.. between memories and this day in June” (73). Past and present compliment and complicate each other. The narrator gives us a thick little blur of sound and then resolves into a new rhythm. Of course, the rhythm of Clarissa’s plunge is not conveyed by memory and moment alone. The meter of the prose transmits what Elizabeth Dodd calls “a visceral rendition of an emotional and intellectual concern” (279).
Like the meter of passages explicated above, the text here contains accents, repeated patterns, alliteration and assonance. Begining with an accented down beat–“What a Lark! What a plunge!”- the passage “squeaks” with the window, “flaps” like a wave, winds with smoke off the trees, rises and falls with the rooks. In its sound and in its pace, in its plunges and its pauses, this intermingling of past and present, this little blur of sound, establishes the polyrhythmic patterns that will wash over the reader throughout the novel. For Clarissa, the rhythm of the past at Bourton becomes as relevant to this moment of June as her preparations for her party. Similar to how it “oscillates rhythmically between memories and this day in June,” the text taps through and around Septimus’s hallucinations.
When Rezia returns to his side in the park after taking a needed but brief rest from him, the narrative cadence passes from her to him. As it does, it moves from “real” detail to his fantastic improvisations on reality: Why, when she sat by him, did he start, frown at her, move away, and point at her hand, take her hand, look at it terrified? Was it that she had taken off her wedding ring? “My hand has grown so thin,” she said, “I have put it in my purse,” she told him. He dropped her hand. Their marriage was over, he thought, with agony, with relief. The rope was cut; he mounted; he was free, as it was decreed that he, Septimus, the lord of men, should be free; alone (since his wife had thrown away her wedding ring; since she had left him), he, Septimus, was alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth, to learn the meaning, which now at last..was to be given whole to. ..“To whom?” he asked aloud.
(67, second elipses in original) As she passes into Septimus’s mind, the narrator blurs the distinction between herself and him. Grammatically, “their marriage was over” is the narrator’s third person comment; however, “he thought” attributes it to him. The narrator thus blends her rhythm with the character’s, only to diverge again with “he asked aloud.” Employed throughout the novel, this structure allows the text to “oscillate rhythmically” between “real” time–the chronological trajectory from Clarissa’s plunge into the street to the final moments of her party–and what Robin Gail Schulze calls “mind-time.” Schulze writes, During segments of mind-time, Woolf sets various time streams loose at once, either in the mind of one character, who retreats into internal soliloquy, collapsing past, present and future, or in the simultaneous perspectives given by several characters recording a single moment. The result of either technique is that plot time stands still. (Schulze 8) Through these retreats from the novel’s chronological trajectory, and through the attending metrical nuances of the language, Woolf achieves the elasticity of tempo and meter characteristic of polyrhythmic percussion.
Time is not entirely subjective and elastic in this text, however. The novel does take place within a prescribed temporal context marked ominously by the booming of Big Ben: “First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles disolved in the air.” Schulze finds this chronology “inescapable,” and bases her conclusion that Mrs. Dalloway is finally a traditional novel largely on her reading of Big Ben’s authority in it (Schulze 8). In fact, the metronomic images of clocks in the novel do represent an almost over-powering rhythmic structure that imperils the non-Western polyrhythmic narrative force.
The danger is such that Woolf titled early working drafts “The Hours.” I think, however, that the narrative ultimately subverts Big Ben’s bluster to the rhythms he threatens to quash; his metronomic authority is absorbed into and subsumed by a unified downbeat at the end of the novel that promises to launch into new polyrhythmic complexities. Woolf specifically inscribes Big Ben in the novel as a malevolent force. Immediately before Peter Walsh leaves Clarissa’s house, the clock strikes the half hour: “The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour stuck out between them with extraordinary vigour.” As Peter leaves, the clock can still be heard: “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 roar 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. (48) By coming “between them with extraordinary vigour” and then threatening to drown out Clarrisa’s party invitation, Big Ben imperils the kind of human connection–the intersections and combinations of rhythms–that stave off the potential chaos of life. In contrast to Clarrissa’s perception, Peter Walsh, the returning “Anglo-Indian,” seems impressed by the clock’s rhythm: Remember my party, remember my party, said Peter Walsh as he stepped down the street, speaking to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound, the downright sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour.
