Woolf and the War

I know this is a bit late, but seeing as how we haven’t yet talked about how the novel comments on WWI and the effects it had in the lives of those who lived at that time, I thought it would be worth my while to add my thoughts. Like many people have already said, Woolf only directly addresses the war in very short and abrupt sentences (almost like footnotes that are placed in brackets merely to help the reader follow along), but she intimates elements of the war throughout the entire “Time Passes” section. She does this primarily by focusing on the weather and the different elements of the various seasons (and how they progress), as well as the power of nature to both destroy and create. By describing the changing seasons and clashing elements of nature from the perspective of the house that is slowly decaying, Woolf is possibly suggesting the idea that mankind is slowly falling apart; the framework and structure that has held civilization together for so long is deteriorating, with nature threatening to take over.

As armies and nations are fighting off the narrative stage, Woolf parallels this action by way of the wind and the waves. She tells of how storms cause the “winds and waves [to] disport themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason, and mounted one on top of another, and lunged and plunged in the darkness or the daylight (for night and day, month and year ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself” (134-135). [Apologies for the lengthy quote; you can blame Woolf for stringing together such long sentences that still manage to contain important and poignant phrases at every turn.] This massive clash between the wind and the waves highlights the sweeping scope of the war abroad. Using a metaphor within a metaphor, Woolf furthers the image by comparing the two sides to a “bulk of leviathans” who have “no light of reason” in their heads; in essence: the war is a fool’s endeavor and makes no sense to a rational human being. I also found it interesting how she talked of the days and nights running together, and I was reminded of our readings about trench life and how it dragged on endlessly; and how the soldiers suffered tremendously from lack of sleep, the noise from the artillery fire and bombs (the wind and the waves here), and the despicable living conditions. The First World War, or the “idiot games,” as Woolf prefers to call it, caused great turmoil and confusion everywhere it went.

Perspective and WW1/Aftermath

The narrative perspective presented in “To the Lighthouse” is what makes this story different from any other book I’ve read. Woolf does a spectacular job of creating an ambiance as to whichever character is speaking. You (usually) know who the story is shifting to, because you recognize the shift in writing style (as a new characters “voice”). The shifts that occur from person to person are smooth and evident. When the shifts happen, it gives the reader a chance to ask themselves, “why was there a shift from this character to this character?”, or “now that it’s changed, let’s see their point of view…”. The shifts of perspective keep the book fresh, even through it’s difficulty.

As we read Part 2: Time Passes, the topic of WW1 and it’s aftermath is definitely addressed, but it typically done-so in the fashion of parenthetical statements. This almost gives the reader a “side note” or an “in” to what the character/narrator meant. The statements are written similarly to what a “side” is in theatre, when a character takes a beat. In the book for example; “(A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous)” (pg.133) is written and immediately gives the reader the idea of war and clues you in to what happened to Andrew. It also is a reminder at how awful the war was which brings me back to when we did the “Second Life” activity online. It gives a harsh reminder. The statement It is kind of put in there and almost jolts the reader back to the ideas of war and what war meant as a society. And that isn’t pretty.

World War One in To The Lighthouse

The only explicit references to the war while it is happening in the novel are in parenthetical references which give the impression that they have been added as an afterthought, simply for the necessity of accounting for the absence of a few major characters. When the third part of To The Lighthouse is so consumed with explaining and recovering from the absence of Mrs. Ramsay, for example, why is it here that only a single sentence is devoted to her?

And regarding Andrew, the only sentence he gets is this one, “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]“, and this seems to be getting at the idea that his death was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, which it is, if the novel is considered the grand scheme; we are led to believe that the action that takes place on the island after the war would have been hardly different whether Andrew had lived or died. This is why he is mentioned in an offhand way, in the middle of the parenthetical aside, merely as a concession to the reader who might have been wondering about him.

