Moments of Being: the Importance of Time and Memory in the Writings of Virginia Woolf

Moments of BeingAccording to Joseph Frank, ‘(t)ime is no longer felt as an objective, causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods: now it has become a continuum in which distinctions between past and present are wiped out.’ Most certainly that is more often than not the case in the writings of Virginia Woolf where I suggest that the more prosaic concepts of time and memory so lamented by Mr Frank have been manipulated in order to reflect Woolf’s own experience.

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as objective (in the OED (A 3 b) sense of ‘distinct from the subject or ‘independent of the mind’); she noted in her memoirs that it is only when one is thinking of the past, ‘seeing through the surface to the depths’, that one is ‘living most fully in the present’. For her this is because the ‘present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper’(Moments, 108).

In one sense, by this Woolf seems to suggest that time functions only as the result of memory. In Orlando, it is only through memory (running ‘her needle in an out, up and down, hither and thither’, Orlando, 48) that the jumble of (1) years (the life of its hero/heroine spans multiple centuries) and (2) seasons (‘at one moment’ it is ‘a summer’s day’ and the next, ‘all was winter and blackness again’, Orlando, 35), are bound together. Likewise for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway, the narrative’s jumble of events, people, and places are bound with the present through memories spanning more than thirty years. For Septimus however, memory is so strong as to blot out the present to such an extent that suicide becomes his only option (Dalloway, 127).

In another sense, Woolf seems to suggest that memory can be manipulated in order to alter one’s experience of time. For her, memory is a continuum into which she can ‘dip’ at will (Memories,99). In To the Lighthouse (133), Lily Briscoe ‘dipped’ into her memories to ‘re-fashion’ the image of her former acquaintance, Charles Tansley. She was so successful in her task that it ‘stayed in the mind almost like a work of art’. This dipping into memory also proves useful for purging bits of the past that impinge, unpleasantly, on the present; in her memoirs, Woolf comments that she wrote To the Lighthouse very quickly and ‘when it was written’, she ‘ceased to be obsessed by my mother’, no longer ‘hear(ing) her voice ‘or ‘see (ing) her’ (Memories, 93). In To the Lighthouse (72), gliding ‘like a ghost’ Mrs Ramsey likewise revisits her experience of a house in which she had ‘been so very, very cold twenty years ago’. As the result not only does that ‘particular day’ become ‘very still and beautiful’, but she also manages to disconnect from Carrie, the house’s owner (‘she did not know this Carrie’) who is currently building a new billiard room (much to Mrs Ramsey’s apparent dislike). Sometimes however ‘memory’ and ‘reality’ are not so easily severed as when Orlando, watching the samphire gatherers ‘hanging half-way down the cliff’, realises that ‘like some derisive ghost’ scampering within her, ‘Shasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ has shown herself to remain ‘surprisingly’ real (Orlando, 97).

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as a continuum (with distinctions between past and present wiped out). Indeed for her some remembered moments (‘in the nursery, the road to the beach’) could be ‘more real than the present’ (Moments, 80). As the narrator in Orlando (59) points out, although it is ‘Time’ that makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality’, time has ‘no such simple effect upon the mind of man’.

Woolf suggests that as the result of this inconsistency, some moments of time will be remembered whilst others are forgotten. She gives an example; although she remembers yesterday’s walk through countryside with startling detail (‘the willows’ were ‘all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue’), she has ‘already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch, and at tea’ (Memories, 83).

She concludes that this is because of a distinction between that which she calls (1) ‘non-being’(moments during which we fail to live consciously) and (2)‘being’ (moments which make a ‘dint’ because of some powerful emotion attached to them, Memories, 83-84). Again from her own experience she provides an example: she was fighting with her brother, Thoby, on the lawn outside their summer home at St Ives when just as she raised her fist to hit him she felt ‘why hurt another person?’ This immediately gave her such a ‘feeling of hopeless sadness’ and ‘powerlessness’ that she ‘slunk off alone’, feeling ‘horribly depressed’.

While most of the examples of moments of ‘being’ from Woolf’s own experience are the result of negative emotions, this need not always be the case. Most certainly it was not for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway (29-31. It is through the ‘echo of her old emotion’, that the moment of being kissed by Sally Seton(‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life’)will last a lifetime.

Woolf suggests that the difference between experiencing a moment of ‘being’ as either negative or positive is down to the one’s ability to find ‘reason’ in the experience (Memories, 85). She gives the example of looking at a flower bed and suddenly thinking that this ‘is the whole’ and that this would ‘likely be very useful to me later’. Such realisations support a theory of ‘self’, the making of personal identity, put forth by the philosopher David Hume (thoughts of whom of whom as ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, Mr Ramsey conjured up to entertain himself, Lighthouse, 54).

