Concepts of Time in Virginia Woolf

Term Paper, 2005

17 Pages, Grade: 1.0



1. Woolf’s concept of time(s)

2. Time in “Mrs. Dalloway”
2.1. “Tunnelling process” through “the characters’ caves”
2.2. The unifying character of Big Ben

3. Time in ”Moments of Being”
3.1. Correlation of the past and the present
3.2. Juxtaposing moments of “being” and “non-being”


The list of the used sources

"Nothing exists outside us except a state of mind"[1]

(“Mrs. Dalloway”)

Virginia Woolf took her life in March 1941. Her fear that she would no longer be able to live meaningfully, according to her ideals and particular vision of life, forced her to choose death as salvation. To her, death was not an ending. The spirit above all had to be preserved. Like her character Septimus Warren Smith, under the strain of mental illness, she threw her life away in order to preserve that which was most sacred to her – life and integrity of the soul.

Probably it seems to be a contradiction - to destroy one’s life in an effort to save it. There are many such paradoxes in Virginia Woolf’s thinking, due to her emotional nature and to her special way of looking at life, time, and space that shapes reality itself.

In this vision of life as an eternal process, the concepts of time and space, invented by man, have no meaning, because reality exists outside of them. By passing his temporal life man views all things in relation to himself and his life on the earth. But it is rather difficult to squeeze one’s life among birth and death, for man permanently organises his experience into rather relative formulations of interweaving time and space. And reality, as viewed by Virginia Woolf, includes the whole expanse of space and time, and every living form brings its historic and prehistoric past into the ever-flowing stream of life. The present moment is never isolated, because it is filled with very preceding moment, and is constantly in the process of change. Time flows with the stream, having neither beginning nor end. Reality is actually timeless and spaceless, because it contains all space and all time.

Believing in the eternal process, Virginia Woolf also demanded a revolution in literary technique and subject matter. She reconsidered personality, language, plot and structure in a new light. Personality was continuously in the process of taking shape and could not be accomplished by external descriptions. Language had to convey the emotions and perceptions of different levels of awareness all at the same moment, revealing the unconscious as well as the conscious things. Plot had to be eliminated, since action held no interest. The only thing that mattered was the inner life. Filled with the “moments of being”, it revealed to a person the pattern behind the woolly curtain of existence and through it, connected him to the other people and the outer world.

1. Woolf’s concept of time(s)

Deeply influenced by the modernist philosophers, Virginia Woolf supported Henri Bergson’s concept of dureé[2]: the flowing of life that never subsists, with birth, growth, death, the changing of the seasons progress in an unceasing, mechanical rhythm. But she gave her own understanding of double-nature of time[3] as proposed by Bergson. In “Time and Free Will” (1888) he had dealt with two different concepts of time. Historical time, which is external and linear, was measured in terms of the spatial distance travelled by a pendulum or the hands of a clock. And psychological time, which is internal and subjective, was measured by the relative emotional intensity of a moment.

Bergson had also given guidance to writers seeking to capture the effects of emotional relativity, because he had suggested that a thought or feeling could be measured in terms of the number of perceptions, memories, and associations attached to it. For Woolf, the external event is significant in the way, how it triggers and releases the inner life. While an exterior incident or perception may only be a brief flash of chronological time, its impact upon the individual consciousness may have a much greater duration and meaning. Like other modernist writers experimenting with the representation of consciousness, Woolf was interested in capturing the flux of random associations. In addition, she wanted to emphasise how the half-buried memories and interpretations could mould a person.

In Virginia Woolf's handling with time lies a key not only to her mysticism, but also to her literary technique. The life of the mind in which psychological time exists is freely moving, it is untamed, and resistant to conscious will. In spite of this fact, Woolf tried to control what seemed uncontrollable by using time itself - fictional time (synonymous with chronological and external time) as one of her major devices. Thus, for example, as one of her characters recalls moments from the past and loses himself in thoughts and meditations of that moment, a clock strikes (fictional time) and brings him back, to the present (chronological time). Her wish to convey consciousness and eliminate action resulted in the narrowing of the fictional action, as the psychological duration of the characters expands. Virginia Woolf sometimes attempted to give the illusion of all the life in one day (“Mrs. Dalloway”), or of all life in a moment (“Slater’s Pins Have No Points”).

