Mrs. Dalloway

The Bells Toll For Her

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent. . . therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

—John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

The year is 1923. In the suburbs of London, Virginia Woolf sits down to write Mrs. Dalloway. The Great War has been over for five years, but its memory still hauntsmillions. More than nine hundred and fifty thousand young Englishmen lie in their graves—infinite bells, surely, have mourned these dead. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf echoes these bells through the constant striking of the hours. But the bells in Woolf’s work are not merely markers of time. Particularly in the novel’s post-WWI setting, they are a motif for death and its ineluctable approach.

From the very opening pages of her work, Woolf attributes a certain je ne sais quoi to the bells that strike the hours. The protagonist Clarissa Dalloway, as she walks down the street, affirms “a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense… before Big Ben strikes” (4). Clarissa anticipates the bells; and the passage immediately following reads “There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable” (4). What could this description signify? In...

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