Concepts of Time in "To the Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

Term Paper, 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Background

3 Time in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse
3.1 Time in Mrs Dalloway
3.1.1 Time’s Influence on the Novel’s Structure
3.1.2 Past and Present
3.1.3 Moments of Being
3.2 Time in To the Lighthouse
3.2.1 Time’s Influence on the Novel’s Structur
3.2.2 Past and Present
3.2.3 Moments of Being

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Virginia Woolf is regarded as one of the great writers in modern fiction. She wrote innovative pieces of fiction for she used the stream-of-consciousness and experimented with different point of views. Furthermore, the treatment of time is an important issue in her fiction as she broke with the traditional chronological narration. This paper will discuss Virginia Woolf’s concepts of time theoretically and in her novels Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

First of all, it is necessary to understand that time itself is and has always been a problematic concept which has been subject to philosophical discussion. People have been obsessed with control and domination of time. They measure it and create linear segments, such as days, minutes and seconds. In Modernism, new concepts of time came up and especially the concepts of time by Henri Bergson influenced the writers of Modernism. Woolf as a modern writer and critic was strongly influenced by these new concepts. This can be seen in her experimental fiction and her usage of time in her novels. Therefore, a brief outline of the main characteristics of Modernism will be given to understand the context in which the discussion is embedded. Furthermore, Henri Bergson’s concepts of time will be presented briefly as they have been the most influential in modern fiction. Finally, Woolf’s own theoretical concepts of time will be explained. She concentrated especially on the distinction between moments of being and non-being which will be defined.

In the following, it will be examined how she applied these concepts of time in two of her novels. Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, and To the Lighthouse, written and published after Mrs Dalloway in 1927, will be analysed with a special focus on the treatment of time. It will be examined how time influences the structures of the novels and how its dimensions, past and present, are treated. Especially past times effecting present situation and present moments evoking past memories are of importance. Furthermore, this paper will identify moments of being in the novels and analyse how they are perceived in respect to time. Finally, the treatment of time in the two novels will be compared. It will be examined if there is a development in her concepts and if so, the changes will be highlighted.