Thus Virginia Woolf replaced the outlines of the traditional well-made novel with the frames of a temporal or spatial nature. Within them the inner life was given full swing, receiving its only direction by its underlying emotional structure. In this very way Virginia Woolf did the most unusual thing. She transformed the man-made concepts of reality, time and space into her own artistic device in order to express both an inability to escape completely from the tickings of the chronological clock, but at the same time to merge successfully the inner reality and timelessness. Although the author thought of reality as a mixture of the inner life of the mind and the cyclical rhythms of the universe, she never attempted to deny the existence or even the necessity of man's outer systems, because by reality she was referring to the true meaningful life.

Virginia Woolf achieved her personal vision of reality, in which there was an overall pattern of the never-ceasing changing of the seasons, the continual renewal of life, the ebb and flow of the sea. All these things were possible to perceive on those rare occasions when intuition pierced into the reality. But only in death, according to Virginia Woolf, unity with the universal order was permanent. And that’s why by choosing to identify with a fixed, non-changing reality, she was able to feel herself part of everlasting life, or immortality. The belonging established by her was something much more permanent than society or earthly life could offer. And when she took her own life, she secured an eternal bond between herself and reality.

2. Time in “Mrs. Dalloway”

The book covers one day in June 1922, in London's West End. Time and place keep us aware of the position or the physical reality of the characters, as, simultaneously, the emotional content of their consciousness is unfolding. Big Ben is as an important character, though in a different sense, as Mrs. Dalloway herself. As Big Ben strikes the hours and quarter hours, uniting time with place and the consciousness of that character who is present.

The characters of the novel are related to one another not only in time and space, but also psychologically and spiritually. For example, when narrator suddenly breaks away from Septimus Warren Smith's thoughts and jumps to those of Elizabeth Dalloway, she creates a common bond between these characters, although they don't know each other. Sometimes it is “the most puzzling aspect of Mrs. Dalloway … it tells two unconnected stories. These interweave with each other but they never mesh in the ways we expect. It is as if characters from two different stories have become jumbled up by mistake… She (Woolf) invents a plot that instead of manoeuvring the characters into a single story… (She) concocts a series of coincidences that never create connection”[4].

In contrast to the flux of subjective time, the bell motif in “Mrs.Dalloway” is introduced to structure the story chronologically. Alongside the “clock-time” plot runs a deeply non-chronological narrative bound to the memories of the characters. Septimus is the one affected most by his past experiences, for he often cannot leave them behind and regard them as something finished in the past. His history is not merely recalled from his past memory, it is haunting him in the present.

Together with subjective and chronological time represented in the novel, Paul Ricoeur introduces the importance of the hours, called “monumental time”[5] as associated with the authority of national and other institutions. Ricoeur links this with the symbolic force of the figure of royalty passing in anonymous majesty through London during Clarissa's shopping expedition, or with the advertising slogan, eagerly deciphered by the crowd whom it equally draws together.

The last concept of time observed in Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” is the “biological time” mentioned by Julia Briggs. By entitling her book as “The Hours”, Virginia Woolf linked the insistent chiming of clocks keeping us aware of time with the measuring out of human lives and seasons; and in the first run she draw the analogy between the hours and the female life cycle, what we would now call the biological clock. As Julia Briggs states, “Woolf gives us a full range of portraits spanning the seven ages of woman. Elizabeth Dalloway is almost eighteen, just beginning her adult life. Rezia Smith is in her twenties. Milly Brush and Doris Kilman are past forty, Clarissa and Sally Seton are in their fifties. Millicent Bruton is sixty-two, but dreams of being a little girl in Devon, playing with her brothers in the clover. Miss Helena Parry, past eighty, lives in her memories of India, and the glorious triumph of her book about the orchids of Burma. Finally, there is the nameless old woman Clarissa sees from her window, alone, putting out her light, and going to bed”[6].


[1] Virginia Woolf, Collected novels of Virginia Woolf, edited with an introduction and notes by Stella McNichol, Macmillan Press, 1992, p. 74.

[2] Mirjana Vrhunc, Bild und Wirklichkeit: Zur Philosophie Henri Bergsons, München, Fink Verlag, 2002, p.27.

[3] Ibid., p. 64.

[4] John Mepham, Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life, General Editor: Richard Dutton, Macmillan, 1991, p. 97.

[5] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Volume 2, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 106.

[6] Julia Briggs, Virginia Woolf: Introduction to the major works, edited and introduced by Julia Briggs, Virago Press Ltd, 1994, p. 141.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Concepts of Time in Virginia Woolf
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg  (Institut für fremdsprachliche Philologien)
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Concepts, Time, Virginia, Woolf
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Nataliya Gudz (Author), 2005, Concepts of Time in Virginia Woolf, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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