“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. 

3 thoughts on ““Time Passes” in To the Lighthouse

  1. I had a very similar response to the text. While there is a lot of thoughtful commentary on death and rebirth in the narration, I think the reader is supposed to be especially struck by the seemingly cold and callous way the text briefly mentions the deaths of its main characters. I thought that your comments about each death were really spot-on.

  2. Yeah, that whole instantaneous death thing is pretty interesting. There’s this whole thing in our culture with drawn-out death scenes, in movies and plays (Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream for instance), and they can be pretty funny in their silliness. But they have at their core, whether they’re being done sincerely or mockingly, this notion of a noble death, an honorable death, a sacrificial death offered up for something valuable like romantic love or devotion to one’s country or whatever. And Woolf (and Owen in “Dulce,” and countless other writers I’m sure) is showing how that whole idea is just completely gone now. There’s no noble or romantic death to be died in WWI (unless you’re Rupert Brooke I guess). It’s all just absurd and meaningless and horrific. Patriotism is outdated—not worth to be so highly valued, not worth the cost of the sacrifice that was made. So yeah, the best you can hope for is it being quick and painless.

  3. I, too, was especially hit by the passage about Mrs. Ramsey. Mr. Ramsey reaching out for her was like the wives of soldiers, who either passed in the war or returned home with crippling PTSD, were left with virtually nothing of their spouses.

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