2 Theoretical Background

Woolf herself wrote a brief overview survey on the modern practice of art in her article “Modern Fiction”[1]. She regarded Modernism as an improvement to the style of writing of the previous epoch. Modern writers put emphasis on the spirit in their fiction whereas traditional writers are regarded as materialists and are concerned with the body (MF: 2149). Her judgement on materialists is “that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skills and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear true and important” (MF: 2149). Modern writers do not work according to the rules of writing tradition, which she calls “powerful and unscrupulous tyrant” (MF: 2150). In her opinion, the writings following tradition are artificial and can not capture reality. Woolf demands to look at life and “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” (MF: 2150). Modern writing is based on subjective experience and the impressions the mind receives. Hence, authors should write according to their feelings and not according to tradition which limits their writing. If fiction is to project life, it cannot be symmetrically arranged or have a certain plot (MF: 2150). As the inner spirit is to be captured, any method or technique is possible to achieve this, there are no limitations in Modernism (MF: 2151). The new perceptions of the subject’s experiences and to capture them in fiction are also connected to the individual perception of time. Woolf’s understandings of time have been influenced by many philosophers and intellectuals of her time. As a member of the Bloomsbury Group, she had intensive access to many new thoughts and ideas. Although Leonard Woolf stated in a letter that she never actually read Henri Bergson’s philosophy on time, she had contact to one of his scholars, T.S. Eliot, and read Proust who was influenced by him (Hafley 1954: 174). Furthermore, it was a trend in modern fiction to treat time and space as described in Henri Bergson’s philosophy (Warsi 1976: 10). It is impossible to state which philosopher influenced her most or if her concepts of time are only be based on Bergson’s. Recent research indicates that it is based on G. E. Moore’s and Bertrand Russell’s realism (Banfield 2003: 417). Nevertheless, it is helpful to outline the major facts of Bergson’s philosophy as their concept is similar to Bergson’s and as stated before it is impossible to track her influence down to one philosopher. Hence, this outline will help to understand Woolf’s concepts of time in her fiction. Bergson argued that the character of reality is dual, consisting of space and time. On the one hand, space itself is homogenous and natural sciences analyse only space. If they claim to measure time, they just measure the movement of bodies in space. Time, on the other hand, is not homogenous, it is not reversible and every moment in time is something completely new and not repeatable. Time is to be regarded as a whole and moving entity. This duality of being also requires two spheres of epiphany. Space belongs to the analytical and synthesising mind and time is perceived through the immediate intuition. This metaphysical understanding of time claims that living and consciousness is only possible through introspective intuition. Bergson sets the individual experience and the élan vital, vitality, in the centre of his philosophy. (Warsi 1976: 43-86) Hence, narratives which are based on these concepts are not determined by chronological time but the mind and the experience of the subject (Warsi 1976: 10). Furthermore, there was increasing influence of Freud’s psychoanalysis which was published by the Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1921. It was analysing the individual as “a multi-layered self, in which dreams, memories and fantasies were as important as actions and thoughts” (Showalter 1994: 131). This individual experience of time has two important notions in Woolf’s concepts of time: the relationship between past and present and how they affect the future and moments of being and non-being. In her diary the interest in time and passing of time is intensified from the 1920 onwards. She thinks about the dead who have walked in London (D II: 47), makes remarks about real time experienced racing like in a film (D II: 158) and uses frequently the expression “flight in time” (D II: 158; 246) (Hussey 1986: 119). In her writing she showed interest in going back in time and giving memories and thoughts which are evoked by present situations, thoughts and sayings. She stated that “it took me a year’s groping to discover what I call my tunnelling process, by which I can tell the past by instalments, as I have needs of it.”[2] (D II: 272). Memories themselves are no static entities, although people and places in the past cannot change, memories of them are changing. A memory can never project a situation exactly the same way as it was when the moment took place (Grant 1992: 201). But not only memories as a connection between past and present are of importance in her narrative technique is of importance, in Woolf’s fiction the characters are influenced by “the simultaneous existence of past experience and the certainty of future happenings, particularly death, as an inherent part of her characters’ lives” (Grant 1992: 199). Hence in memory, there is a fluidity of mind and body as they are able to transcend time and space. Time has to be regarded as an endless spectrum in which characters are able to experience other times and spaces and are consciously aware of it. Thereby, timeless moments are created which do not belong to the physical time (Brady 1992: 202). For the individual subject the experience and perceptions of time differ. Hence, future and thoughts of the future have effects on the present. These thoughts make individuals realise that they are in present time which is a terrifying experience because one is closer to history and further away from youth as lifetime is regarded as limited (Grant 1992: 200). Woolf developed a sense to differentiate distinct reality from normal every day reality early in her life. Despite her resistance to the idea of mysticism, Virginia Woolf's writings were displaying consistent mystical themes. The mystical experience as the loss of self, trying to reach a greater unity, timelessness, transcendence and intensified meaning is recognisable in many of her novels and in her personal writings (Kane 1995: 2). In her first novels, An Unwritten Novel, Kew Gardens and The Mark on the Wall, she already created a ghostly, transcient atmosphere contrasting voices of the living and the death (Hussey 1986: 118). There is also some evidence that she believed in the continued existence of the past and that a part of people exists after death. In her novels, Septimus and Mrs Ramsay exist after their death and Woolf herself committed suicide (Hussey 1986: 116). Woolf’s concept of moments of being is first described in “A Sketch of the Past”[3]. These moments constituted true reality for Woolf, a belief which she knew to be irrational (Kane 1995: 2). In "A Sketch of the Past," she recalls her earliest childhood memories which take place at a nursery in St. Ives. She remembers this moment very detailed, intensely and even recalls the way she felt. Although this moment is so strong that it becomes more real for her than the present moment, she is not fully able to put this moment in words. She stated: “I could spend hours trying to write as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even in this moment very strong in me” (ASP: 2219). Some moments in life have this power while others do not, even if the events themselves are not spectacular or even unimportant. Therefore, she separates two kinds of experiences from each other: moments of being and non-being. Moments of being are connected to such an ecstasy and intensity that Woolf asks if they might have “an existence independent of our minds” (ASP: 2220). But these moments are very rare and a day consists more of moments of non-being than moments of being. The conscious awareness of the moment at the time of experience separates the two moments from each other. Most times of the day people act without awareness, perform acts as if asleep, but moments of being open up a hidden reality (ASP: 2223). Moments of being are separated from chronological time and the tension between lived time and clock time increases. When the writer captures a moment of being of a character, the act of reading enables the reader to experience how the different characters experience moments in time (Hussey 1986: 121).

