“Dust in the Wind”: Life is A Kansas Song in “Time Passes”

            Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse presents three different sections, spanning a decade, each told in a different way.  The second section, “Time Passes”, although rather short, makes its way through ten years including World War I, whereas “The Window” covers only an evening or so.  While the “The Window” addresses time as relative to one’s thoughts, emotions, and consciousness, “Time Passes” is told from the perspective that time is independent from human life.  That is to say that the hours, days, and years that make up time will continue to pass by at the same rate that they always have. 

            Throughout the passage, Woolf personifies inanimate objects such as the draft that sweeps through the house during the time when the family is away.  She describes the drafts as “smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) 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?” (126).  She also touches on the isolation and confusion which WWI wrought.  A sense of personal and national identity was lost during the war, especially in England.  Similarly, Woolf posits how the objects in the house have lost their identity because the people who give there lives meaning are gone.  Woolf elaborate continually through the section on how time infects all things such as “some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes- those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated” (129).  She also hints at the emptiness of the post-war world as all of the material items of the millions of young men lost to the war remain and how they are the only reminders of their lives.  While “Time Passes” puts a large emphasis on the role of time in nature and in aging the house, it gives very little consideration to the Ramsays and their friends.  References to them are given in brackets, such as “[Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage.  What, people said, could have been more fitting?  And, they added, how beautiful she looked!]”  Human life is more or less an afterthought in the grand scheme of life.  Time continues to push forward, thrusting humanity along with it, regardless of whether or not people are ready for it.  People and things may fade, but time marches on.                    

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“Eveline” and “In a Station of the Metro”

(I just remembered I forgot to do this one so here it is.)

One of the elements that most connected “Eveline” by James Joyce and “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound was the voyeuristic nature of them. In Pound’s poem, the speaker is reflecting upon “…these faces in the crowd” (Pound) and experiencing how it feels to view them. Similarly, in “Eveline”, the titular character spends the majority of the story staring out the window, reflecting upon her life while viewing others’ lives happening all around her. Both of these visual experiences seems to invoke a deeper emotion than one would expect. Pound takes a single moment in time, standing in a metro, and posits on the way it makes the reader feel, while Joyce uses the image of Eveline, sitting “at the window watching the evening invade the avenue” (2222) to relate to a multitude of past experiences in her life.

Furthermore, both pieces deal with dehumanization. At the end of “Eveline”, she stands, paralyzed, unable to get on the boat with Frank. As this happens, the narrator describes her composure: “She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” (2225). In this singular moment, Eveline loses her humanity and, in a way, ceases to be anything at all. The idea of dehumanization is echoed in the way that the face in Pound’s poem lose any sense of individualism: “Petals on a wet, black bough” (Pound). Here, the faces of strangers become plant material stuck to a tree branch, being stripped of all humanity as well. Both of these instances happen just for a brief moment, but neither author offers up any sort of explanation or deeper meaning; the reader is left to decide what it all means.

Time Travel in Virginia Woolf

In the chapters that compose “Time Passes,” Virginia Woolf seems to create her own timeline in which a number of gaps and holes appear. These gaps are not inconsistencies, nor are they inaccuracies when compared to the historical account of World War I. Rather, these holes appear when Woolf describes one scene that seems to exist on two separate occasions, yet are viewed simultaneously. An example of this is the description of Andrew Ramsay’s death. Woolf paints the picture of “ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt…then again, silence fell; and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain mid-day…there seemed to drop into this silence, this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling” (133). Each of these instances of bombings are viewed simultaneously by the reader though they could take place over a period of days, months, or even years. Similarly, Woolf mechanically mentions that in France, Andrew was killed when “a shell exploded” (133). Again, this event could have taken place at any time during the war, yet the gap in the timeline is completely jumped.

This tactic of jumping through holes in the timeline allows Woolf to, essentially, time travel, and with stunning results. By utilizing obscurity of dates, Woolf is able to condense an entire decade into a mere twenty pages and shower her audience with experiences of World War I. This technique can even be viewed when Mrs. McNab is depicted cleaning the house. During her visits, she takes notice of all of the things in the house (the books, the cloak, the shawl, etc.) and their process of decay (135-136). As a reader, it is impossible to tell whether these descriptions are all from one visit, or whether these are observations of Mrs. McNab as she cleans the house over the course of an entire decade. Either way, time seems to exist all at once as the descriptions are absorbed by the reader. It is ironic that, though time passes, Woolf uses these elements of time travel to give the appearance of standing still.

