Analysing the motif of time in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and ‘The Hours’

In the novels, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and The Hours (1998), time is a recurring motif used by both authors. The Hours by Michael Cunningham is written to pay homage to Virginia Woolf, the author of Mrs. Dalloway (Hardy 2011: 401). Therefore, The Hours echoes the motif of time (as well as other motifs which are beyond the scope of this essay) which Woolf writes about in Mrs. Dalloway (MacFarlane 2017: 69, 71-72, 75). In both novels, time is used to represent the temporary nature of life. Clocks are used to symbolise the urgency which accompanies time – this places emphasis on the mortality of life. Furthermore, both novels express the nonlinear nature of time, which juxtaposes the temporary nature of life with the permanent nature of memories (both positive and negative memories). In this essay, I will demonstrate that Cunningham uses the same representations of time as Woolf does in her novel. Additionally, I will explain the contextual settings of both novels to demonstrate that time is relevant inside and outside of these two intertextual novels. 

The urgency of time occurs in both novels. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dallloway is rushing to prepare the arrangements for her party, and in The Hours, Clarissa Vaughn is rushing to get Richard ready for his party. The parties could be viewed as deadlines that have to be met. If time is not kept, Clarissa’s party will not be ready for her guests in Mrs. Dalloway, and Richard will miss his party in The Hours. Early in the novel (Mrs. Dalloway), Clarissa’s urgency is conveyed when she rushes to invite Peter to her party, while he is exiting her house:

“Peter! Peter!” cried Clarissa, following him out on to the landing. “My party to-night! Remember my party to-night!” she cried, having to raise her voice against the road of the open air, and, overwhelmed by the traffic and the sound of all the clocks striking, her voice crying “Remember my party to-night!” sounded frail and thin and very far away as Peter Walsh shut the door. (Woolf 1925 :45)

In this extract, reference is made to “all the clocks” in London, which symbolises the universality  of time that connects all people. By including Richard in her party, Clarissa is forming this connectedness of people. Furthermore, the hyperbolic use of “all the clocks” emphasises the magnitude of the importance of time. While the clock ticks, Clarissa’s party draws nearer, and so does the death of Septimus Warren Smith. With this in mind, the party can be viewed as a metaphor for death, which is the ultimate deadline for which a person needs to be ready for. Similarly, in The Hours, Richard readies himself for both his party and his death, as he is dying of HIV/AIDS. It can thus be said that The Hours reiterates the motifs of time and mortality, which are in Mrs. Dalloway

Both novels bring to attention the nonlinear nature of time. As Clarissa (in Mrs Dalloway) prepares for her party, and as Richard (in The Hours) avoids preparing for his party, both characters allow their minds to drift to other places and times, where they reminisce of times past. Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway, finds herself in fond memory of her youth – these memories of the past are triggered by the visit of her old time friend, Peter Walsh. The memories associated with Peter, lead Clarissa to fondly remember her kiss with her friend Sally Seton, who is one of the guests at her party. These memories bring up feelings of nostalgia in Clarissa, however as she recalls memories of the past, she is able to reflect on the decisions which she made in her past. She thinks back to the time when Peter proposed marriage to her, and she reflects that she has made the right decision in declining Peter’s proposal because her life with her husband, Richard Dalloway, is more suitable to her liking (Woolf 1925: 113). This type of reflection shows the power of time because it allows a person to learn from the past, and gauge their growth towards the future they desire. Clarissa reflects that she is content with her role as a wife to Richard. The power of time is also demonstrated through the character of Laura Brown in The Hours who tries to evade spending time by escaping into books, and by checking into a hotel where she contemplates suicide (death) to escape life. During Laura’s escape to the hotel, she hears the sound of time passing, and it both soothes and alarms her,  “A distant chime rings, clear and measured. Laura is at once comforted and unnerved” (Cunningham 1998 :146). This indicates the pressure Laura feels to conform to the standards placed by society which are represented by universal constructs of time, but also shows the comfort she finds in familiar structure. At the end of The Hours, when Laura arrives for her son Richard’s memorial, the reader realises that Laura has lost almost an entire lifetime with her son. Cunningham has amplified Woolf’s motif about the power of time. Unlike Clarissa, Septimus finds himself stuck in time as he experiences disturbing flashbacks of the war. These are not the same as Clarissa’s happy memories. Instead memories of his dead friend, Evans, haunt Septimus. Similarly, in The Hours, Richard is plagued with memories which echoes the same representation of time as Mrs. Dalloway. 