According to Hume, the only thing of which we can ever be certain is that we perceive an unbroken stream of subjective images and ideas and hence our notion of ‘self’ can be nothing more than a fiction; the mind’s way to join disparate events together as a continuum. As the result, the ‘self’ is always subject to change. In her memoirs, Woolf seems to suggest that she subscribes to Hume’s view noting that ‘it would be interesting’ to compare and contrast ‘the two people’ (‘I now’ and ‘I then’) in order to understand how much the past is ‘affected by the present moment’ (Memories, 87). As she grows older she finds she has ‘greater power through reason to provide an explanation’ for her moments of being, hence it is now a ‘great delight to put the severed parts together’ (Memories, 85). Most certainly Clarissa Dalloway accomplishes some ‘self-making’ in this way. As she sits at her dressing-table pursing her lips, she finds ‘her self’ when with ‘some effort, some call on her to be her self’, she ‘drew the parts together, the ‘different’, ‘incompatible’ parts – all the ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions (like Lady Bruton failing to ask her to lunch that day)into the ‘one woman’, that ‘meeting point’, which she knows herself to be (Dalloway, 31-32). Likewise we are told that although ‘he’ has become a ‘she’, Orlando has maintained her/his ‘identity’ not only because his/her face remained ‘practically the same’ but also, and perhaps more importantly, because her/his ‘memory’ – ‘all the events of her past life’ – remains the same. (Orlando, 83).

It would seem that it is not just one’s own experiences that create ‘self’ but also the impressions (real or imagined) of others. This is most certainly the case with Clarissa Dalloway who is prone to also define herself by what others think of her; ‘her servants like her’ and she ‘helped young people, who were grateful to her’ – but ‘what would he (her old lover, Peter Walsh) think’? (Dalloway, 31-32). It is also the case with Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse who, after collecting ‘her impressions of the Rayles’, concludes that instead of really ‘knowing’ them, she has only ‘made up’ a ‘series of scenes’ about them and worse, that ‘not a word of it was true’ (Lighthouse, 142).

Indeed, under Hume’s ‘radical scepticism’, we can not be certain there exists the thing which we call the mind (much less time) because these perceptions have no size or figure and hence cannot be located in space (McIntyre, 182-185). This certainly seems to be the case with Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse for if she is not conscious of something, then it simply does not exist – it seems ‘extraordinary’ to think that someone had ‘been capable of going on living all these years’ when she ‘had not thought of them more than once all that time’,(Lighthouse, (72).

For Woolf, time may or may not always have been experienced as a causal progression (with clearly marked out differences between periods), but it was always thus portrayed in her writings in keeping with contemporary narrative theory. I suggest that in his sweeping statement, Mr Frank misses the important distinction between (1) ‘narrative’, or the representation of events, (2) ‘story’, which is an event or sequence of events, (i.e. the action), and (3) ‘narrative discourse’, the events as actually represented. Whilst ‘narrative discourse’ is free to go in any temporal direction, ‘narrative’ by definition ‘entails movement through time’ both externally (words on the page) or internally (duration of an event), in the sense of beginning, middle, and end. It is only (3) story (like action) that can progress(causally) forward in time (Abbott, 16-19).

Woolf clearly demonstrates her understanding of narrative theory when, for example, in the segment of To the Lighthouse entitled Time Passes, time tells its own story; except for that beam from the Lighthouse entering the rooms ‘for a moment’ (Lighthouse, 113), everything changes in causal, temporal sequence: not only does the house literally fall apart (‘swallows nested in the drawing-room’ and ‘the plaster fell in shovelfuls’) but Prue Ramsey marries and dies whilst Andrew Ramsey is killed in the war that begins and ends with this segment. In another example, Mrs Ramsey predicted at the beginning of To the Lighthouse that her son James would remember that day of thwarted, teased promises of a trip to the lighthouse. Eleven years later, when at the end of the novel the trip to the lighthouse with is finally made, not only has James’ memory caused him to not want to go but also to hate his father for forcing him (Lighthouse, 138).

In conclusion, although Joseph Frank mourns that time is no longer felt an objective, causal progression but instead as a continuum without distinction between past and present, I would suggest that at least regarding the writings of Virginia Woolf this is because Mr Frank’s concept of time is not in keeping with how it is actually experienced. As the narrator in Orlando points out, although nature proceeds with prosaic punctuality, the effect of time on our minds does not. Woolf suggests that this incongruity results in some moments being infused with emotional reponse and hence not only carefully scrutinized but also long-remembered whilst other moments are quickly disgarded and forgotten.

This certainly sums up my own personal experience of time and memory and as we can deduce from her memoirs, it would seem to sum up those of Virginia Woolf as well. Further, it is our careful scrutinization of these moments of ‘being’ that, at least according to philosopher David Hume, contributes to the formation of our all important sense of ‘self’.

That Woolf, an innovator desirous of ‘pinning down the fleeting and evanescent’ (Spalding, 7), would write in the same way as as she experiences the world, makes perfect sense. In regards to Mr Frank’s lamentations that time is no longer felt as a causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods, I would direct him to a closer reading of contemporary narrative theory.



Woolf, Virgina. Mrs Dalloway. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2009.

Woolf, Virgina. Orlando.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Abbot, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

McIntyre, Jane L. ‘Hume and the Problem of Personal Identity, (177-208). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. Dave Fate Norton and Jacqueline Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 (online).

Spalding, Frances (ed.). Virginia Woolf, Paper Darts. London: Collins & Brown, 1991.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being, Autobiographical Writings. ed. Jeanne Schulkind, London: Pimlico, 2002.

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