Time Passes Slowly in War

The chapters in “Time Passes” directly reflect the mood of the English public regarding the Great War. The vivid imagery, like in all of Woolf’s work, is profound and penetrating even without reading the fine print that dealt heavily with the mindsets of the English during and after the Treaty of Versailles inked the end of the conflict. The section is aptly named, for Woolf’s portrayal of time passing simulates the same heavy, dragging trickle of time felt by the soldiers fighting [“Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms…”] on foreign soil, and certainly for their anxious and heartbroken families at home. “How long, she asked…how long shall it endure?” (p131) The question of Mrs. McNabb evokes the sentiments of all those involved in the war, longing with desperation for its end, however bleak it could be.

Woolf also writes of the agonizing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by the soldiers. Whilst many men lost their lives, the ones who returned were left with deep, cankerous scars, both mentally and physically, and had to endure the horrifying episodes of remembrance. Though they were covered in wounds and filled with terrorizing memories, upon returning they felt hollow and numb to the new post-war world. “What people had shed and left…those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated.” (p129) The visuals given by Woolf are terrifying, especially when one realizes soldiers, sailors, and pilots still go untreated for PTSD despite the sacrifices they made and were willing to make in the line of duty.

Times Passes

Yeah, “Time Passes” is a pretty weird section, a pretty stark contrast to “The Window.”  “The Window” takes 120 pages (in our edition) to tell us about the goings-on of one evening—3 or 4 hours pass, maybe.  “Time Passes” takes about 20 pages and spans 10 years.  In “The Window” there is lots of introspection and little action; we are constantly in characters’ heads, being made privy to layer upon layer of convoluted thought processes and distinct perspectives.  In “Time Passes” those same characters who we’ve come to know so intimately are abruptly, casually ripped away; they are literally a parenthetical thought, an aside—like “Oh, and I forgot to mention…”  Because what’s really important is that we focus on our attention on the house.  The building itself.  That’s what “Time Passes” is all about; we watch the house fall apart and decay and rot, and the maid thinks surely the Ramseys will never come back, and they couldn’t honestly expect her to keep up that whole big house by herself anyway, but then they are coming back, and she gets some help from her friend and her son and they clean up the house for the return of Lily and Mr. Carmichael and someone named Mrs. Beckwith (we don’t know who she is yet, right?).  So there’s not a ton of action in this section either.  There’s definitely just as much philosophical thought as there was in the first section.  It’s really a pretty interesting section.  Just a really innovative way of moving the story along; can’t think of anything I’ve read that has done something like that.  Certain parts are really beautiful.  The whole thing’s got kind of an eerie feel to it.  And it’s not insignificant to focus on the house, and on its decay!  I don’t mean to write about it in such a tone as if to say that I think it seems silly or unimportant.  Woolf (obviously) knew what she was doing.  Tara already talked about how effective it is to make the characters’ deaths so abrupt and how that reflects what it’s like living during war time and how common death becomes and how desensitized one can become towards those horrors.  So I think it’s appropriate to turn readers’ attention away from the characters and towards the house, which serves as a really powerful symbol, a poignant image.

There are all these questions repeated throughout: “When would it fall?” (126) “whether they would fade” (126) “How long would they endure?” (126) “Will you fade?” (129) “Will you perish?” (129) “How long shall it endure?” (131).  And we watch throughout the passage the house get worse and worse—we see boundaries crossed, sacred things defiled.  The “airs,” when they first enter the house as night falls, are initially barred from entering the bedrooms: “But here surely, they must cease.  Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast.  […] here you can neither touch nor destroy” (126).  And loveliness and stillness, they clasp hands in the bedroom, and say to each other, “We remain,” and “Nothing it seemed could break that image, corrupt that innocence” (129).  But of course the image is broken, and the innocence is corrupted, and by page 138, “Nothing now withstood [the airs]; nothing said no to them.”  So even those bedrooms we thought to be so sacred and incorruptible are now rotting, and Mrs. Ramsey’s shawl, having been loosened, now flaps in the wind, and the pig skull on which it hangs is exposed (which is a pretty creepy image).  And the maid laments, because surely the Ramseys would expect “to find things just as they had left them” (136).  But no; everything has changed.  Everything has fallen apart.  World War I has changed everything.  And the passage talks about dreamers down on the beach staring at the sea, searching for answer to their questions, demanding to know the meaning of all this suffering and horror, trying to find stability, wanting to believe that “good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules” (132).  We hear about “incorrigible hope” (131) and we hear that “dreams persisted” (132), and yet we have to imagine that those dreams were eventually tossed aside, and that that hope was corroded just like everything else.  Because the sea tosses like Leviathans playing an idiot game (symbolizing the destruction and meaninglessness of war), and Nature is cold and indifferent and unstoppable, and because God offers only a brief glimpse behind the curtain—and what we do see, “it seems impossible […] that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole” (128).  Just like Eliot!  Fragmentation.  How we gonna put the pieces back together?  And yet the house gets cleaned up, and people try to carry on with their lives, and well, maybe we can convince ourselves that “it all looked […] much as it used to look” (142).