Richard in The Hours, has a memory which is brought on during a hallucinogenic state, which is caused by his sickness. Richard is reminiscing about his kiss with Clarissa Vaughn (Cunningham 1998:66). As Clarissa tries to bring him back to the current moment to get him ready for the party, she keeps reminding him of the passing time, and the time of the party. However, Richard does not take the party seriously, and Clarissa has to coax him into it (Cunningham 1998:60-65). If the party is a metaphor for death, then Richard is trying to avoid death, as he is avoiding the party. In Richard’s delirious state, from a sleepless night, he has difficulty remembering if the party has happened already or not. Richard comments to Clarissa:

Sorry. I seem to keep thinking things have already happened. When you asked if I remembered about the party and the ceremony, I thought you meant, did I remember having gone to them. And I did remember. I seem to have fallen out of time (Cunningham 1998:62).

The characters in both novels move back and forth between their memories and real time. Richard’s perception of time is complicated and unreliable due to the delusions brought on by his illness. The reader cannot trust in what Richard says about his memories because he may be confused – this begs the question of whether Clarissa really kissed him beside a pond in the past (Cunningham 1998:66) – Clarissa neither confirms nor denies it. While the characters’ bodies are in the present, their minds tend to drift off into the past and the future, which creates a timeline out of sequence. However, the hour is irrevocable (Woolf 1925:3,113), as mentioned in Mrs. Dalloway. Time moves on despite one’s mind being stuck in past positive or negative memories, and the future is not within grasp in the present moment. The future can be planned for you, but not guaranteed. 

The irrevocable hour places emphasis on the present moment. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa describes the ringing of Big Ben, “There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable” (Woolf 1925:3). This warning which Clarissa speaks of, reminds one to live each moment to the fullest because time lost cannot be regained. Time passed cannot be returned. Only memories of the moment remain. The present moment is important for making decisions which affect the future. In the present moment, a person can reflect on the mistakes or achievements of the past but they cannot change the actions of the past. The musical part which Clarissa refers to is the pleasant memories of hours past. In Mrs. Dalloway,  Septimus cannot go back in time to save Evans’ life, and in The Hours, Richard cannot go back in time to prevent himself from contracting HIV. The characters must live (or die) with the consequences of the past. Similarly, in Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa cannot go back in time to relive her kiss with Sally, and in The Hours, Laura cannot go back in time to recover the years lost with her son. One is to live with regrets or sweet memories as the hour is irrevocable. 

Another representation of time in both novels is queer temporality. Literary critics, such as Bodistean (2016), Haffey (2010), Henry (2021), and Wood (2018) analyse time in Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours from the perspective of queer theory. Haffey (2010: 146) writes about Mrs Dalloway:

Clarissa is not shown as a woman who has developed through stages to a mature adulthood. Rather, she is a “meeting point” of “incompatible” parts, parts that are “composed so for the world only into one centre”. These “parts” represent the many different Clarissa’s that have existed across time. Rather than being the end result of those identities, she seems to be the space in which all the previous identities are preserved. It is in this way that she can be a “grown woman”, an adolescent, and a child simultaneously. 

In this quote, Haffey explains that time is subjective and in Clarissa’s case, her inner consciousness is simultaneously experiencing different time periods in her life all at once – Clarissa’s childhood, adolescence and adulthood all blend into a single moment of existence as she reminisces about the past, while combining the different parts of her identity. This overlap in identities and time periods is reiterated in The Hours, when Richard reminisces about his heterosexual kiss with Clarissa in the past, while being a homosexual man. 

