To the Lighthouse

Time is a recurring theme throughout Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In Part I (The Window), Woolf stretches time, devoting the first 124 pages to a single day. This reflects the desire of some of the characters for time, that day, to stand still.  Mrs. Ramsay in particular wishes for them to always be together as they are in the dinner scene and for her youngest children, Andrew and Cam, to never grow old and suffer as she has.

In contrast, in Part II (Time Passes) ten years are compressed into approximately 20 pages. The passage of time is reflected by the deterioration of the house on the beach. While only a few words are devoted to the lives of its former inhabitants, the house’s increasingly poor state reflects their own experience over this period. The series of tragedies in the background of WWI are sudden and confusing. Their presentation in a short, objective, bracketed form disrupts the narrative and generates this effect. These years and events are then condensed into a few pages as they are slowly processed over many years. This reflects the way in which the world attempted to process the events and implications of WWI. In its aftermath a strong sense of confusion, shock, and disillusionment was felt. Nature seemed disrupted, as it is around the abandoned house: “…(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” (134-5). This processing was extremely gradual. Likewise, Woolf’s compression of ten years into 20 pages suggests that little changed over the course of these ten years as the characters, most likely, grappled with these sudden tragedies and, to some extent, the disruption of nature itself (the loss of the constant, binding force of Mrs. Ramsay in many ways represents this disruption of nature in their lives). Time moved on, but many people did not and so the narrative focuses on the state of nature and the beach house as opposed to the characters.

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Youth in The Letter by Helen Williams

In this narrative piece by Helen Maria Williams, she describes her experience of the Festival of the Federation in Paris. This event was one of the results of the French revolution which culminated in the end of the monarch system in the country and the drafting of a new constitution (The Longman Anthology of British Literature). From the narrative provided by Williams, the ceremony was more memorable to her for the spectacle she observed, more than the significance of the day itself. Williams paints a picture here of an incredible sight in that day in Paris; one of an immense gathering of people which even she, with all her literary grace finds difficult to describe. She writes that “One must have been present, to form any judgement of a scene, the sublimity of which depended much less on its external magnificence than on the effect it produced on the mind of the spectators” (Longman Vol. 2A, pp 109).Containing in the account of the festivities of the day are some allusions to youth and youthfulness which this write-up will aim to highlight.

In her description of the procession of the parade in Paris, Williams describes an ebullient crowd, writing “How am I to paint the impetuous feelings of that immense, exulting multitude?” (pp 109). While this characteristic could be attributed to people of elderly age, as it is implied here that this joy is as a result of the events that preceded it, it could also be looked at as an indication of youthfulness in the minds of the population of France. The parade was a celebration of a new dawn in the country, heralded by the drafting of a new constitution that was expected to mitigate inequality and improve the lives of the people of the country. Even for the older generation, the hope and promise this was going to bring enacted youthful joy and buoyancy. This is further amplified, in her description of the construction of the Champ de Mars, in which Williams claims was built in “Twenty days[‘] labour” (pp 109), given that it was supposed to “require the toil of years” (pp 110). According to Williams, this was only accomplished by “the enthusiasm of the people…inspired by the same spirit…old soldiers …voluntarily bestowing on their country the last remains of their strength.” (pp 110). This excitement was not an indication of just physical strength, which could be an allusion to a dominantly youthful population, but also of a mental and psychological vibrancy; a youthfulness of the mind.

Williams also points to the emergence of a new era in the soon-to-be-deposed monarchy in which the young successors to the throne embrace the revolution and new constitution even though they stood to lose some opulence from the changes. She also presents youth in her praise of the young prince who she describes in contrast to the youths of his generation. Williams notes his “attentiveness politeness …a striking contrast…to the manners of those fashionable gentlemen…who consider apathy and negligence as the test of good-breeding.” (pp 110). She also describes the eighteen-year old as having “the enthusiasm of a young and ardent mind” (pp 110), which brings her to the talk of the monarchy’s embracing of he new constitution.

In conclusion, Williams, in this narrative of the events in Paris alludes to a mental youthfulness in the population brought about by the emergence of a new era and an admiration of the particularly youthful nature of the monarchy.

To the Lighthouse and the Desolation of the War

In “Time Passes,” Woolf uses the abandonment and decay of the house to foreshadow the desolation and loss of identity that England experiences following World War I. From the very opening the darkness that the war has brought to England is suggested. In the first chapter, all of the lights are put out. Following that, it begins to rain, and it seems as if “Nothing… could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness” (125-26) that comes creeping in and blurs all distinctions. The blurring of distinctions represents the loss of a clear sense of identity that has befallen the English. The house, abandoned by the fractured family that once maintained it, falls further and further into disorder as the family breaks up more and more. This represents England’s steady fracturing of identity which will make the country unable to forget what happened and return to the way things were.

