Reading up to about page 130 of Virginia Woolf’s brilliant Mrs. Dalloway, one pattern seems to unite, or rather interrupt, the thought process of every character: the striking of London’s Big Ben. Besides serving the obvious purpose of marking time, the sound of Big Ben has a real effect on a character’s thoughts and perceptions, often negatively.
While I’m not sure what the Big Ben is meant to represent itself, time seems to become a device that is forced on everyone in the city. Rezia Smith is nearly having a breakdown as she walks down Harley Street, to observe, “the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion” (102). This sense of proportion becomes almost villainized by Sir William. We know this feeling applies to Rezia, but it is reinforced by the fact that Big Ben is able to creep into Peter Walsh’s mind as he speaks “to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound, the direct downright sound of Big Ben striking the half hour” (48). Time shows itself to be is a force in everyone’s life that they are reminded of without ever asking.
Woolf’s use of Big Ben reminds me a little bit of the train in Thoreau’s Walden. Even though Thoreau is able to escape much of societal influence by moving to his simple cabin, the noise and the time schedule of the train is, for him, concerningly inescapable. He tells us, “the whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods…informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town” (81) and lets us know in his typical style, “regularly at half past seven, in one part of the summer, after evening train had gone by, the whippoorwills chanted their vespers for half an hour” (87). The train is a marker of exact time in an otherwise inexact state of existence, and here contrasted with the way other animals mark time. So the train, like Big Ben, enforces the adopted time of the city, or more so the time the market operates on.
Could Big Ben be a statement on how the market or the will of people like Sir William is inescapable? Or is it merely an annoying sound that unites a city by disturbing its inhabitant’s thoughts? It seems it wouldn’t be the latter, just because of how pervasive it becomes. If anything it shows us that in an age when one must be scientific above all things, exact measurement of time was of great importance.
And, if you’re interested, I really enjoyed a wonderful essay Woolf wrote on Thoreau to commemorate his 100th Birthday.
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