“Time Passes”: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse is the reason I love Virginia Woolf. It chronicles grief, consciousness, memory, how these are tied intimately to a place, and how people handle change over time. The first section of the book, “The Window,” sets up the relationships among the characters, traces the geography (both human and physical) surrounding the narrative, and breathes life into Mrs. Ramsay, the imposing character who dies in the novel’s next section. In “Time Passes,” the brief second section of the novel, Woolf addresses the feeling and state of absence, primarily from the point of view of the Ramsays’ house in which all of the action of the first section occurred. The third section, “The Lighthouse,” is a meditation on the meaning of returning to the places that hold our memories. “Time Passes” provides an intimate overview of the passage of time, from the omniscient point of view of the abandoned falling-down house, and “The Lighthouse”—written from the point of view of Lily Briscoe, determined to capture her creative vision even amidst the uncertainties of her return to the Ramsays’ seaside house—demonstrates the effects of the passage of time on an individual’s outlook.

In “Time Passes,”deep, lyrical descriptions of the passage of time, light and dark, silence and noise, are interspersed with concrete points on the timeline of external plot (marriage, childbirth, death), declared in two or three short sentences within the confines of brackets, as if to separate the physical world from the interior one. Throughout “Time Passes,” Woolf juxtaposes the visions and thoughts of the only three people who make appearances in the section outside of brackets: while the visionary and the mystic brood over existential questions on the beach, the housekeeper, Mrs. McNab, carries on the work of maintaining the house, pondering her mortality and allowing us to see inside the house and to follow Mrs. McNab’s own memories about the place. And it really is the house that owns this section. Long sentences provide the atmosphere and emotion; shorter sentences pose questions and sear through our consciousness, and so lulled are we by her language that we are jolted awake again by these briefer phrases:

“Listening (had there been anyone to listen) from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the winds and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason… In spring the garden urn, casually filled with windblown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and thus terrible” (154).

We also follow the movements of ghostly “airs”—the bearers of memory—which light upon furniture and objects in the house, illuminating them. The section ends with the promise of changes to come, and Woolf moves us gently from the point of view of the house (dominated by meditations on the house’s state as well as all that it has witnessed), to the point of view of the servants (characterized by slightly incorrect word choices), to the point of view of Lily Briscoe (marked by uneasiness), whose perspective will dominate “The Lighthouse.”

Finally, the book’s third section addresses the ramifications of facing memories head-on. Whenever we see the world from Lily’s point of view, the language shifts subtly to reflect her anxiety about finding herself—an outsider to the family, an unfulfilled artist and old maid—party to an expedition to the lighthouse so many years after Mrs. Ramsay’s death. Lily’s awareness of and curiosity at her own inability to express sympathy for Mr. Ramsay, coupled with her frustration that she cannot paint with him nearby, is interlaced with Mr. Ramsay’s point of view—riddled with a different, more desperate kind of anxiety—and with the external actions of his sons (173-178). Lily’s anxieties about being at the Ramsays’ house ten years after Mrs. Ramsay’s death emerge while she paints, and Woolf allows the creative process of painting to become a kind of metaphor for memory retrieval:

“And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modeled it with greens and blues” (181).

Lily contemplates the meaning of life, and in her disappointment in having experienced no great revelation Woolf reveals a theme common to most of her work:

“The great revelations perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying ‘Life stand still here’; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent) – this was of the nature of a revelation” (183).

The third section’s metaphor of the creative process and the second section’s focus on the state of the house itself allow Woolf to contemplate grief, consciousness, and memory, to tie them to a particular place, and to allow that place to drive how characters access and interpret their memories. Because she is so in control of language, we/the readers  glide gently among the characters: we feel Lily’s anxiety, Mrs. McNab’s uncertainty and Mr. Ramsay’s indecision. Because the structure of the book is at once rigid (past, passage of time, present) and fluid, we see the origins and the development of those feelings—first in relationship with Mrs. Ramsay, then in the re-opening of the house, and then in completing the expedition to the lighthouse and the painting that was aborted during the characters’ previous visit to the sea.

Works cited: Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. London: Everyman’s Library, 2004.

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