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Analysing Temporal and Spatial Themes in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway


Introduction

The advent of Modernism in the twentieth century drastically changed the way of understanding art and literature, revolutionising concepts that had been stable for centuries, such as time and space. The urge for a radical break with tradition was not only a stylistic choice driven by the authors' necessities but rather the logical outcome of a chain of events. The Western world as these intellectuals knew it was slowly starting to crumble. Artists and scholars had to respond to historical events such as industrialization, the development of mass society, war, and the spread of new philosophical ideas and social theories (Childs, 2000). Freud's psychoanalysis, Einstein's theory of relativity, and the Bergsonian view of time as "duration" are likely the theories that most challenged our pre-existing understandings of space and time. The impact of modernity had a strong influence on art and literature, resulting in the creation of new groundbreaking works. In literature, realism is abandoned in favour of more subjective techniques (Castle, 2013). Mrs Dalloway (1925), Virginia Woolf's novel, is a fine example of the century's new ideas coming together in a single narrative. Woolf's work is in fact among the first to reinterpret the spatial and temporal dimensions, while also focusing on the interior life of her characters. The purpose of the following article is to examine how the author addresses the geographical and chronological dimensions of her work. The article will be divided into four sections, with the first providing a brief overview of the work, the second and third focusing on the temporal and then spatial analysis of the work, and the final paragraph outlining the main concepts covered in the article and serving as a conclusion.



Figure 1: Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912.


A Concise Overview of Mrs. Dalloway

To this day, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) not only plays an essential role in the history of women's literature but also represents a cornerstone of modernist writing. Fascinated by the world of literature and art since early childhood, Woolf realised her dream through writing, quickly establishing herself as one of the most important voices on the European scene at the time. Mrs. Dalloway, written in 1925, represents one of the first novels to adhere to the new experimental stylistic techniques introduced by modernism, while also addressing the pressing themes of identity, memory, and post-traumatic shock. The plot of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf revolves around a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class woman in post-World War I England. It follows Clarissa on the day of 13th of June as she prepares for a party she is hosting that evening. Throughout the day, running errands in London, Clarissa reflects on her past, her choices, and her relationships with those around her. The narrative intertwines with the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran suffering from severe mental health issues. Septimus' struggle to process wartime experience and his deteriorating mental state serves as a contrast to Clarissa's more privileged albeit emotionally complex life. As the day progresses, the novel delves into the inner thoughts and feelings of various characters, exploring themes of memory, time, identity, and the impact of war on individuals. The narrative weaves together multiple perspectives and experiences, offering a rich representation of interconnected lives and emotions.





Spatial representation in the novel

As mentioned above, the novel is innovative due to its unique writing style. Woolf was indeed able to capture the countless transformations that were taking place in the postwar era, “unsettling the centuries-entrenched beliefs in the absolute, mechanistic workings of the universe, along with the concomitant cultural practices closely associated with these beliefs” (Brown 2015). The action takes place in postwar London, a metropolis filled with activity, visual, and, most importantly, auditory stimuli. The city is depicted as a lively and bustling metropolis, with its streets, parks, and architecture providing the backdrop for the characters' engagements and contemplations. The cityscape is intricately integrated into the story, capturing the vitality of city life and the progression of time. Woolf's characters coexist in the same time and setting yet their lives do not intersect. Such a stylistic choice is innovative as it was uncommon in novels before the modernist era to cross so many plot strands without the characters meeting throughout the narrative. Woolf, on the other hand, manages to create connections that unite the characters despite the spatial and emotional distance.

Figure 2: Ladies at the flower market, V. Guerrier.

The apparent separation within close quarters is indicative of the growing sense of alienation in modernist society. Aside from being the natural consequence of the horrors of the Great War, new ground-breaking scientific discoveries at the time affirmed the individuality and subjectivity of the human experience. The theory of relativity, developed by Einstein at the turn of the century, caused everything to become filtered by individual perception, rendering it relative and subjective. There is no longer an east or a west; everything revolves around where the characters are standing at any particular time. Each person perceives time differently depending on the activities in which they are engaged as well as their perception of these pursuits.

The way in which the author presents the places makes the events unfold dynamically. The entire text is interlaced with continual geographical references to the topography of London:

“ Then suddenly, as a train comes out of a tunnel, the aeroplane rushed out of the clouds again, the sound boring into the ears of all people in the Mall, in the Green Park, in Piccadilly, in Regent Street, in Regent’s Park, and the bar of smoke curved behind and it dropped down, and it soared up and wrote one letter after another—but what word was it writing? Lucrezia Warren Smith, sitting by her husband’s side on a seat in Regent’s Park in the Broad Walk, looked up.” (Woolf, 1925)

Clarissa moves through the city's streets, which appear to be limitless in terms of branches, squares, and gardens. Her husband Richard, a Member of Parliament and a conservative politician, also traverses the streets of London at the same time as his wife. Still, the couple never meet until the evening of the party. The numerous locations and sites addressed throughout the work, however, do more than just provide the reader with a vision of the places.


The primary objective of mentioning places is to transport the reader through the stream of consciousness, into the inner thoughts of the characters as they interact with the spaces around them. Places take on a symbolic meaning, reflecting the emotions and thoughts of the characters. This is aptly illustrated through short bursts of stream of consciousness not only from the main characters but the side characters they meet in passing. A chance encounter between Maise Johnson, a working girl from Edinburg, and Warren Smith, shell-shocked World War I veteran gives us an externalised perspective on the protagonists through Maise's casual stream of thought:

"The way to Regent’s Park Tube station—could they tell her the way to Regent’s Park Tube station—Maisie Johnson wanted to know. She was only up from Edinburgh two days ago. ‘Not this way—over there!’ Rezia exclaimed, waving her aside, lest she should see Septimus. Both seemed queer, Maisie Johnson thought. Everything seemed very queer. In London for the time”(Woolf, 1925)

Figure 3: Regent’s Park Map 1830.

