The Significance of Time in Mrs. Dalloway

Lisa Armentrout

Writer’s comment: Whenever I read, I want to find a way to relate the content to the present—to my life as well as to society at large. Words have little meaning unless I can apply them to my daily life. Therefore, each time I read something, I see it as an opportunity to integrate new concepts into my personal life or my perspective on society. Furthermore, learning becomes an exciting, challenging experience when I can use the knowledge to enhance my life. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s message about time struck me as thoughtful and pertinent to our lives in the 1990s. In a society obsessed with efficiency and progress, we often forget to appreciate the present. Our fast-paced environment concerns me because it detracts from our quality of life. In writing my essay, I wanted to show the connection between our daily lives and the ideas expressed by Woolf. In a masterful novel, Woolf exposes a perspective on time which we should incorporate into our attitudes. If we slow down enough to live in the present and understand it, both the present and the future can improve. It was exciting to discover the relevance of Virginia Woolf’s message, even 70 years after Mrs. Dalloway was first published.
      I wrote many drafts, refining my ideas and style with the patient support of my instructor, Doris Earnshaw. I view the drafting process as more than a correction of grammar and spelling. I see it as an opportunity to further focus the ideas I want to share with the reader. I also attempt to improve the impact of my writing by combining analysis and personal perspective. I am honored to have my Mrs. Dalloway essay printed in Prized Writing. I hope you enjoy reading it.
—Lisa Armentrout

Instructor’s comment: Lisa’s essay examines an enduring theme of Western literature: the moral implications of our use of time. Writers from the early Hebrew and Greek cultures to the present day have asked and answered the question “How should we live so that we outlast our short physical lifetime?” In the modernist classical novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes one day in the life of a London hostess. As she prepares for the evening party she will give, Clarissa Dalloway becomes conscious of two kinds of time: official, formal time and casual, informal time. Lisa tells us what these two times mean to Clarissa and to our own lives.
      Lisa’s style can be described by my two favorite adjectives for good student writing: honest and modest. Bringing these two qualities of mind to her work, she avoids the thick overlay of excess adjectives and adverbs that clouds much writing and achieves a beautiful clarity.
—Doris Earnshaw, Comparative Literature

We live in a consumer society consuming time. We use time to function smoothly but also to channel the direction of our lives. As a college student, I am constantly aware of time. I have a time frame for finishing my college career, as well as constant deadlines to meet. Daily, I divide my hours between my job, my studies, and my friends. In the midst of following external time, I strive for a balance with my internal time. My personal sense of time allows me to live in the present moment. However, I struggle to not be pressured by external time. I resent the tension it creates. The notion of time in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway particularly interests me. Her original title, The Hours, indicates the importance of time as one of the novel’s themes (Lee 92). By looking at Woolf’s writing style, critiquing her use of clocks, and analyzing Clarissa’s thoughts, the reader finds a philosophical message about time, powerfully expressed.
      The lyrical, flowing pattern of Woolf’s writing easily slides in and out of different characters’ thoughts. Her ability to show the random yet patterned working of our minds gives us a realistic sense of mental time. Woolf’s sentences quickly cross the boundaries of the past, present, and future. She saw the writer’s task as “being able to go beyond the `formal railway line of sentences’ and to show how people feel or think or dream all over the place” (Lee 93). She wanted to express a point of view, not a plot. Her stream-of-consciousness writing allows us insight into a variety of characters. For example, within the first moments that we meet Clarissa, we rapidly travel between her present, her past, and her thoughts about the future. In the process, we understand pieces of her life which create the woman we come to know in a single day. We see the lifetime culmination of beautiful moments and painful moments embodied in Woolf’s characters.
      Woolf’s style impresses upon the reader the time which exists in our minds. Mental time does not progress steadily forward, like the clock time we follow. This point is illustrated by Clarissa’s arrival at the flower shop in the morning; her senses are effortlessly taken to evening time as she thinks,

And it was the moment between six and seven when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac—glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses! (Woolf 13)

