The Unevenness of Lived Time in Mrs. Dalloway by Elisha Dura

The Unevenness of Lived Time in Mrs. Dalloway 

“She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away while they went on living. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. But she must go back. She must assemble.” 

—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway 

Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, spans the length of a single day in London, following both the mundane and seemingly-endless life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife, and the rapid succession of events that leads to the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I Veteran who suffers from what was labeled “shell shock” by those living in the novel’s 1923 time period. Upon considering Septimus Warren Smith’s suicide, Clarissa Dalloway acknowledges the presence of Septimus as her double in the novel, a common conclusion made by both ordinary readers and scholars alike.  Yet the two characters’ opposite endings—one fatal, the other eternal—reveal a divide between Virginia Woolf’s character pairing. While Clarissa “went on living” in spite of her internal struggles, Septimus’s life is “thrown … away” (159). In “Virginia Woolf and the Case of Septimus Smith,” Jean Thomson argues that the characters’ diverging ends point to the “archetypal inevitability” of Septimus’ death, highlighting the detrimental care that both Septimus and Woolf received from doctors  as well as an eerie alternative response to Clarissa’s loneliness which she escapes (69). However, Clarissa and Septimus also differ critically in two other manners: social class and their experiences of time’s passing. While Clarissa meanders through London and her memories of the past with relative ease, Septimus is rushed, throughout the course of a single day, from wavering states of comfort and traumatic flashbacks in the morning to immense suicidal thoughts and, ultimately, his death. Through depictions of Clarissa and Septimus’ differences in their lived experiences of time, Septimus’ death transcends a mere critique on doctors and a warning to Clarissa about the possibility of death. Instead, Septimus’s death arises as a product of the social stratification of post-war England which allows Clarissa, in her social privilege, to live. 

Clarissa and Septimus’ opposing daily experiences recall what Sarah Sharma refers to in her book, In the Meantime, as “multiple temporalities,” the uneven experiences of time by individuals according to factors such as class, gender, sexuality, and race (7). Temporalities “[depend] on where they are positioned within a larger economy of temporal worth,” which is “controlled by both the institutional arrangements they inhabit and the time of others” (Sharma 8). Thus, one person’s experience of time is influenced by their relative position in a hierarchical society; one’s time may be experienced quicker than another’s because it is deemed less worthy to experience temporal luxuries, such as leisure activities, on account of the individual’s social position. Being alone with one’s thoughts and free to explore them without consequence appears as the height of temporal privilege in Mrs. Dalloway. These moments of narrated thought expand the experience of time for each character, both by slowing down their thoughts in the process of transcription and by lengthening the narrative which describes their thoughts versus actions. Thus, the experience of time as slow or expanded seems “the privileged tempo” within the novel, offering any character who loses themselves in their thoughts “a sort of distance from the world that makes it possible to assess one’s place in it” (Sharma 110-11). 

Yet, as Sharma predicts, only one of the doubled pair possesses a social status high enough to be able to dwell in these moments of slowed down time: Clarissa Dalloway. Oftentimes, Clarissa controls the flow of her thoughts, pausing them to act in the outside world as she wishes. In one instance, as she strolls through a park and approaches a flower shop, Clarissa allows her mind to wander for several pages with ease, dragging out time with her stream of consciousness until she desires an end to it. Finally, when her thoughts on Miss Kilman stir her emotions, she cries “Nonsense, nonsense!”, severing the expansion of time by choice and grounding her in the present-moment action of entering the shop (9). Woolf bestows on Clarissa the ability to rule over her thoughts and, accordingly, her lived experience of time, yet her control over her temporality relates to her privilege in society. With this temporal privilege, Clarissa may merely spend the day planning a party without any real threat to her life or physical comfort to obstruct her free flowing thoughts. 

On the other hand, Septimus involuntarily surges toward his death due to others’ interruption of his thought processes. During a visit to Dr. Holmes in regards to Septimus’ condition, Dr. Holmes instructs Rezia is instructed by Dr. Holmes to stop Septimus’ thoughts and make him “take an interest in things outside himself” (17). However, these activities primarily include visiting Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw, both of whom disapprove of Septimus’ thoughts because they hinder him from fulfilling his societal role, as a veteran and former working-class man, of finding economic and emotional stability for Rezia’s sake. The doctors’ pushback against Septimus’ thoughts prevents the kind of temporal extension that Clarissa experiences, and instead, Septimus must face the reality of two doctors who he feels “had condemned him to death” (76). When Rezia and the doctors momentarily leave him alone to ponder, Septimus finally experiences Clarissa’s ease of thought and relishes the “luxury in it [being alone]; … a freedom which the attached can never know” (78). His slowed temporality even graces him with distance and self-reflection—which Sharma argues slowed time provides—allowing him to “[gaze] back at the inhabited regions” and temporarily reevaluate his suicidal thoughts: “But why should he kill himself for their sakes?” (78). However, as always, Septimus’s free thinking and extended time forcefully meet their end when a character—this time, Rezia—declares him in need of medical attention, dragging Septimus from his slowed temporality into a world of rapid-fire diagnoses and treatments that renounce any chance for momentary respite. 

This fast-paced temporality ultimately drives Septimus to cut his lifetime short, and, in comparison to Clarissa’s survival in Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus’ death appears as a cry against the injustice of his situation as a working-class man and war veteran forced into death. Mrs. Dalloway captures British society’s “struggle to pretend that nothing unusual had resulted from the war,” but Woolf specifically places blame on the upper class for their ignorance towards Septimus (Thomson 66). Both doctors of middle to upper class act as Septimus’ main enemies, but even greater blame may be placed on Clarissa, who wishes to ignore the concern of Septimus’ death and queries: “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party?” (157). Though she recognizes a similar struggle between the two of them, Clarissa fails to acknowledge how her indifference towards Septimus relates to the tragedy of his death. As her double and opposite in social class and temporality, Septimus’ temporality intertwines with hers and “is constantly oriented toward the temporal needs of other populations and individuals,” allowing her to go on living while he takes the fall (Sharma 66). In order for Clarissa to continue living slowly, Septimus must die fast. Through Sharma’s theory of class-influenced temporality, we realize that it is, in part, Clarissa’s privileged temporality—her slow moving lifestyle and inner thoughts—that drives the shortening of Septimus’ life and time in Virginia Woolf’s narration. Septimus’ inevitable death brings life to Clarissa, maintaining a privileged society’s ignorance of class, mental health, and war. 

Works Cited 

Sharma, Sarah. In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Duke University Press, 2013. 

Thomson, Jean. “Virginia Woolf and the Case of Septimus Smith.” The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, 2004, pp. 55-71. JSTOR, 

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Penguin Books, 2021.

Author Bio:

 Elisha Dura is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English. She currently serves as the Events Editor for Bwog, a Columbia undergraduate student news site. Her previous writing includes a research paper on writer motivation and identity presented at the International Writing Centers Association Annual Conference. In her free time, Elisha enjoys dancing with friends, wandering through art museums, and finding the best ice cream spots in the city.