Manipulation of Time in Mrs. Dalloway

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Bernard Blackstone Views on Time

      Bernard Blackstone has given his important views on the time factor of Mrs. Dalloway that it is an experiment with time. There are three kinds of time. First, it is the “mechanical or clock-time” measured by the clock. Secondly, the psychological time or the inner time (which Bergson called “duree” or inner duration). Thirdly it is the historic time. In this context, the reference is made to the war. Mrs. Virginia Woolf has very skillfully manipulated the clock time and psychological time in the novel Mrs. Dalloway. There are references to the historic time or to the important historical events because of the war, which forms the background of the novel; it was just over.

The Mechanical Time (Clock Time)

      The action of the novel is confined within the narrow compass of a single day. The passing of time is constantly suggested by the chiming of Big Ben. It is early morning when Clarissa has stepped out of her house in Westminster; eleven o’clock when Peter suddenly comes in; half-past eleven when Peter in Trafalgar Squire receives a strange illumination; quarter to twelve when Septimus smiles at the man in the grey suit who is dead; precisely twelve o’clock when Septimus and Lucrezia enter Sir William Bradshaw’s house and Clarissa Dalloway lays her green dress on the bed; half-past one when Hugh Whitbread and Richard Dalloway meet for luncheon at Lady Bruton’s house in Brook Street; three o’clock when Richard comes home with the flowers to gift them to Mrs. Dalloway; half past three when Mrs. Dalloway sees the old lady move away from the window; six when Septimus has committed suicide and Peter admires the civilization. Thus clock time is an inexorable stream bringing together the incongruous, separating friends and making nonsense of emotions, etc.

The Psychological Time

      Though the clock time is very narrow, yet the psychological time is much longer. It expands from the earliest days recalled by the characters and to the time when important events take place. The stream-of-consciousness goes backward and forward; we move back with Clarissa’s consciousness to her girlhood at Bourton and come to know her not only as she is in present but as she was before thirty years. We come to know through her consciousness about various events and forces which shape her personality. David Daiches has well said that “the added dimension afforded by allowing the persons of the novel to move back and forth in time to encompass an entire time in a few seconds of thought, enriches not only the personality of the characters but, in a great measure, the philosophical depth of the book.”

The Confrontation of Mechanical Time and Inner-Time

      Karl and Magalaner says that there is nothing new and original about the flashback or the glimpse into the future. The noteworthy and original point is the smooth manipulation of time; so that the transition from past to present and from the consciousness of one character to another becomes easy, smooth and natural and the narration gains in clarity. Part of the effectiveness of the manipulation of time as it affects the lives, of Mrs. Woolf and characters comes from the frequent confrontation of ‘real’ clock time with the ‘unreal’ or psychological sense of past and future, infinitely stretchable, now so far away in infancy, now so close in the present, when the mood demands. The confrontation of mechanical time and the psychological time is one of the major devices which the novelist has used to discipline and order the apparently formless and chaotic stream-of-consciousness novel.

      “The chiming of Big Ben is nothing haphazard and meaningless; it marks the transition from one personality to another from the past to the present, or from one — space to another, that is from London to Bourton.” Of course, Mrs. Dalloway presents the skill of Woolf in manipulating Time montage and Space montage. In the world of motion pictures, the use of these devices is very common. Sometimes in a moment of time - montage, the characters are fixed while the novelist gives an account of several events taking place in space at the same time and conversely, when we go forward and backward through the consciousness of one of the characters, we are kept from straying by the constant reminder of the speaker’s identity. There is nothing ambiguous about the striking of the clocks in the novel.

      ‘The time, Septimus’, Rezia repeated, ‘What is the time,’ He was talking, he was starting, this man must notice him. He was looking at them.

      ‘I will tell you the time’, said Septimus, very slowly, very drowsily, smiling mysteriously. As he sat smiling at the dead man in the grey suit, the clock struck — the quarter to twelve.

      And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought, as he passed them.

      “We pass from Septimus Smith to Peter Walsh, and the striking of the hour marks the transition. If we are not to lose our way among the various consciousness, we must understand why we are taken from one to another, because they impinge in time, and that impingement is symbolized by the striking of the clocks.” Every now and then the time is given in the novel. The indications of time are given most clearly when we shift from one personality to another. Likewise when we pause within the consciousness of one character an account of various events taking place simultaneously at the moment is provided and we read the summaries like: “It was precisely twelve o’clock; by Big Ben, whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London, blend with that of other clocks, mixed in a thin ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke, and died up there among the sea-gulls-twelve o’clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street. Twelve was the hour of their appointment. Probably, Rezia thought, that was Sir William Bradshaw’s house with grey motor car in front of it. (The leaden circles dissolved in the air.)

The Space Montage

      Various characters in the maze of London streets and din of activity, are fixed by the common sites they see as well as the simultaneity of time at which they see them. Thus practically they see the closed car passing through London Streets at the same place and same moment. Thereafter they all see the airplane writing ‘toffee’ in the sky through the smokes.


      The chimes of Big Ben are the indicators of shift either from past to present or from one character to another. Thus, Woolf’s skill in the manipulation of time is very artistic and masterly.

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