3 Time in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse

To show the application of the theoretical concepts of time, the novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway will be analysed more deeply. In these two novels similarities as well as differences can be found. Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, was already a complex novel in respect of time and structure, but in To the Lighthouse, published two years later, Woolf’s usage of time is slightly different and becomes even more complex. The novels will be analysed with special regard to time. Points of discussion will be the influence of time on the structure of the novels, the relationship of past and present and moments of being in the novel.

3.1 Time in Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway[4] is Woolf’s first experimental and mature novel (Velicu 1985: 40). While she was working on it, she felt very self-confident about the novel and did not bother whether this literary project would be a success among the critics and the readers or not. “I have made up my mind that I’m not going to be so popular, & so genuinely that I look upon disregard or abuse as part of my bargain. I’m to write what I like; & they’re to say what they like” (D II: 168). The novel’s working title, The Hours, already indicates that time plays an important role. It has influence on different levels which will be examined in the following.

3.1.1 Time’s Influence on the Novel’s Structure

The novel is not structured through chapters but through time. Time structures the novel on the one hand by the course of a day and on the other hand through the striking hours of Big Ben (Weber 1965: 247). It is set on the 13th of June in 1923 in London and Clarissa Dalloway is planning and preparing a party she gives in the evening. There are many different strands of plot in the novel: Septimus who suffers from shell shock and his wife trying to care for him, Peter Walsh coming back from India and visiting his first love Clarissa, Lady Burton writing a letter to The Times helped by Mr Dalloway and other strands of plot. These various strands are interlinked with each other through time and space. The narration jumps from one strand to the next and as Woolf uses the stream-of-consciousness technique, from one mind to the next, constantly changing focalisation. The reader would get lost because the novel is not structured by the plot (Velicu 1985: 40) but Woolf uses Big Ben striking the hours instead to structure the novel. How precisely Woolf used this technique can be seen when Big Ben strikes twelve (MD: 104). The clock strikes twelve in the middle of the novel and noon represents the time exactly in the middle of the day. The points in time are carefully marked as they create a unifying character in the constantly changing focalisation (Weber 1965: 247). An example for the change in focalisation is the scene when Reiza wants to leave the park and is trying to calm Septimus down as he is caught in his inner world again. This is presented through Septimus’ view. Also Peter Walsh watches this scene and when the focalisation changes to his view the reader realises that he interprets it completely wrong. The strikes of Big Ben indicate the end of Septimus’ focalisation and the beginning of Peter’s.

“It is time, Septimus,” Reiza 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 at the dead man in the grey suit. As he sat smiling, the quarter struck – the quarter to twelve.

And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them. (MD: 78-79)

The mentioning of the hours of the day is present during the whole novel and this pattern even increases during the course of the novel. As if reading a book structured through chapters where the next chapter is expected, the reader expects the next hour as they are regularly announced (Velicu 1985: 42). Furthermore, the novel starts in the morning which is a natural point of beginning and ends in the evening which is a natural point of ending. This course of a day symbolises a natural cycle (Velicu 1985: 42). This structure becomes obvious at the end of the novel when the different strands of narration are brought together at Clarissa’s party (Velicu 1985: 44). It could even be argued that the novel has a mirror like structure. As it starts in the morning with the planning of the party and actually ends with the party taking place (Neukirchen 1999: 70).

The usage of time in this way enables Woolf to describe actions which take place simultaneously. Especially in the airplane or car sequence Woolf uses even a cinematic linking device to show how different people experience the same event. The crowd around Buckingham Palace, Septimus and Reiza and Clarissa experience this scene very differently (Showalter 1994: 135). An object of the outer world is perceived by the minds of many different characters and many streams-of-consciousness are brought together in the narrative. This also emphasises the tension between lived time and clock time when reading the sequence the reader can experience the subjective duration of time for the different characters (Hussey 1986: 121).

3.1.2 Past and Present

The different dimensions of time are of importance in the novel. Already in the novel’s first paragraphs, there are references to the past, present and the future. It deals with the crossing of time boundaries with the help of memories. Furthermore, the novel is not only about what happens on that particular day in June, but also about how the character’s pasts effect their present situation, their thoughts and decisions. Finally, it emphasises the limitation of time, also in the sense of biological time, and the treat of passing time.

