Time and Perception in Mrs. Dalloway: The Formulation of the Human Experience
Virginia Woolf’s classic modernist work, Mrs. Dalloway, interrogates the inner-workings of every day life, exposing and unfurling the idiosyncrasies, complexities, and intimacies that are so surreptitiously ensconced within all human interaction. Though Mrs. Dalloway covers the span of a single day, Woolf’s treatment of time is much more complex than a linear, chronological expounding of a group of people’s activities leading up to a much anticipated soirée. Indeed, one of Woolf’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to unveil the significance behind every action and structure; to make meaningful many of the mechanisms and interactions which we usually deem common, menial or insubstantial. By detailing varying perceptions and probing remembrances and interpersonal linkages, Woolf demonstrates the complexity and diversity of human experience.
Mrs. Dalloway begins with Clarissa perambulating about a bustling post-war London, readying herself for the party that she has planned for the coming evening. The streets are swollen with vehicles and the air is thick with the droning of airplanes and the brassy reverberations of street music. Clarissa’s appreciation of and fascination with her whirring metropolis is punctuated by recollections of her past at Bourton and a brief chat with her old friend, Hugh. In this way, Woolf articulates Clarissa’s venture through Piccadilly while simultaneously delving into her memories— intertwining Clarissa’s past and present. While shopping for flowers, Clarissa is jolted out of her introspection by a cacophonous noise issuing from a mysterious car outside Mulberry’s shop window. Woolf writes, “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, before a male hand drew the blind…” (14). Contained within the car is assumed to be someone of political importance, perhaps the Prince of Wales, maybe even the Prime Minister. Onlookers speculate who it might be, all the while filled with excitement and a communal sense of veneration for the car’s occupant. This patriotism is, however, not shared by Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran, who is violently startled by the noise of the car. Woolf writes: “And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thought, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames” (15).
The same car which inspired feelings of national devotion for Clarissa and other onlookers precipitated a sense of overwhelming anxiety and fear in Septimus. For Clarissa and other pedestrian spectators, the car and its passenger are symbolic of the grandeur of political Britain — the nation as an entity worthy of reverence and acclaim, a cynosure from which patriotism and love of country disseminate. Comparatively, Septimus does not perceive the car as a symbol of the majesty of the British government: where others see eminence, Septimus sees chaos. However, the figure of the car and its occupant are arbitrary. The identity of the person within the car is never revealed and all interpretations of the significance of the vehicle and its occupant are merely personal projections. It is not that Woolf is overtly making a symbolic testament to the political evils of Britain or its fundamental lack of support for veterans, rather she is suggesting how a certain object can be interpreted differently depending on the person observing it. The contrast between Septimus and Clarissa and the other onlookers in relation to their differing attitudes towards the noise of the car is semantically evident. Woolf’s description of Clarissa’s thoughts and feelings are bounding; sentences run on, are highly descriptive, end in exclamation marks, and are quickly paced. In comparison, the sentences describing Septimus’ thoughts and feelings are choppy, hectic, and more reliant on words with negative connotations (such as “whip,” “horror,” or “threatened” 15 ). Woolf demonstrates the multiplicity of perception through both sentence pacing/structure and differing interpretations of objects or structures. This multiplicity of perception, which Woolf most evidently uses to contrast Septimus with the rest of the characters, is a literary mechanism Woolf consistently weaves throughout Mrs. Dalloway. After leaving Clarissa’s, Peter wanders around London where he observes a group of soldiers. Marveling at butlers, dogs, and other London sights, Peter respects the passing soldiers for their apparent imperviousness to the fear-inducing reality of death. “A splendid achievement in its own way,” says Peter, “…London; the season; civilization” (55). Images of the British military are inspiring to Peter, to him they are emblematic of the “civilization” of London. The military and state which traumatized and ultimately neglected Septimus is a paragon of civilization and refinement to Peter. After Septimus’ suicide, Peter hears the wailing siren of the ambulance buoying Septimus’ lifeless body across London. Again, Peter is flooded with appreciation for the modernity and civilization of England. Woolf writes: “One of the triumphs of civilization, Peter Walsh thought. It is one of the triumphs of civilization, as the light high bell of the ambulance sounded. Swiftly, cleanly the ambulance sped to the hospital, having picked up instantly, humanely, some poor devil… That was civilization. It struck him coming back from the East— the efficiency, the organization, the communal spirit of London” (151).
But, this supposedly “communal,” “efficient” society is the very society which drove Septimus to suicide. Peter reveres the ambulance as a “triumph of civilization,” but it is this same medical system that abandoned and mistreated Septimus. All the while, Peter stands outside the British Museum, a structure bursting with relics of England’s political achievements and imperial power — the advents for which Septimus fought in the war. Peter’s reverence for imperial, modern England is juxtaposed with Septimus’ death (caused by the imperial, modern England), continuing Woolf’s ability to illustrate the multiplicity of perception. Just like the mysterious car in Piccadilly and the soldiers marching down London streets, the modern ambulance’s significance is open to interpretation and is subject to the duality of perception. Mrs. Dalloway engages as much with the past as it does with the present, often merging the two. Woolf peppers references to the ominous, external passing of time throughout Mrs. Dalloway, typically marked by the toll of Big Ben. The passage of time is first mentioned as Clarissa is buying flowers for her party: “There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air” (4). Time continues to pass, rendering each previously-present hour an artifact of the past. Each moment is “dissolved in the air,” expired, and irrevocably confined to memory. Constant reminders of the time either through the toll of Big Ben or the turning of “… the crystal dolphin toward the clock” (38) punctuate characters’ thoughts and memories. The various timescapes and memories existing within the minds of characters is supplanted by the physical unavoidability of the passage of present time. Clarissa constantly reminisces about her days at Bourton, gallivanting with Sally and Peter, while Peter obsessively recalls his time with Clarissa. Each character is immersed in a private life of memories and missed opportunities, which inform the present, but persist as non-corporeal hauntings. Though Clarissa, Peter, or anyone else for that matter may occupy their time dwelling on the past, Woolf’s inclusion of the physical progression of time, the ticking of a clock or the toll of Big Ben, confines each person to the physical present.
Mrs. Dalloway explores the meaning of everyday life, unearthing the significance of moments and interpretations that might otherwise be deemed unimportant. Woolf constructs a complex world; a world tied together by oscillating perspectives and mutual timescapes. Characters imagine and reimagine themselves, negotiating their pasts and presents. Mrs. Dallowa y affirms that every human interaction has a burgeoning significance and each object that one may all too comfortably dismiss as meaningless has its own subjective importance. Indeed, Mrs. Dalloway is a study of the complex linkages between human beings, the spectral presentation of human perception, and the friction between the past and the present; Mrs. Dalloway is an exploration of human consciousness.