(The leaden circles dissolved in the air.) (48) As he steps “in time with the flow of sound,” he becomes flushed with self-importance: And there he was, this fortunate man, himself, reflected in Victoria Street. All India lay behind him; plains, mountains; epidemics of cholera; a district twice as big as Ireland; decisions he had come to alone–he, Peter Walsh. ..For he had a turn for mechanics; had invented a plough in his district, had ordered wheel-barrows from England, but the coolies wouldn’t use them, all of which Clarissa knew nothing whatever about. (48-49) But when his confidence suddenly flags, Big Ben’s rhythm fails him: As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases.
Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within. (49) As it “flaps on the mast,” time is simultaneously elevated and reduced to a symbol. Like a flag, it is an abstract icon of an ideal that failed empirialists like Peter Walsh can only hollowly salute out of the skeleton of habit.
While Peter mourns his emptiness and thinks of Clarissa, a very different clock makes her voice heard: “Ah,” said St. Margaret’s, like a hostess who comes into her drawing-room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already. “I am not late” (49). Unlike the “irrevocable” voice of Big Ben, “her voice, being the voice of the hostess, is reluctant to inflict its individuality. Some grief for the past holds it back” (49).
Appropriately, St. Margaret’s “ring of sound” (50), coming sometime after Big Ben’s announcement of the same hour, reminds Peter of Clarissa: It is Clarissa herself, he thought, with a deep emotion, and an extraordinarily clear, yet puzzling, recollection of her, as if this bell had come into the room years ago, where they sat at some moment of great intimacy, and had gone from one to the other and had left, like a bee laden with honey, laden with the moment. (50) Even for Peter, this “reluctant” voice becomes part of the mingling rhythms of past and present, in contrast to the impetuos rhythm of chronology. Like the voice of St. Margaret’s, Clarissa quietly resists Big Ben’s authoritative voice. When we first hear Big Ben, his relationship to Clarissa’s sense of time seems tenuous: One feels,..Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before big Ben strikes.
There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. (4) Rather than impelling time forward, the passage implies, Big Ben causes it almost to stop. Further, the clock endangers Clarissa’s biological rhythm, threatens to suspend her heart. Not surprisingly, the narrator later tells us Clarissa “feared time itself..how year by year her share was sliced” (30).
As the novel progresses through the day, however, Big Ben’s threat to Clarissa seems to diminish. When he interupts her talk with Peter, he seems more like a common bully than a serious force to be reckoned with: “The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour stuck out between them with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that.” Swinging his dumb-bells, flexing his muscle, the clock is “inconsiderate,” but also somewhat silly-looking. As the clock strikes three, the sound seems irritating to Clarissa, but not dangerous: “The sound of Big Ben flooded Clarissa’s drawing-room, where she sat, ever so annoyed, at her writing-table; worried; annoyed” (117). We eventually see Clarissa subvert Big Ben’s bullying rhythm, as if his rules don’t apply to her: But here the other clock, the clock which always struck two minutes after Big Ben, came shuffling in with its lap full of odds and ends, which it dumped down as if Big Ben were all very well with his majesty laying down the law, so solemn, so just, but she must remember all sorts of little things besides–Mrs. Marsham, Ellie Henderson, glasses for ices–all sorts of little things came flooding and lapping and dancing in on the wake of that solemn stroke.
(128) Clarissa will follow her own tempo, regardless of Big Ben’s hollow authority. The rhythm of the prose here again evokes the non-Western structures that Big Ben would assimilate. The other rhythm comes “shuffling,” “flooding and lapping and dancing on the wake” of London’s insistent metronome. Where Clarissa resists linear time, Septimus Smith decontructs it. Stockton reminds us that observation and perception are subjective relative to the position of the observer. Hence, “we are irrevocably within our universe, and the authority that would have enabled us to speak of it in terms of truth or fact has been undermined” (Stockton 48).
Septimus’s insanity stems, according to Sir William Bradshaw, from his “not having a sense of proportion” (96). Unfortunately for him, Septimus understands that “the observing scientist-god, outside the system and predicting/controlling with the useful tools of lawfulness and determinism, is an archaic fiction within the new narratives of chaos” (Stockton 49). Septimus will not submit to the Doctors’ authority (“What power had Bradshaw over him?” 147), he will not adhere to the fixed and eternal referentiality of language (“He was attaching meanings to words of a symbolical kind. A serious symptom” 96), nor is he bound by the “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing” metronomes of time. Septimus sees and celebrates a relationship between time and language. Like words, time is dynamic, symbolic, and potentially expressive: “It is time,” said Rezia.