The whole section “Time Passes” borders on rudeness in the way that it focuses on an abandoned house, and a fairly insignificant housekeeper, instead of the Great War. Just as the world comes to terms with its horrible modernness during the war, the house comes to terms with its climate and the environment; the books grow moist and moldy with the salty sea air, and the shawl which had covered the skull on the wall of the children’s bedroom slowly begins to come untied. However, this all happens beyond the knowledge of those who live there, as if the home which had treated them well in the first section of the novel has suddenly become rotted to its core in the third, with only the deaths of the Ramsay characters to account for the change.

Time Passes

“There it had stood all these years without a soul in it. The books and things were mouldy, for, what with the war and help being hard to get, for the house had not been cleaned as she could have wished.” Woolf uses this chapter of the text to show the aftermath, the stillness the war has created. The house was quite forgotten. The time spent there is nothing but a memory. It is almost like a ruin. People no longer go and it has just wasted away. The war has caused this affect of sadness and forgetfulness.
“So she was dead; and Mr. Andrew killed; and Miss Prue dead too, they said, with her first baby; but every one had lost someone these years.” Woolf uses this quote to show that the narrator is not just talking about people loosing people, but the house is alive as well and has also lost something. Mrs. Ramsey passes after her son Andrew is killed in the war and Miss Prue passes from child birth. The house is slowly dying from the loss of the Ramsey family. The war has caused this moment, this pause where everything seems almost quiet and sad. The only person who really notices this is Mrs. McNab who reflects on everything that has happened over the years. She is the only person who remembers, because she is there. She is there to pick the pretty flowers and bring a small amount of light and life into a lost and forgotten place.

To the Lighthouse

“In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown 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 so terrible.”

As mentioned in class, the effects of WWI were tremendous. Before the war, there seem to be a yearning for change. After the war, change was predominant, but the future was unstable. In Woolf’s narrative in chapter 7 of “Time Passes,” Woolf ties the new culture after the war to spring. Spring represents things becoming new. It represents new beginnings. Woolf represents this “spring” (WWI aftermath) as being chaotic. War was chaotic, but trying to cope with the aftermath seems to be just as frightening. Throughout the chapters within “Time Passes,” Woolf looks to the Ramsey’s house and seems to present the house as representing England and it’s culture. While it looks like it is breaking down, it is really just in transition.

WWI and To the Lighthouse

While reading this complex novel, I did not see much that engaged with WWI until I got to the second part, “Time Passes”. For me, I felt this section was quite direct in its engagement with WWI and its aftermath. One of the lines that striked me the most in this section was obviously the one concerning Andrew Ramsay. “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]”. Through this perspective on the war, you get a glimpse of how dangerous it was and how easily one could die. Adding to this is a couple of lines that I really felt engaged with the aftermath: “but everyone had lost someone these years. Prices had gone up shamefully, and did not come down again neither.”

Another line in this section that striked me was, “questioning the torn letters in the waste-paper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?” I found it really interesting that while describing the house at night, Woolf takes simple objects and asks if they are allies or enemies, as if they are participating in the war. It made me think that these were most likely questions that common individuals had probably wondered themselves when it came WWI.

To the Lighthouse

Narrative perspective in “To the Lighthouse” really makes the book meaningful. The book seemingly has very little plot and is difficult to follow because you as a reader are never sure whose viewpoint you are reading. It seems to be very disjointed, but I believe this is the point. In dealing with World War I or any war in general there is very rarely a “right” or “wrong” side and by switching between different people’s viewpoints and the viewpoints of the narrator we get a disjointed view of things and are left to put them together into our own thoughts.

“[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]” I have seen that this quote has been used multiple times on the blog but it truly portrays this disjointed view of war. It is an interruption of perspective and so blunt and straightforward. Out of nowhere, men are blown up instantaneously. It is very shocking and confusing to say this is a merciful death, but that’s exactly what it was. This shows just how terrible the war was and responds to its chaos and death.