Time boundaries are crossed through flashbacks of several characters. Hence, the reader gets to know a much larger time span. While Woolf was writing the novel she wrote in her diary:

I should say a good deal about The Hours, & my discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment” (DII: 263)

One of theses “caves” of Clarissa is presented when she meets Peter again and detailed memories from her childhood arise.

She was a child throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life” (MD: 48)

While she is sewing, the word “lake” (MD: 48) evokes all these memories in her and her mind goes back in time. After this memory “she looked at Peter Walsh; her look, passing through all that time and that emotion” (MD: 48). Woolf herself calls this technique the “tunnelling process”. Characters are exaggerating past occurrences and feelings in their memories (Grant 1992: 200). In the case of Septimus, the memories of the past are overshadowed by war. He is constantly haunted by his dead friend Evans who died in the war. Suffering from shell shock, those memories become hallucinations and enter his present (Werner 1965; 255).

Furthermore, the novel is concerned with the effects the past has on the present. Memories of the past show the dreams and expectations the characters had on life when they were young. Most of the characters presented in Mrs Dalloway failed to fulfil their dreams and this has effects on their present situation. Clarissa mourns that her life is superficial and passionless as she was different when she was young. Peter did not become a writer and Richard not successful in politics. Sally Seton, who was wild and rebellious, is married to a manufacturer and the intellectual Doris Kilman has become a religious fanatic. Finally, Septimus, who wanted to be a poet, is suffering from shell shock and is mentally not able to be a poet and to love his wife who dreamt of having children (Showalter 1994: 126-127). Especially the relationship and memories of Clarissa and Peter show the effects of unfulfilled dreams. The two characters meet a long time after their love affair had ended, but they are still thinking of each other. They are even obsessed with the thoughts of what might have happened if Clarissa had not made the decision not to marry Peter. The memories of their past are like a mirror and they reflect their present situation. But the present Clarissa does not change her attitudes, she does not learn from her memories. Although she still remembers that she was passionate about Sally and Peter, interested in philosophy and literature and realises the potential she did not use in her life, she does not change till the end of the novel (Neukirchen 1999: 90). The way Clarissa was in Bourton embodies her ideal picture of herself, but she also feels attacked when Peter questions her past decisions. She recalls these passionate feelings for him which she missed, compares their story to a play where the final act is about to finish and she impulsively wished that he would take her with him (MD: 53). Peter is also recalling his past feelings and wishes that past decisions had been different when he asks her: “Are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard ----“ (MD: 53). They are interrupted by Elizabeth and the sound of Big Ben. For Peter, the strikes evoke memories of the past with Clarissa and remind him of these moments which time has taken away from him. “No! No! he cried. She is not dead! I’m not old, he cried, and marched up Whitehall, as if there rolled down to him, vigorous, unending, his future” (MD: 56). He tries to make his past memories conscious again for he feels as if he has failed in his present situation (Hussey 1986: 123). He wants to feel again like he felt thirty years ago and is not interested in living with the present Clarissa. Peter and Clarissa do not live a linear time, they try to get back to find their unity again, through memories they share. The party brings them finally together, but they are still apart as they as well as their memories of their common past have changed (Hussey 1986: 123).


[1] Woolf, Virginia. 1925. “Modern Fiction”. Abrams, M.H. (ed). 2000. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. Seventh Edition. New York, London: WW. Norton Company. 2148-2153; henceforth MF in quotations

[2] Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. II. Olivier Bell, Anne (ed), assisted by McNeillie, Andrew.

1978. London: Hogarth Press; henceforth D II in quotations

Woolf, Virginia. 1925-1930. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. III. Olivier Bell, Anne (ed), assisted by McNeillie, Andrew. 1980. London: Hogarth Press; henceforth D III in quatations

[3] Woolf, Virginia. Apr. 1939- Nov. 1940. “From A Sketch of the Past”. Abrams, M.H. (ed). 2000. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. Seventh Edition. New York, London: WW. Norton Company. 2148-2153; henceforth ASP in quotations

[4] Woolf, Virginia. 1925. 1996. Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin Popular Classics; henceforth MD in quotations

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Concepts of Time in "To the Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf
University of Cologne
Waste Lands: Experience of Modernism
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ISBN (eBook)
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Concepts, Time, Lighthouse, Dalloway, Virginia, Woolf, Waste, Lands, Experience, Modernism
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Saskia Lührig (Author), 2006, Concepts of Time in "To the Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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