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.
Time Quotes in Mrs Dalloway
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
…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.