The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. (70) The word time is not a signifier for a single fixed “truth.” It is pregnant with “riches”–with moment and memory, present, past, and future, even with Evans and with death. In order to pour its riches over Septimus, however, time must become sub-linguistic.
The word has to split its husk, then new, better, “imperishable,” autonomous words can attach themselves to an immortal ode. Autocratic language and time, the “sense of proportion” Sir Bradshaw would have Septimus submit to, is explicitly imperial. The narrator rails at length against “divine proportion,” in service of whom Bradshaw “made not only himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion” (99). But the “advantages” of proportion are not limited to England: Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged–in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus of London, wherever in short the climate or the devil tempts men to fall from the true belief which is her own–is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance. Conversion is her name.
.. (100) England exports Proportion and Conversion to its imperial outposts through people like Peter Walsh, whose wheel-barrows and plough “the coolies wouldn’t use.” Like Big Ben’s “inconsiderate” attempts to prescribe time, the Empire tries to prescribe its industrial culture to India. Imperialists like Peter cannot hear India’s drums because they’re too busy listening to their own voices, the clank of industry, the flick of a pocket knife, the leaden circles of Big Ben. Below the surface, though, people like Clarissa and Septimus see the frailty of authority. They hear the more organic rhythms of India as an undercurrent flooding into post-war London in spite of Bradshaw and Holmes and Big Ben. Though the novel starts at a certain moment in June, the intricate rhythms of the narrative have long been plunging and pausing, intersecting and diverging. Clarissa and Septimus each present powerful rhythms in the text, hers building to her party, his plunging to his death.
In the moments preceding his suicide, Septimus’s life shapes itself into pleasant peaceful rhythms. Sewing, Rezia makes “a sound like a kettle on the hob; bubbling, murmuring” (143); her words “bubbled away drip, drip, drip, like a contented tap left running” (144); and suddenly, his life seems real: “it was so real, it was so substantial” (144). But into their “warm place, this pocket of still air” comes Holmes. Septimus can’t submit to proportion, but neither will he be allowed to live in this world without it. Dancing away his last moments, he finds his only option: hopping indeed from foot to foot.
..It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia’s (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. ..But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings–what did they want?..“I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs.
Filmer’s area railings. (149) Septimus’s death is not final, however; his rhythm pauses but does not fully subside. Clarissa’s theory of immortality is fulfilled in the text. It ended in a transcendental theory..that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death. (153) When Clarissa learns of Septimus’s death, his unseen part attaches itself to her.
As Stockton points out, “Clarissa and Septimus merge into one character at the end, connected not through language, but extrasensory vision” (Stockton 50). But the “extrasensory vision” is conveyed through the narrator’s language by its rhythm: He had killed himself–but how? Always her body went through it first..her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain.
.. (184) The passage is wrapped in percussive, alliterative language, and concludes with the onomatopoeic thudding of Septimus’s rhythm transferring to Clarissa. She does not feel her new rhythm, however, until the clock strikes. In the midst of Septimus’s death, Clarissa has a vision of life going on, of the old woman across the street “quite quietly, going to bed” (186). Suddenly, for her, the clock becomes another rhythm of life, and Septimus’s rhythm merges with hers: The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! The old lady had put out her light.
..She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow like him–the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.
He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. (186) The striking clock is part of “all this going on.” The rhythm of life did not stop with Septimus’s death; Clarissa must go back and assemble.
The narrator of Mrs. Dalloway plunges us into a complex web of rhythms at the beginning of the novel. The rhythm of Clarissa’s past mingles with that of her present and sends her into the future. The polyrhythmic structure of the novel concludes with a new downbeat that unifies Clarissa, Peter, and Sally with their memories and their present moment and promises to launch into new rhythmic complexities. The mingling of all the disparate rhythms at Clarissa’s party builds to “a little blur of sound” that announces the coming of “a new rhythm.” We feel the expectation, the “terror” and “ecstasy,” the danger of chaos before the resolution of “the one” in the narrator’s final words: What is this terror? what is this ecstasy?..What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.