Time and Space in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

One glance at Virginia Woolf’s bibliography tells you that she was preoccupied with exploring the relationship between time and space. For example, in the same year as Mrs Dalloway (1925) was published Woolf wrote an essay titled ‘Modern Fiction’ which challenged the traditional linear Edwardian style of writing and describes her alternative route;

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions- trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpest of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old….. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

(Woolf, V. 1996:1)

Mrs Dalloway, Woolf’s fourth novel incorporates this vision enabling her to turn away from the traditional linear mode of writing and incorporate a more inclusive style and representation of the current modes of thinking. This essay will provide a brief overview of the prominent influential thinkers of the Modernist period and then move onto how Woolf provides her social critique through the exploration of these psychological, philosophical and scientific musings centred on time, in relation to the novel.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) set the psychological lay of the land with his theories of psychoanalysis, oedipal complex and femininity. As he delved into the interior space of consciousness, dreams and the psyche  he influenced spheres of  thought across academic disciplines and arguably governs much of psychoanalytic thought to this day[1]. Although Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s publishing company, Hogarth Press was the first to publish Sigmund Freud’s work in English Virginia was very wary of his ideas;

“I have not studied Dr Freud or any psychoanalyst – indeed I think I have never read any of their books: my knowledge is merely from superficial talk. Therefore any use of their methods must be instinctive.”

(Nicholson, N et al. 1975:36)

Displaying disinterest and scepticism in psychoanalysis, Woolf nevertheless admits an influence which ‘must be instinctive’.

Henri-Louis Bergson’s (1859-1941) philosophy was also highly influential in the 1920’s. Within his writings (Bergson, H. 2007) of the early 20th century Henri Bergson’s philosophical discourse describes intuition and immediate experience as being more significant than rational science as the basis for understanding reality. Bergson focused on memory, interior time, exterior time and intuition. Interior time, according to Bergson is entirely incomprehensible to science (Ibid), regarding it as flexible, in flux, compressed and layered with memory (which provides the link of the past to the present).[2]

Within the same period, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was pivotal in advancing scientific thought on relativity, seeing the relationship between time and space as inseparable (Lunqvist, S. 1998: 20). Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 and thought of as the father of modern physics, Einstein’s thinking would have been highly prominent within intellectual circles in London of the 1920’s, of which continue to this day.

Bearing these three ideologies in mind with the understanding that everything is interconnected we will now turn to Mrs Dalloway to see how Woolf explores these ideas of time and space within the realm of the novel.

     Mrs Dalloway (1925) tells the story of Clarissa Dalloway and a single day in London in 1923. Put into context it is five years after World War One, Queen Victoria has been dead for twenty years, George V is on the throne and the modern world is gaining momentum. Cars and planes provide new modes of transport and advertising is merging with the latest technology as a means of mass communication. In short, the 1920’s is a rapidly changing society. With this in mind the narration of the story reflects the changing times as Woolf plays with form within the novel. The story is in chronological order only in so far as real time is related, the use of flashbacks and memory create a montage of interior (private space) time. Woolf uses Big Ben as an image which represents not only the start of a new ‘chapter’ or turning point in the novel but also as a means by which the reader and the characters regain a sense of the here and now, a ‘waking up’ from the interior to the exterior reality. The chimes of Big Ben punctuate the novel with reality, bringing the reader and the characters back to exterior time (public space) while at the same time providing links between characters. The technologies of the modern world all serve the same function; the aeroplane sky-writing, the car backfiring and Big Ben chiming represent a London hurtling towards modernity. The technique serves to split the novel and unify the interior with exterior and memory with the present. The images depict a new era emerging from the ashes relentless with progress and measured in the linear of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and centuries…Woolf presents modernity as a society in conflict, juxtaposing modern symbols with interior dialogue.  Within this intricacy however, not much happens in the novel in clock time yet the somewhat mundane happenings of the day create a sense of the linear and ground our understanding of the interpenetration and workings of the interior/exterior space.

