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TIME IN THE NOVELS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF JOHN GRAHAM V IRGINIA WOOLF adhered to her own critical dictum, expr~ most fully in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, that the business of the novelist is the exploration of character. The final goal of such exploration, however, is insight into the nature of human personality, and so into the meaning of life: for Mrs. Brown, whose character is the proper subject of the novel, is really "the spirit we live by, life itself."1 In struggling to reach that goal, Mrs. Woolf is constantly preoccupied with problems relating to time, as most critics have noted. This preoccupation underlies her concern with the phenomena of memory, change, and death, and drives her to ask several ancient difficult questions. Her efforts to answer them result in two central views of life, neither of which is the result of mere neurotic nescience. I In the first three novels-The Voyage Out, Night and Day, and jacob's Room-the questions are asked in a fairly obvious way, and focus on the apparent dichotomy between two kinds of time, two worlds: on the one hand, the world of linear time, of past, present, and future, in which we are subject to unremittent and uncontrollable flux; and on the other hand, the world of mind time, an inner world of thought and imagination, in which the chaotic flow of experience derived from our life in linear time is reduced to order and unity, and in which we are therefore liberated. In all of her novels, Mrs. Woolf is troubled by the apparent dualistic conflict between these two worlds, in which the data of one frequently contradict the data of the other; but she is never willing to accept this dualism as absolute. In seeking to overcome it, two solutions are possible: either both worlds are parts of one larger reality, and are therefore integrally related to each other; or one of these worlds is unreal, and only in exploring the other shall we find a valid absolute. In the first three novels neither of these solutions is worked out: the problem is stated, not solved. These novels are dominated by what is called in one of them "the profound and reasonless law" of linear tirne.2 In this immense machine, human life is irrelevant; and against its tyranny the inner world of mind time opposes at best an escape into illusion. But in her next novel, Mrs. Woolf does offer a solution, which depends to a great extent on the relationship between Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. Although Clarissa exults in the "triumph and the jingle" of ''life; London; this moment of June,"3 she is also affi.icted by a sense of isolation IMr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (London, 1924), 24. ?.The Voyage Out (London, 1929), 322. SMrs. Dalloway (Modem Library, 1928), 5. 186 TIME IN THE NOVELS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF 187 and by the recurring terror of death. The nature of her predicament is expressed most powerfully when she stands in a litde room, watching the old lady in the house across the way: Big Ben struck the half hour. How extraordinary it was, strange, yes, touching, to see the old lady (they had been neighbours ever so many years) move away from that window, as if she were attached to that sound, that string. Gigantic as it was, it had something to do with her. Down, down, into the midst of ordinary things the finger fell ma.k.ing the moment solemn. She was forced, so Clarissa imagined, by that sound, to move, to go-but where? ... Why creeds and prayers and mackintoshes ? when, thought Clarissa, that's the miracle, that's the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressingtable . She could still see her. And the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn't believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room, there another. Did religion solve that, or love? (Pp. 192-3.) In many of Mrs. Woolf's novels...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 186-201
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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