“Time Passes” and WWI

While Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse deals heavily with the aftereffects of World War I, the novel does not really address the War until its second section, entitled “Time Passes”. This section consists of ten short chapters. “Time Passes” encompasses a decade’s worth of events in around twenty pages, in contrast to the first section, “The Window”, which consists of 125 pages and describes the details of a single evening. The effect of the severe condensation of time in the second section is disorientation for the reader. The section consists of mostly narration and very little dialogue; it also mostly mentions events after they have already happened: “[Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success…]” (134). This gives the reader the sense that the entire section was written in retrospect as the narrator reminisced on the things that happened to the Ramsay family between 1910 and 1920. The somewhat historical perspective that is therefore created in this section engages with WWI because it looks back on the War as a past event as opposed to experiencing it firsthand, which mimics the way the reader would be approaching the text as well.

Furthermore, the way that the reader is bombarded with death in this section parallels the chaotic and devastating way Woolf’s generation had to deal with the loss of loved ones. Interwoven with commentary about the passage of time, the narration notes that Mr. Ramsay reaches out for Mrs. Ramsay, although “Mrs. Ramsay [had] died rather suddenly the night before” (128). Additionally, “Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth” (132) and “Andrew Ramsay[‘s] death, mercifully, was instantaneous” (133) after a shell exploded during the War. All of these deaths, being mentioned one after another, allow little time for the reader to process what is happening. As opposed to the generous time given to many different perspectives during the first section of the novel, the narration moves on from each of these deaths with very few comments on their effects. The deaths seem to lose their importance due to the style of the narration, leaving the reader with a sort of numbness that was pervasive in English society following the end of WWI.

“Time Passes” in To the Lighthouse

In the section “Time Passes” Virginia Woolf addresses the atmosphere World War I created in England in a number of ways. Obviously, the section focuses on the passage of time, but it is the way Woolf represents this passage (she covers about ten years in about twenty pages), that reflects on the transience of life, especially during a time of war. Although there are certain symbols Woolf uses to indicate the overall feeling World War I caused (unhappiness, a desire to continue with normal life, uncertainty), the most overt way in which Woolf expresses the uncertainty of World War I and the years preceding it is the way in which she addresses the deaths of several of the main characters.

Up to this point in the book, the reader has likely become quite attached to several of the main characters. This is unfortunate, because three of them die over the course of the twenty pages of “Time Passes.” The one that jumped out the most for me was that of Mrs. Ramsay, “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]” I thought this was extremely indicative of the atmosphere that a war creates, as soldiers can be here one day and gone the next (obviously this is true of all people, but it is more condensed in a time of war). The idea that Mr. Ramsay had yet to come to terms with Mrs. Ramsay’s death, to the point of semi-forgetting she was dead, is indicative of how volatile a situation war creates, even among citizens who are not involved in the fighting.

The next death is that of Prue, who “died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well (132).” Prue’s death, and especially people’s reaction to it, seems to echo the death of a soldier. Prue is young, and according to everyone she had a bright future, and died unexpectedly, much like a soldier. Even in a warzone, I do not think anyone ever expects death, fears it maybe, but they do not expect it. They expect that they, or the soldier they know, will get to return home, and will get to continue living the life that they had been living before the war. But of course, that is never the case. 

The final death is that of Andrew Ramsay, who died alongside, “Twenty or thirty young men [who] were blown up in France…[and] whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous (133).” This certainly echoes the horrors of war, as unlike the other two deaths, Andrew is a soldier. The fact that there is uncertainty as to exactly how many men died alongside Andrew is noteworthy, as it indicates that so many men were dying that it was impossible to count. Andrew’s death, “mercifully, was instantaneous” which is interesting, because when instantaneous death can be described as merciful, the bar for what is merciful is set pretty high. It suggests that death is so certain, and likely to be so horrible, that the best thing that can happen is for it to be instantaneous.

Certainly there are many symbols in “Time Passes” that suggest the horrors of World War I, but I think that the more moving passages are those that deal so frankly with the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew. This is partly because of the nature of the deaths (although I do not believe that Mrs. Ramsay’s death is explained) and partly because the reader has likely grown quite attached to the Ramsay’s, after spending 100 pages in their heads, and to have them torn away so abruptly is almost startling. It suggests that if it is so hard to lose a character suddenly and without warning, it must be a million times worse to lose a real person.