There is no panoramic perspective, but the reader walks with the characters during their journey inhabiting their thoughts as they do. Walking unfolds the stream of consciousness, the outside world provides input and inspirations that carry the narrative fluidly from one topic to another.


The Big Ben's Temporal Significance 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 [...] before Big Ben strikes.” (Woolf, 1925)

The constant point of reference for all characters remains Big Ben, London's monumental clock that serves not only as a spatial indicator but also as a subtle allusion to time. The enormous Big Ben acts as the novel's crucial device for bringing the protagonist back to reality, and is the only thing that can rouse Clarissa from her inner monologue. The city is a carrier of the characters' stream of consciousness, moving as they pass with their thoughts in tow. By tracking the passing of time, Big Ben returns us to the present. The realist novel, popularised in the second part of the nineteenth century, proposed a linear, chronological time, similar to a straight line with clear departures and arrivals. Modernists like Woolf later discard this trend, preferring to move through time leaps, juxtapositions, repetitions, and flashbacks. The fragmentation experienced during the war and post-war period is represented through these stylistic choices.



Figure 4: Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Yelena Bryksenkova


As stated previously, the characters tend to become engrossed in their internal monologue for an extended period, which results in the reader's perception of a significant passage of time, while in reality, only a few minutes have elapsed. This narrative technique contributes to a sense of temporal dissonance and may impact the reader's comprehension of the plot's pacing. Virginia Woolf is particularly effective at creating this sense, and she does so purposefully, appealing to the Bergsonian concept of time. According to Bergson (2019), reality is defined not by one but by two clocks: by chronological time and by what he calls "duration", or the experience of time as lived subjectively, beyond the quantitative measurement. Virginia Woolf takes advantage of his theory to expand on this premise; creating what are also known as internal and exterior clocks. The internal clock is subjective and personal; it varies for each individual, as it is based on the experience of time at a specific instant rather than in real time.

“The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour struck out between them with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that.” (Woolf, 1925)


On the contrary, chronological time, the external clock, flows quickly and is marked during the novel by the heavy tolling of Big Ben which manages to wake up characters from their internal trance, bringing them back to reality, and reminding readers once again that the whole story is taking place in the course of a day:

“But why should she invite all the dull women in London to her parties? Why should Mrs Marsham interfere? And there was Elizabeth closeted all this time with Doris Kilman. Anything more nauseating she could not conceive. Prayer at this hour with that woman.  And the sound of the bell flooded the room with its melancholy wave; which receded, and gathered itself together to fall once more, when she heard, distractingly, something fumbling, something scratching at the door. Who at this hour? For with overpowering directness and dignity the clock struck three; and she heard nothing else;” (Woolf, 1925)
Figure 5: The Big Ben, photo by Kier in Sight Archives.

Time moves relentlessly, interrupting and oppressing the characters (Childs, 2000), and it is only at the end of the novel, at the time of the long-awaited party, that it appears to witness a temporal realignment in which past, present, and future meet,  “as the narrative circles back to where it began in Westminster, all the disparate personalities, classes, and spatiotemporal points of view momentarily mingle at Clarissa’s party” (Beker, 1972). At the end of the novel, what the readers learn through events such as Septimus' death or the encounter between Clarissa and Peter, a former suitor and friend, is that the narrative proposes a cyclical aspect of time, with the past, present, and future interconnected. Characters such as Clarissa Dalloway reflect on their prior experiences and how they have influenced their current selves, also processing former relationships as the one experienced with Peter. Time is no longer a linear progression, but rather a continual circle of memories and moments. The narrative emphasises the fleeting and fragile traits of time. The protagonists struggle with the passage of time and the impermanence of existence, prompting thoughts on mortality and the significance of each moment. 


Conclusion

With the unique use of the spatial dimension and the rethinking of the concept of time, it is possible to note how Virginia Woolf totally distances herself from the previous tradition, leaving behind her first writings, and creating what is commonly considered her greatest novel.  Mrs. Dalloway, and in particular the use of the time that comes from it, anticipates the timeline that will also be taken up in To The Lighthouse (1927). Virginia Woolf's greatest achievement, in addition to writing one of the most creative books of her period, was to produce something incredibly contemporary nearly 100 years ago that is still relevant today. The conditions the author discussed in the novel remain highly relatable even for today's readers who, thanks to the extensive interior monologues, can identify with the minds of characters who would otherwise be extremely distant from us. All of this has resulted in her work still being studied, celebrated, and admired for its profound insights and original approach to storytelling.





Bibliographical References

Beker, M. (1972). London as a Principle of Structure in “Mrs. Dalloway.” Modern Fiction Studies, 18(3), 375–385. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26279214?read-now=1#page_scan_tab_contents


Brown, P. (2015). The Spatiotemporal Topography of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Capturing Britain’s Transition to a Relative Modernity. Journal of Modern Literature, 38(4), 20. https://doi.org/10.2979/jmodelite.38.4.20


Castle, G. (2013). The literary theory handbook. John Wiley.


Childs, P. (2000). Modernism. Routledge.


Henri-Louis Bergson. (2019). TIME AND FREE WILL: an essay on the immediate data of consciousness. Gray Rabbit Publishing.


Woolf, V. (1925). Mrs Dalloway. Penguin Classics.

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