This passage flows easily from her seeing the flowers in the present to being drawn back to memories and sensations from her past. If Woolf wrote in any other way, her layered message about time would not be as successfully or beautifully expressed. Critic Bernard Blackstone wrote that “Mrs. Dalloway is an experiment with time. It is a mingling of present experience and memory” (71). Essentially, Woolf’s style adds emphasis to her idea of time as a constant flow—time that is the present but also the past; linear but sporadic; eternal but vanishing.
      Big Ben and St. Margaret’s represent different rates of time: one marching straight ahead without looking back, the other gently making its presence known. Woolf’s use of Big Ben serves two purposes. First, its concise tolling indicates the time that we lose each day. It shows the constant forward movement of the hours. Second, the fame of Big Ben suggests that the mark we leave on the world be something grand, something renowned. The bell of Big Ben agitates Clarissa: “The sound of Big Ben flooded Clarissa’s drawing-room where she sat, ever so annoyed, at her writing table; worried; annoyed” (Woolf 117). The clock tells her she is running out of time and reminds her of her middle-age. Its toll reminds her that she has done nothing civilization would consider impressive. She feels “a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air” (Woolf 4). Woolf’s description of the bell as a “warning” and the hour as “irrevocable” (used more than once) clearly states a negative idea of Big Ben time. The strike of the clock cautions that another hour has passed—time that we will never have to live again.
      While Big Ben reminds Clarissa of her mortality, St. Margaret’s serves another purpose. With St. Margaret’s, Woolf presents a time that appeals to the human spirit. It chimes in a little late, gliding “into the recesses of the heart and buries itself, to be, with a tremor of delight, at rest” (Woolf 50). Although not a famous bell tower, St. Margaret’s attracts the attention of those who hear it. Therefore, it contradicts the message of Big Ben—to leave behind something famous to be remembered by when we die. Instead, St. Margaret’s suggests that we not be overly consumed with losing time and that we be aware of it in our own way. In comparison with Big Ben, St. Margaret’s suggests that time meanders and passes subtly. The tower’s bell represents an approach to life that accepts the moment. It makes the listener aware of time to appreciate it, not to fear it.
      Woolf draws a clear parallel between Clarissa and St. Margaret’s. In fact, the ringing of the bells makes Peter think of Clarissa:

Ah, said St. Margaret’s, like a hostess who comes into her drawing room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already. I am not late. No, it is precisely half-past eleven, she says. Yet, though she is perfectly right, her voice, being the voice of the hostess, is reluctant to inflict its individuality. Some grief for the past holds it back; some concern for the present. (Woolf 49)

The bell tower and Clarissa differ from Big Ben. They are not bold in their individuality. They prefer to make an impression on the world in a different manner—as hostesses. Clarissa feels her “only gift was knowing people almost by instinct” (Woolf 9). The hostess in Clarissa represents her gift, her art. She values the influence she has on people’s lives. She feels that both Peter and Richard “criticized her very unfairly, laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties” (Woolf 121). Clarissa feels the presence of people, separated from one another. “She felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste;...and she felt if only she could bring them together; so she did it. And it was an offering” (Woolf 122). Her parties and her affinity for people give her a feeling of timelessness.
      Through the character of Clarissa, Woolf aptly expresses her perspective on time. Clarissa pays attention to the details of the moment: “What she loved was this, here, now, in front of her” (Woolf 9). Her appreciation of the moment leads her to a consideration of death:

Did it matter then, she asked herself...did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely. (Woolf 9)

Despite her attachment to the present, another part of Clarissa wants her spirit to outlast her time on earth. She wants to remain. Her eternal connection is two-fold. First, she feels like an eternal piece of

the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best. (Woolf 9)

She also hopes to survive time in her offering to the world—bringing people together at parties by briefly obliterating the boundaries that create alienation among them. For an evening, she pulls together fragmented lives and creates communion.
      In short, Woolf suggests that time exists in different forms. It exists in the external world, but also—and perhaps more importantly—in our internal world. Her description of the loud and rushing civilization suggests that we push ahead in the name of progress, without fully appreciating the moment. Through the character of Clarissa, Woolf challenges the usual definition of success. Perhaps we need not leave some magnificent gift behind in the form of a building or a concrete art piece. Instead, maybe it is how we live our lives and our appreciation for the present that are truly more powerful and eternal. The small gifts we offer others, like bringing people together through a party, can touch people differently than a monument.
      Virginia Woolf’s message about time should be heeded. Our rush to leave a dramatic mark in the world leads to further destruction. Tension abounds in our modern world as we create technology to increase our efficiency. Our civilization tends to see scientific and monumental achievements as the most valid measures of an individual’s success. However, in the process, our communities disintegrate. More and more people complain of feeling alienated. The evidence surrounds us. The internal time that allows us to slow down and be involved with people finds itself dominated by external societal time. Some might find Clarissa Dalloway’s gift to the world to be trivial. However, we need individuals with the ability to pull people together—people with the ability to create community where it no longer exists.


Blackstone, Bernard. Virginia Woolf: A Commentary. London: Hogarth, 1949.

Lee, Hermione. The Novels of Virginia Woolf. London: Methuen, 1977.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.