Cunningham has had the freedom to write The Hours during the postmodernist literary period when queer lifestyles are more acceptable in modern society. Human rights for LGBTQI+ people began to increase during the late 20th century (Poplawski 1008:544). Cunningham builds on Woolf’s hint of homosexuality and bisexuality in a heteronormative world. Cunningham writes a comparison in his novel between the linear heteronormative lifestyle of Laura and her husband, and the non-linear homosexual (or possibly bisexual) lifestyle of Richard. Additionally, Cunningham has written about a homosexual relationship between Clarissa and Sally, which seems to follow a linear timeline. These different scenarios and comparisons reiterate that time is subjective, and dependent on the individual’s perception of time. Time can be defined by societal constructs, or it can be perceived through each individual’s own experience of time. 

As part of Cunningham’s homage to Virginia Woolf, he named his book The Hours, which was the original intended name of Mrs. Dalloway (Chen and Lai 2007:229). Henry (2021:31) writes that Woolf’s publishers asked her to change the name of the novel. This title suggests the importance of time in both novels. Thus far, I have explained the urgency of time in relation to mortality, the subjectivity of time based on individual perception as opposed to societal constructs of time, and I have explained queer temporality in terms of nonlinear progression of time. Lastly, I would like to discuss the contextual importance of time which surrounds both novels. Woolf published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925, which was shortly after World War I – during this time period the world was undergoing transformation. Times were changing! The Hours was thus an apt title for Woolf’s novel, but her publisher’s asked her to change the title to avoid the emphasis placed on queer temporality (Henry 2021:31). Years later, Cunningham was able to use the original title, The Hours, which has a double impact of proving that times have changed. Cunningham is able to freely refer to queer temporality in his novel, proving that society has progressed with time towards LGBTQI+. This is another significant way in which Cunningham has expanded on Woolf’s motif of time.  

In conclusion it can be summarised that Cunningham has not deviated from Woolf’s motif of time. Instead, he has expanded on it by creating a layered novel with multiple points of views on time. Cunningham’s representations of time echoes those of Woolf’s. Both novels represent time as a commodity which is irrevocable. Through the use of dying characters (mortality), individual reflections and memories, and non-linear lifestyles, both novels represent time as a subjective concept in relation to individual beings’ perceptions. These novels thus challenge the notion of time as a clearly defined and standardised construct of a global society, and reminds the reader that external time and internal time are different. 


Bodistean, F. 2016. Sexual and Gender Identity in Postmodern Rewriting: from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf to The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Journal of Humanistic and Social Studies 7 (2): 87-97 (Accessed 15 October 2022) 

Cunningham, M. 1998. The Hours. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, United States of America. 

Chen, F. & Lai, C. 2007. The Time is Out of Joint: A Derridean Reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. EurAmerica 3 (2): 227-254 (Accessed 27 November 2022) 

Hardy, S.B. 2011. The Unanchored Self in The Hours after Dalloway. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 52 (4): 400-411 (Accessed 15 October 2022) 

Haffey, K. 2010. Exquisite Moments and the Temporality of the Kiss in “Mrs. Dalloway” and “The Hours”. Narrative. 18 (2): 137-162 (Accessed 14 October 2022)

Henry, C. 2021. Queer Persistence: Chance Encounters and Revision in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway Page Proofs. Virginia Woolf Miscellany 97  (Accessed 15 October 2022) 

Hughes, M.J. 2004. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Postmodern Artistic Representation. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45 (4): 349361 (Accessed 15 October 2022) 

MacFarlane, B. 2017. Time regained. Screen Education 88 (Accessed 28 November 2022)

Poplawski, P. 2008. English Literature in Context. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, United Kingdom.  

Wood, O. 2018. A Diamond and a Tropic Gale: Re-examining Bisexuality in Mrs. Dalloway. Journal of Bisexuality 18 (3): 382-394 (Accessed 15 October 2022) 

Wood, O. 2018. Time, Place, and Mrs. D: Uptake from Mrs. Dalloway to The Hours. Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93: 26-28 (Accessed 28 November 2022) 

Woolf, V. 1925. Modern Fiction. McNeille, Andrew, Ed. The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Volume 4: 157-164 (Accessed 15 October 2022) 

Woolf, V. 1924. Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. Hogarth Press, London, United Kingdom. 

Woolf, V. 1925. Mrs. Dalloway. Oxford University Press, New York, United States of America.  

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