people work, how every day is filled with the ordinary and the mundane, but also the unexpected, the life-changing, and how we always exist simultaneously on the inside of our bodies and the outside.
Time is itself a character that is present and woven throughout the novel, always there, important to each of the characters, whether it is mentioned by them or not. The whole novel takes place in a day, from Mrs. Dalloway going to buy the flowers early in the morning to when her party is almost over that night, and it also goes through Septimus’ last day alive. Even though the novel is bracketed in the day of the party, the actual content of the novel takes place over decades, because practically every character, even the very minor ones, have some sort of flashback to the past, such as Clarissa and Peter constantly thinking back to their days at Bourton.
There is a huge contrast in the book, where Woolf is showing the fluidity of time while constantly reminding the reader about what time it is presently in the book– the ticking of clocks is often brought up, such as when Richard is finished meeting Lady Bruton and is walking home to see Clarissa, and Big Ben begins to strike to signify the passing of the hour, “first the warning, musical; then the hour; irrevocable,” (114).
Woolf also plays with the idea of time both as an objective quantity, as with the constant references to clocks, and of time as an experience. The narration is often similar to stream of consciousness. Sometimes it is used to reflect people’s typical experience of time in consciousness, as one thought following another, somewhat random but also corresponding to the normal flow of time. But the narration also expresses an expansion and compression of time. Time is expanded, for example, when one moment in writing contains an enormous amount of experience and consciousness, such as when, as Mrs. Dalloway is walking up the street to get to the florist, she experiences a flood of thoughts, about her life, her decisions, thoughts about her own soul and how she feels about Miss Kilman, her hatred, and how much she is angry that she hates Miss Kilman but can’t seem to stop, because it’s always present in herself, never allowing her to “be content quite, or quite secure, for at any moment the brute would be stirring, this hatred,” (12). We experience compression in the reading similarly to how we experience it in life, in that the characters, like us, go back in their mind years and years, compressing time into a single moment or thought, such as when Mrs. Dalloway is reflecting on Miss Kilman and how she, Miss Kilman, has worn the same coat all the years she’s known her, and in that one moment is reminded of all of the negative feelings that Mrs. Dalloway has felt towards her compressed into one memory.
Even the format and structure of Mrs. Dalloway is another way that Woolf deliberately plays with the idea of time as both fixed and fluid. There are no chapters– it is just one continuous narrative. There are small breaks to signify a shifting of the character focus, but nothing abrupt, final. The narration of the characters’ internal world shows how their consciousness does not exist in a single experience of time; rather, their thoughts are constantly shifting between the past, present, and future. The structure of the novel is also conveying this sense of time being very fluid: there isn’t really an introduction or conclusion in the usual sense of the word. The reader has a sense of just suddenly being thrown into this world of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith for a day, no more and no less, just as their lives would be– their lives don’t merely exist in the pages of the novel. They had a life before the novel takes place and their lives, with the exception of Septimus, will continue after the novel’s last sentence.