Mrs Dalloway

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Themes and Colors
Privacy, Loneliness, and Communication Theme Icon
Social Criticism Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Psychology and Perception Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mrs Dalloway, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Time Theme Icon

Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of one day, and in its very framework Woolf emphasizes the passage of time. There are no real chapter breaks, and the most notable divider of the narrative is the chiming of Big Ben as the day progresses. All the novel’s action is so compressed (and usually composed of thoughts and memories) that a few minutes can fill many pages. The chiming of Big Ben is a reminder of the inevitable march of time, and fits with Clarissa’s fear of death and the danger of living even one day.

The circular presence of the past is also deeply intertwined with the forward ticking of the clock. Clarissa, Peter, Richard, and Sally interact very little in the present, but Clarissa and Peter relive in great depth their youth at Bourton, so their past relations add weight and complexity to their present interactions. Septimus is even more ruthlessly pursued by the past, as he actually sees visions of Evans, his dead soldier friend. One of Woolf’s original titles for the book was “The Hours,” so she clearly finds the idea of time important, and by simultaneously emphasizing the chiming of the hours and the ubiquity of past memories, she ends up showing the fluidity of time, which can be both linear and circular at once.

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Time ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Time appears in each section of Mrs Dalloway. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Time Quotes in Mrs Dalloway

Below you will find the important quotes in Mrs Dalloway related to the theme of Time.
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 3 Quotes

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally.

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway, Sally Seton
Related Symbols: Flowers
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

As she pursues her set tasks through the streets of London, where she remains largely anonymous and alone, Mrs. Dalloway returns in her thoughts to moments in her past at which she sensed true communion and connection to another. One of those moments is described, here, in the memory of her kiss with Sally. "Alone" she may have been, but in this case, paradoxically, solitude and the disappearance of others only enabled greater connection between the two women.

The novel also uses this passage to explore the strange workings of time: a moment can fill up more space than many empty hours, and can even be as powerful as years. The way time passes - or the way it seems to pass - can depend more on an individual's perception than on time as measured by clocks, and that one can return to past moments in memory reinforces a suggestion of perceived time as cyclical rather than linear.

Section 6 Quotes

It was awful, he cried, awful, awful!
Still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day.

Related Characters: Peter Walsh (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Peter is thinking about his long-ago rejection by Clarissa: her sublime memory of her kiss with Sally at Bourton now has another layer with the addition of Peter's separate, painful perception of that time. Peter shuttles between feeling acutely the real pain of that moment, and consoling himself by keeping his senses alert to what is around him here, in the present. In a way, he believes, time does ease pain merely by the fact of adding new experiences and memories atop old ones. He has had an entire life since Clarissa rejected him, after all. But at the same time, the last few sentences of this passage seem not to be entirely honest. Coming as they do directly after his exclamation at the "awful" event, they suggest that time does not heal all wounds, that present perception and the reality of past experiences do not cancel each other out, but rather coexist and mingle with each other.

Section 7 Quotes

Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced… that it was half-past one.

Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

Rezia is thinking about how frustrating the consultation with Sir William has been, how annoyed she became at his unwillingness to listen and his insistence that Septimus conform to expected social categories and modes of being. Now, everything that Rezia perceives around her is filtered through this specific element of her consciousness. The "clocks of Harley street," in one sense, are the same for everyone - their chiming and striking divides the day equally in a standardized way, according to the modern social definition of time.  At the same time, though, this passage reminds us that the "mound of time" can feel entirely differently and mean very different things for different people. It may be "half past one" for everyone on Oxford Street, but for Rezia the equal divisions of clocks are at one with the submission and authority that she feels suffocated by, as a result of the consultation with Sir William. In such a way, time is shown to be not standardized at all, instead dependent on individual perception and affected by individual consciousness.

And Richard Dalloway strolled off as usual to have a look at the General’s portrait, because he meant, whenever he had a moment of leisure, to write a history of Lady Bruton’s family.
And Millicent Bruton was very proud of her family. But they could wait, they could wait, she said, looking at the picture; meaning that her family, of military men, administrators, admirals, had been men of action, who had done their duty; and Richard’s first duty was to his country…

Related Characters: Richard Dalloway, Lady Bruton
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

As Richard is leaving the luncheon, he lingers over the portrait of Lady Bruton's ancestor. According to the way this passage understands portraits, they are firmly located in the past: they record and celebrate past events so as to fix them in memory. Although the general and other members of Lady Burton's family were once "men of action," they are so no longer - they "had done" their duty and now are no longer relevant to the action that is going on now. Lady Bruton seems perfectly complacent with this reality, but the novel as a whole is more critical of what she and her family represent - making clear that a new reality needs to replace the old one, which is now only relegated to dusty portraits in wealthy apartments.

As for Buckingham Palace (like an old prima donna facing the audience all in white) you can’t deny it a certain dignity, he considered, nor despise what does, after all, stand to millions of people (a little crowd was waiting at the gate to see the King drive out) for a symbol, absurd though it is; a child with a box of bricks could have done better, he thought… but he liked being ruled by the descendant of Horsa; he liked continuity; and the sense of handing on the traditions of the past.

Related Characters: Richard Dalloway (speaker)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard is fully comfortable in his position as a member of London's upper class, but he does possess enough self-awareness to be able to think about it critically and from a distance. Buckingham Palace, he thinks, is valuable mainly as a symbol - he acknowledges that it may even be silly when judged objectively. Richard shows a certain condescension in thinking that the value of Buckingham Palace is in its powerful symbolism for the crowds, the "little crowd" who lack the ability - like his own - of artistic discernment.

At the same time, though, Richard aligns with this very crowd in admitting that he too enjoys what the palace stands for. The past to Richard is not something overwhelming, painful, or even very complicated: rather than recurring in cyclical ways or moving at disjointed speeds, time to him is important for the traditions that it held, and for the ways these traditions carry forward to the present. In other words, Richard believes in straightforward continuity, in a stream of time in which there are no breaks or interruptions and in which everyone can find his or her proper place rather easily.

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was! – that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all…

Related Characters: Clarissa Dalloway (speaker), Peter Walsh
Related Symbols: Flowers
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In her head, Clarissa runs over all the sensations and small happenings of the day thus far. She simultaneously marvels at the rich particularities of daily life and wonders at how easily they are all cut off. Here, we see a major difference between Clarissa and Septimus: although they are both preoccupied with death, Clarissa takes much greater joy in the small daily realities of her life. The events she mentioned are not important objectively - indeed, they're perhaps not important to anyone other than herself, as she acknowledges when she realizes that no one will be able, after her death, to witness and report how much she loved this life. But Clarissa is able to treasure them regardless.

Clarissa's thoughts here also linger on the strange nature of the passing of time. Indeed, one of the reasons she feels that her love of life will remain unremarked-upon is that she cannot manage to assign meaning to or profoundly conceptualize the way she experiences time as cut through with daily events. Clarissa usually is able to remark upon the daily happenings of her life without having to fit them into some greater meaning, but here she does think about this lack - although only in the vague sense of calling it strange and unbelievable.

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.