In her diary entry of August 30th 1923 Woolf refers to her ‘tunnelling process’;

“How I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment” (Woolf, L. 1982: 60)

Her tunnelling technique is evident within Mrs Dalloway and displays her image of the ‘spider’s web’ structure of literary work (Ibid). By digging caves out from behind her characters into their pasts she creates ‘tunnels’’ through which they merge and connect at specific moments within the narrative. Woolf’s use of indirect speech which is not provided in inverted commas and continues without pause links the realities of her characters together. This grammatical style entwined with the use of flashbacks result in a complex and intricate understanding of individuals within the narrative, with differing timelines, all meeting in the collectively in the same place.

Another way in which Woolf unites characters is through repetition.  Clarissa, Septimus and Peter Walsh all recite lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (which celebrates death after a difficult life) at some point within their own narrative creating a tunnel with each other which connects through time and space. This technique enables Woolf to merge not only interior and exterior time but also memory with the present creating the ‘spider’s web’ resulting in the party. For example, the surfacing of events throughout the day occurs through memories and recollections which are involuntarily triggered. On leaving the house to buy flowers for the party Clarissa experiences a memory of Bourton through the “squeak of the hinges which she could hear now” (Woolf, V. 1996:3). Here we have a clear example of how Woolf weaves  memory with the present reality, providing an intimate window into Clarissa’s interior life.

Woolf’s skill in the use of memory to unite characters is entwined with her use of shared experience. The characters of Clarissa and Septimus mirror each other and run parallel in the narrative, never meeting yet intimately linked. The first indication of this is at the start of the novel as a noise shocks Clarissa, “- oh! a pistol shot in the street outside!” (Woolf, V. 1996; 14). Woolf switches the narration from Clarissa to third person to introduce Septimus, a war veteran suffering from shell shock who is standing still on the pavement of Bond Street;

The violent explosion which made Mrs Dalloway jump and Miss Pym go to the window and apologise came from a motor car….. Passers-by who, of course, stopped and stared, had just time to see a face of the very greatest importance against the dove-grey upholstery… Septimus Warren Smith … found himself unable to pass. (Ibid. 11)

The narration shifts to Septimus and his wife’s perspective for the next page before switching back again to Clarissa. This interlinking of characters through the technique of memory and her detailed use of narration connects Woolf’s character’s lives through their individual yet shared experience.

The finale of the novel with the climax of the party (public, exterior time)  involves the weaving together of all the characters memories and thoughts which have been introduced through the novel. The result is an experience and a deep sense of temporality. As Clarissa hears of Septimus suicide (from his Doctors wife) she retreats to a room and identifies with him, admiring him for having taken the plunge and for not compromising his soul. She reflects that “Life is made intolerable; they make life intolerable, men like that?” (Woolf, 1996: 134), seemingly she understands that the Doctor would have been of no help. This is a crucial part to the novel; here is the moment of introspection where we hear Virginia’s own voice and critique on the treatment of mental illness within a room of her own, at the party. The snippets of the lives of those within Mrs Dalloway accumulate to this point, to Virginia and then with the chiming of Big Ben, it is back to reality.

This essay has looked at how Virginias novel and letters reflect the main thoughts and musing of the intellectual Modernist period. Woolf’s literary genius enabled her to explore deep philosophical, psychological and scientific ruminations through the written word, creating a spider’s web of many colours with a female perspective on the patriarchal world in which she lived.













Work Cited.

Bergson, Henri-Louis. Matter and Memory. New York: Cosimo, Inc, 2007. Print.

Lundqvist, Stig. Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921. The Netherlands: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1998. Print.

Mitchel, Stephen, A and Black, Margaret, J. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1995. Print.

Nicolson, N and Trautmann, J. Ed. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. London: Hogarth Press, 1975. Print.

Woolf, Leonard. Ed. Woolf, Virginia. A Writers Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf.  London: Harcourt, Inc, 1982. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction”. The Common Reader. UK: Hogarth Press, 1925. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1996. Print.





[1] Freud’s work in relation to modern thinking is written extensively about in Freud and Beyond. 1995.

[2] Although there is no indication that Woolf had a deep understanding of his work neither could she have escaped his central ideas which are clearly explored within Mrs Dalloway.

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