Mrs Dalloway

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Big Ben Symbol Icon
Big Ben is a famous clock tower and London monument, but it also serves as an interesting symbol of time and tradition in the book. The clock tower is part of the Palace of Westminster, and so in one way it acts as a symbol of English tradition and conservatism, the attempt to pretend that the War and modern life haven’t changed anything. But by its very nature Big Ben is also a clock, and so it dispassionately marks the endless progression of time, which waits for no one. The striking of the clock is the main divider in the narrative of Mrs. Dalloway, and interrupts characters’ thoughts and actions with “leaden circles dissolving in the air.” Time is an important theme of the novel (Woolf’s original title for the book was “The Hours”), as Clarissa and Septimus both feel the danger of living even one day, and all the characters experience vibrant memories of the past. The striking of Big Ben is then a continuous reminder of ever-present time, which is both linear (the progression of hours) and circular (the constant presence of the past).

Big Ben Quotes in Mrs Dalloway

The Mrs Dalloway quotes below all refer to the symbol of Big Ben. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Privacy, Loneliness, and Communication Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harcourt edition of Mrs Dalloway published in 1990.
Section 1 Quotes

For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker)
Related Symbols: Big Ben
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Early in the novel, Big Ben strikes for the first time: it will occupy a central place in the novel even as its precise meaning and implications vary. The sound enters as a concrete measure in the midst of Clarissa's somewhat vague and disjointed thoughts. Time seems rather open and free in the beginning of this passage, even as Clarissa has the sense that she is waiting for something as she perceives the city around her. Big Ben's strikes divide this wide-open time, giving Clarissa a way to situate her perceptions within a certain order.

In a certain way, then, Big Ben's marking of time is a way for Clarissa to order her own perceptions and her own psychological reality. But it also, of course, can be heard throughout the city - indeed, its strikes record the passing of time in the most public, regulated ways possible. Big Ben will thus serve as a way to unite the various plot strands of the novel through a guiding motif. But it will also join them in a different way, as an underlying reminder of how "irrevocable" the passing of time is, as each strike "dissolves" such that the hour cannot be taken back or relived, except in memory.

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Section 9 Quotes

…and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Septimus Warren Smith, Peter Walsh, Sally Seton
Related Symbols: Big Ben
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Clarissa repeats again the phrase from Shakespeare's Cymbeline, another common thread between herself and Septimus. After a moment of darkness and despair, she once again is able to conceive of Septimus's suicide as a powerful and even positive act of communication and independence - even if, given Clarissa's shifting and contradictory opinions, we cannot be sure that this will be her final word on the subject. Still, in this scene she does feel a kinship with Septimus, suggesting that he has managed, through his death, to create a kind of communion with another person.

Once again the clock strikes, here reminding Clarissa of her duties at the party, but also serving as a reminder of the inevitable passing of time. Septimus's death has also reminded Clarissa of the "fun" and the "beauty" that she still has the time to experience in her own life. Rather than throwing away the everyday realities that have come to characterize her own existence, then, Clarissa feels once again able to return to what she has just recently labeled superficial and unimportant, feeling a renewed interest in her daily life.

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Big Ben Symbol Timeline in Mrs Dalloway

The timeline below shows where the symbol Big Ben appears in Mrs Dalloway. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Section 1
Time Theme Icon
Clarissa has recently recovered from influenza. She goes out into the street and hears Big Ben tolling ten o’clock, and she thinks of the “leaden circles dissolved in the air.” It... (full context)
Section 2
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
...starts to spell out an advertisement in sky writing, and everyone looks up in amazement. Big Ben tolls that it is eleven o’ clock, and everyone is too busy looking at the... (full context)
Section 3
Privacy, Loneliness, and Communication Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Psychology and Perception Theme Icon
...if she is happy with Richard. Before she can answer, Elizabeth enters the room and Big Ben strikes eleven-thirty. Peter leaves abruptly, and as he goes out Clarissa reminds him of her... (full context)
Section 4
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
The St. Margaret’s bell rings (a few minutes after Big Ben ) and it makes Peter think of Clarissa’s illness and the fact that she will... (full context)
Section 7
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Psychology and Perception Theme Icon
Back in the present Big Ben tolls twelve o’clock, Clarissa lays her green dress on her bed, and Septimus and Rezia... (full context)
Privacy, Loneliness, and Communication Theme Icon
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
...refuse. She is also irritated that Elizabeth is currently holed up with Doris Kilman, praying. Big Ben strikes three and at that moment Richard enters. He gives her the roses but is... (full context)
Privacy, Loneliness, and Communication Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
...intellectually and by himself, but when he is in love he becomes selfish and vulgar. Big Ben strikes three-thirty, and Clarissa thinks that neither Miss Kilman’s religion nor Peter Walsh’s love solve... (full context)
Section 9
Privacy, Loneliness, and Communication Theme Icon
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Psychology and Perception Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
...old woman across the way staring straight at her. The woman goes to bed and Big Ben strikes three o’clock in the morning. (full context)