The concept of Time and Duration in Virginia Woolfs novels - A stream of consciousness

Seminar Paper, 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 2.3



I. Preface

II. Stream of Consciousness- A Theoretical Approach

III. Time and Duration - A Theoretical Approach

IV. Text based Analysis of Time and Duration

V. Text based Analysis of Stream of Consciousness

VI. Epilogue

VII. Bibliography


“I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character- not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novels, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich and unelastic, and alive, has been evolved. To express character, I have said.“1

Virginia Woolf made this “character expressing” to the centre of her work and brought it to perfection in her late novels. She began using a stream technique in Jacob ’ s Room to describe characters’ thoughts and feelings. In phase II she built her novels on characters’ thoughts, formed the plot through description and characters mind progression. In To The Lighthouse Woolf let the plot progress through the developments of character. The Waves completely relies on the description of the characters’ minds and is phase III of her development. “She reaches perfection in characters’ thought and mind description”2 through the “stream of consciousness.”3

The purpose of this work is to cover a basic approach on the stream technique Woolf uses in her novels, as well as embed some text passages in the psychological background William James and Henri Bergson gave in their theories. Bergson and James are both psychologists who gave way to theories of time and duration, as well as to the theory of consciousness. Bergson, who was senior of William James, was highly influenced by James’ work and it is said that Bergson’s writing of Les donn é es imm é diates de la conscience was influenced by James’ article “On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology . Concurrently Bergson was highly regarded by James:

“So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing.(...)“4

Consequently it is obligatory to combine Woolf’s ideas of character description and her stream technique, with which she provides an insight into the character, with James’ and Bergson’s work. This can of course not be done in extenso on the following pages but I am trying to give an overview what we can deplore behind the surface of Woolf’s work.

Stream of Consciousness- A Theoretical Approach

Before we can try to look at a stream of consciousness we have to be aware of consciousness itself. What is consciousness? Most obviously it deals with a person’s mind and perception of outer circumstances. To William James, consciousness is something that “ does not appear to itself chopped up in bits”5 Thus we can assume that it consists of several parts joined together. These single parts have to be smaller in their unit and, according to James, they can only be things such as sensations, ideas and thoughts. These phenomena do not appear on their own. Each of these parts are evoked by a circumstance or thing, which means that a simple thing can never evoke more than a simple thought, feeling or sensation. Consequently, dealing with a more complicated thing evokes a multitudinous of thoughts or feelings. These phenomena do not have to be current. Sensations and feelings can also be evoked by things we only have in front of our mind’s eye. Withworth calls this phenomenon a “recollecting of moments”.6 Thus circumstances we grasped sometime in the past can evoke thoughts and feelings in the present. These are again, according to James “continuous” and he states:

1. “That even where there is a time gap the consciousness after it feels as if it belonged together with the consciousness before it, (…)
2. “That the changes from one moment to another in the quality of consciousness are never absolutely abrupt.“7

This means that consciousness is never interrupted but there is a steady ongoing consciousness in our mind. James calls this fluidity “ The Stream of Consciousness”.

At the same time, this stream and grasping of things that evoke thoughts, is in steady development. The older we grow and the more experienced we get, the harder it is to arouse a sensation. Things that were thrilling and exciting in youth, are boring and daily when we grow older and we become less emotional about them. Of course even our daily mood is decisive in how we see things. On a sunny day a song can delight us, the next day it rains and we switch it off. Consequently one thing never effects the same feeling, but can generate various feelings that add up to a stream. This phenomenon makes it possible to see things as often as they appear always from a different angle.

This is exactly the way Virginia Woolf writes her novels. She confronts her figures with events or feelings that cause a stream of consciousness, in which they take the future and past into account. Concurrently she makes the story progress, when her figures reflect on the past. Example from To the Lighthouse:

“When she looked in the glass and saw her hair grey, her cheek sunk, at fifty, she thought, possibly she might have managed things better-her husband, her money, his books. But for her own part she would never for a single second regret her decision, evade difficulties. Or slur over duties“.8

Mrs. Ramsay sees her aged countenance and Virginia Woolf immediately gives the reader an insight in her thoughts, in her current stream which was evoked only by looking into the glass. Mrs. Ramsay remembers of the past, connects her aged face with things she might have missed in her life and connects it to the future, by saying that she would never “evade difficulties”. As we can see Woolf’s writing fits all requirements James had for a proper stream. The thought of Mrs. Ramsay is evoked by one thing- her picture in the glass. She connects the fact of being aged with a remembrance of the past and slightly goes over to a foreshadowing of the future without abrupt endings of the phases.


1 Woolf, Viginia: ‘ Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown in Collected Essays. London: The Hogarth Press. (1966) p.319

2 cf. Wiget, Erik: Virginia Woolf und die Konzeption der Zeit in ihren Werken. Zürich: Juris Verlag. (1949) p.118

3 cf. James, William: The Principles of Psychology. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica. (1996) p.155

4 Letter of Bergson October 4th 1908

5 James, William: The Principles of Psychology. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica. (1996)

6 Withworth, Michael: Authors in Context Virginia Woolf.Oxford: University Press. (2006) p.117

7 James, William: The Principles of Psychology. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica. (1996)

8 Woolf, Virginia: To The Lighthouse.Oxford: University Press. (2006) p.9

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The concept of Time and Duration in Virginia Woolfs novels - A stream of consciousness
University of Regensburg  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Proseminar Virginia Woolf und Jeanette Winterson
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Die Arbeit wurde laut Dozenten auf Grund von Ungenauigkeiten im Stil der Zitate (MLA Style) abgewertet. Inhaltlich bewegt sie sich laut Dozent im Bereich 1.7.
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Sebastian Meindl (Author), 2008, The concept of Time and Duration in Virginia Woolfs novels - A stream of consciousness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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