The Narrative's Time Frame
Mrs. Dalloway takes place in only one day showing that the important parts of life are found in the details. This extreme examination of a day shows that the most important triumphs and challenges are the ones that occur in daily life. Septimus’s suicide is also used to show that life can be lost in a single instant, making the time span of an entire life seem far less significant than the split second thoughts of the mind.
“The amusing thing about coming back to England, after five years, was the way it made, anyhow the first days, things stand out as if one had never seen them before; lovers squabbling under a tree; the domestic family life of the parks.” (69) (1)
This quote is an explicit statement from Peter’s thoughts about the significance of detail in the novel. The short time the novel covers emphasizes an identical concept. Peter, being the only one to actually remove himself from the London setting, is the only one who can see this somewhat objectively. He also observes Rezia and Septimus’s quarrel. This shows the connectedness of the characters, as his observation of them allows Woolf to flow smoothly between Septimus, Rezia and Peter’s thoughts.
“There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable” (4, 114).(1)
This quote is referring to Big Ben and is repeated several times in the novel. Big Ben is constantly reminding the reader that time is moving forward. Surrounded by a cast of characters who are trapped in the past and in their memories, it is easy for the reader to forget that time is still a constantly progressing presence. The constant toling of the clock warns Clarissa she is running out of time. This could be interpreted as running out of time until her party begins, or time running out on her life. Constantly reminiscing on her youth, Clarissa acknowledges that she has accomplished the things expected of a woman in her class and that the next thing in life is death. The clock serves as a constant reminder that death is always getting closer and closer. Even Richard, after hearing Big Ben says “lunch parties waste the entire afternoon” (114)(1) . It is not only Clarissa who wants to spend her time valuably, with Big Ben serving as a constant reminder that time is running out.
“She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” (8) (1)
This fact that the narrative takes course over the time of only one day makes this quote significant. Woolf is directly remarking on the importance of a single day. Clarissa reminds the reader that life can be threatened in a moment. The thought serves as a warning. Septimus's suicide reminds the reader if serious caution is not taken in life.
Questions for Discussion
1. What is the significance of the time frame of the narrative?
2. How does Clarissa's party, seemingly trivial in the face of death, serve as a useful backdrop to Woolf's themes?
Stream of Consciousness and Shifts Between Characters
The structure of Mrs. Dalloway as a text in many ways enables the otherwise mundane and entirely everyday content to truly resonate. While in many other case the textual repetition and abundance of characters would result in a muddled narrative with little poignancy, Woolf’s use of free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness shifts between narrators creates a very powerful reading experience. To create a coherent narrative with all of this textual experimentation, however, Woolf had to make copious use of alternative methods of connecting characters and themes.
The primary way the Woolf binds together the otherwise disparate narrative strands is through the use of linking elements or common themes. For example, clocks or other methods of tracking temporal shifts are omnipresent in the lives of all of the characters.
For example, as Peter Walsh rushes to leave the home of Clarissa Dalloway after nearly sharing a heartfelt moment his exit is marked by “the sound of all the clocks striking…” (Woolf 47). (1) Just after this, the narrative immediately transitions into Peter’s venture through the city.
Similarly, the shifting of the narrative between the life of Septimus and Clarissa is also marked by the striking of the clock: “It was precisely twelve o’clock; twelve by Big Ben…twelve o’clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on the bed, and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street” (Woolf 92). (1)
The physical clock is not the only manifestation of this linkage between different characters. A discussion of the exact hour is also used by Woolf as an appropriate segue between Rezia and Septimus and the life of Peter Walsh. “The time, Septimus,” Rezia demands, “What is the time?” (Woolf 69). (1) In response, Septimus says, “very slowly, very drowsily…” (Woolf 69) (1) that he will tell her. This conversation, Woolf notes, occurs at exactly a quarter to twelve when they are being passed and observed by Peter as having a young lover’s quarrel.
Another linking element utilized by Woolf is that of color symbolism. While used as temporal markers to connect characters, Woolf’s use of color is also significant on its own terms.
For example, the color green is a heavily used one to link characters that Woolf would like the reader to associate with each other in some way. The first linkage comes between Clarissa and her husband, Richard Dalloway, or more specifically the wealth afforded to her by their marriage. "...one must repay...above all to Richard, her husband, who was the foundation of it all--the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling…” (Woolf 28). (1)
Similarly, as Clarissa prepares for her party prior to the appearance of Peter Walsh, she is described as having a green dress. While the wealth of Richard has allowed her to purchase this dress it is far from pristine. “She had torn it,” Clarissa laments, “…By artificial light the green shone, but lost its color now in the sun” (Woolf 36). (1) Just as her access to the life full of “green lights” and revelry is tied to her marriage to Richard, the fact that her green dress is seemingly distressed should raise doubts in the reader’s mind early on as to the state of her marital happiness.
The color symbolism doesn’t end with Clarissa and Richard. Rezia and Septimus’ relationship is also implicated by Woolf’s subtle descriptions utilizing the color green. As he sits in the park and hallucinates about the trees surrounding where he and Rezia are seated, Septimus notes the transition of their colors: “thickening from blue to green…” (Woolf 22). (1) The transition from the calm and almost placid quality of blue to the already significant palate of green suggests that the marital status of Rezia and Septimus is potentially questionable in similar ways to that of Clarissa and Richard.
Just as Septimus notes the trees are shifting from “blue to green” so too do the colors in the layout of this wiki.
Questions for Discussion
1. There are many other linking devices besides awareness of time and color. What are some of the other significant symbols utilized by Woolf to bind together the otherwise separate lives of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway?
2. Just what is the significance of the color green, anyway? While it certainly is used by Woolf to highlight certain aspects of domestic life, it is deployed in many other ways as well. Why would Woolf choose to emphasize green over other colors?