The Concept of Time in the Hours and Mrs. Dalloway

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Modernist literature is normally praised because of its clear break from traditional norms of creative writing, especially regarding content. The deviation at times forces scholars and professional writers to reflect on individual words as a function of deciphering obscured meaning. The way modernists portray truths concerning the dynamicity of a society mandates the reader to dissect the concept of time in order to understand human consciousness and how instances influence the human state of mind. Time in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs.

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Dalloway’ is in two forms where for one, the clock gauges actual time and where wristwatches cover human experiences and how the human mind understand them. Contrastingly, Cunningham in ‘The Hours’ uses time to thematically cover a sense of human connectedness. While the authors employ different literary techniques to cover time, the variable remains a subjective and personal construct that shapes the temporal experiences and the character’s state of mind.

Time in ‘The Hours’

Prior to the commencement of the comparative analysis, imperative to note is that time in both books is based on Sigmund Freud’s (1890) study on human consciousness. In the study, time is concerned with the human understanding of expectations, memory, compression, and duration of instances (Johnson 112). Such an understanding of time explains the ’cause and effect’ affiliation between an experience and behavior. Cunningham’s use of time is innovative and dynamic as the element does not follow linear chronology and is temporary thus making it hard for the reader to derive any connections. The author’s primary technique for capturing time rests on a single-day basis. The approach offers the reader a manageable way of tracking time frames and compositions in the narrative. Moreover, the approach allows the author to focus on the mental state of key characters.

For Cunningham, time is a continuous flow of human consciousness. Consider the prologue of ‘The Hours’ where Cunningham covers Woolf’s suicide through drowning. The author writes, “”Her feet strike the bottom frequently and when they do, they beckon up a slothful cloud of muck made up of black silhouettes of dead leaves that float stationary on the water”” (Cunningham 7). The images the author uses to express the way Woolf’s body floats on water and moves down the river is easy to follow as there are no breaks or changes in consciousness. Moreover, the way it moves in the river is symbolic of the human torrent of consciousness. In the description, objects from the shore or outside the river are described in terms of how distorted the water and its movement is. One of the key tenets of Freud’s human consciousness is how stimuli influence perception and subsequent behavior.

Time is a multi-tunnel system where the degree of interconnectedness between the past and present determine the complexity of characters. Basically, a tunnel is an intensive memory network where depth influences character complexities. In the narrative, Laura Brown experiences numerous flash memories that, in turn, superimpose on her understanding of the present or reality. When the character visualizes a ghost standing at her rear, she turns to the mirror. “”When she views the cabinet mirror, she temporarily visualizes that someone is standing behind her. Of course, it is just a trick of the light and there is no one behind her”” (Cunningham 214). At that very instant, Brown is visualizing a past version of herself standing beside her looking into the mirror. Importance of tunneling is that the visualization happens just before the character thinks how easy it is to end one’s life. Therefore, time is used to depict how past self-perceptions trigger emotions and the cross-section between the experienced emotion and characterization.

Time in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

Woolf equally uses the concept of flowing consciousness to cover the liquidity of the human mind. However, the author deviates from Cunningham’s approach as she shifts from one character’s state of mind to another’s in such a swift way that it is difficult for the reader to identify. Therefore, Woolf’s flow of consciousness entails character multiplicities even though the shared state of mind at that specific instant unites the characters. Woolf’s technique for the concept is largely developed by an outside narrator as denoted by the tags ‘he thought’ or ‘she stormed’ amongst many others. For instance, consider Peter Walsh’s intrapersonal dialogue as he traversed through Regent’s Park. The character questions himself, “”and this is being young”” as he passes by a desperate young girl who was having an awful morning (Woolf 77). The internal thought that is narrated from an outside context unifies Walsh’s and the poor girl’s state of mind. One of the primary advantages of Woolf’s perception of flowing human consciousness is that it gives her characters a stronger sense of cohesion and connection. For a higher level reader who is able to understand the character multiplicity, the intense cohesion will give a higher sense of satisfaction with the reading.

While Cunningham uses images to establish tunneling, Woolf uses the literary technique repetitively to defy reality or present time. Repetition is used to eliminate differentiating factors behind identical acts. In essence, the connection between individuals who perform the same act is emphasized as time allows elimination of temporal differences, such as cultures and motives. In the narrative, there is a scene where Clarissa walks up to an open shop window and reads the words “”Fear no more the heat of the sun or the cold rages of winter”” (Woolf 10). The character repeats the phrase several times in the book. In another scene, Septimus Smith is in a room reflecting on a single line from a Shakespeare narrative that states, “”Fear no more, says the heart, fear no more”” (Woolf 153). The direct assumption drawn from the two characters reflecting on the same line is that their experiences and present state of mind are connected in a certain way. Repetition makes the reader ignore the characters’ space and time differences. The subtle drawing of the reader’s attention makes character affiliations more coherent and believable.


Virginia Woolf and Cunningham use the same constructs of time differently to cover their characterizations in terms of state of mind, behaviors, and affiliations. In both narratives, time is a complex image made up of underlying structures that dictate how characters explore their history and how they determine their present behaviors. For one, time in both books is like a spider-web, a systematic pattern of interconnected lines. However, for Cunningham, the web has a linear progression and is only experienced individually. For Woolf, the tunnel is not chronological and reflections can be shared between two or more persons. The similarity also applies to the flow of human consciousness as both books assert the state of mind is subject to influence from external factors. However, Woolf uses time to hide how these factors shape shared consciousness. While Woolf complicates the concept of time, her design and use of the concept result in more character cohesion and context appreciation compared to Cunningham’s simple use of the notion.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. Harper Perennial, 1998.

Johnson, N. George. Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction. Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Penguin Classics, 1925.

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The Concept of Time in The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway. (2019, Oct 13). Retrieved from