There is a hint that the decay is contested in the person of Mrs. McNab who is first introduced as coming “to open all windows, and dust the bedrooms” (130). Being an older person, Mrs. NcNab probably represents the attempts of the older generation, and older traditions, to hold this new, desolate England together. However, as the war progresses, she eventually gives up. The task is “too much for one woman” (137), especially a woman who creaks and moans as much as the house itself. She  is forced to leave “the house alone, shut up, locked” (137), mirroring England’s own frozen, gloomy state.

At the same time, “Time Passes” demonstrates how the War renders human life meaningless, and yet nature does not care. The major events that will forever define and divide the family occur in brackets, almost as afterthoughts. It is a jolt when the reader suddenly learns that Mrs. Ramsay has “died rather suddenly”, leaving Mr. Ramsay to stumble in the dark (128), that “Prue Ramsay died that summer of some illness connected with childbirth” (132), that “Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsey” (133). The change of the seasons and the slow reclaiming of the house by nature become the main focus of the story. As the title tersely states: “Time Passes.” Humans’ petty lives are of secondary importance.

Darwinism in Fiction : “Our Society at Cranford”

Darwin is an interesting character. His views on natural and sexual selection and evolution, especially as expressed in the The Descent of Man excerpt we read, seem blunt, verging on offensive during the time period, and “in-your-face,” to use a modern colloquialism. None of that, however, is seen in Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford.” Darwinist theories, if truly displayed with any intention and not simply because the ideas of the time accidentally influenced the majority of writers from that period onward, are hidden beneath a veil of humanity and queer society, and, to be perfectly frank, I was not even sure for what to search.

What I thought was interesting, and possibly telling to the idea of natural selection, is that “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons” (1432). Ladies are the prime population of the little town, and the only man mentioned for any lengthy period is Captain Brown, whom settles within the town and lives out his life rather happily. Perhaps, Gaskell is using Darwin’s theory of natural selection to describe the quaint, dated society in which they live; that it is not reproducing, and will eventually die out.

I discovered something similar in the death of Captain Brown, which, after the lively and brilliant descriptions of his kindness and character, upset me deeply. On page 1438, Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown have quite the dispute over which author is better: Samuel Johnson (“Dr. Johnson”) or Charles Dickens (“Mr. Boz”). No concrete conclusion is reached on whom is better, though the debate, in which Brown asserts that Johnson’s style is “pompous writing” (1438), sparks some animosity between the two for some time. With Brown’s tragic death, however, Miss Jenkyns seems to drop her previous objections to the man, and is exceptionally kind to both of his daughters.

It is not within Miss Jenkyns’ actions that I found a point of interest, however, but rather, within their argument. The Pickwick Papers, the work by Dickens of which Brown is in favor, is humorous, witty, and an entertaining read, while Johnson’s work Rasselas is serious, moral, and philosophical. I found it interesting that Brown died while reading the Pickwick Papers, though Miss Jenkyns, who reads Rasselas, lives on into her old(er) age. There seems to be a comment here on the idea of “survival of the fittest,” for, while Captain Brown was certainly more physically fit for survival than Miss Jenkyns, she may have been more mentally fit, a quality that is becoming steadily more important amongst civilized society. This says something about the adaptability of the human race; while Darwin assumes that natural selection and survival of the fittest are applied in a physical sense (he is most capable of tilling a field or hefting bales of hay is more qualified for survival than he who tills metaphorical fields within the mind and hefts books), this idea that man’s continued survival depends on his moral, ethical, and philosophical prowess is certainly interesting.

 

 

When reading Gaskell’s text, I did see a lot of tension between the modern era and the older way of thinking and doing in Cranford. However, I do not think that I would have noticed similarities between Gaskell’s text and Darwin’s theories if I was not looking for them. The first thing that I noticed when examining the text with Darwin in mind was the similarity between Gaskell’s descriptions of the town and its inhabitants Darwin’s descriptions of the Fuegians. There is an observing, objective element to the descriptions given of Cranford, as if the narrator were a kind of naturalist. There are several phrases that really drive the sense of a naturalist describing what she sees home, such as: “there were certain rules and regulations for visiting and calling (1433).” Furthermore, we later learn that the narrator is a visitor to the town, not one of its proper inhabitants, just as Darwin was a visitor to the natives whose cultures he described.

The main point in the text in which Gaskell seems to directly address one of Darwin’s theories is her description of the relationship between Captain Brown, Miss Jessie, and the sickly Miss Brown. Darwin wrote about the “Struggle for Existence” which included “…not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny (1273).” The end result of this struggle is that “…the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply (1277).” However, Miss Brown, one of the weaker individuals in the evolutionary struggle serves as an impediment and a drain on Captain Brown and Miss Jessie, who are more fit individuals. In particular, she wrecks her fitter sister’s chances to have children and a life of her own.

In her life, “Miss Brown used to accuse herself, not merely of hast and irritable temper, but also of being the cause why her father and sister were obliged to pinch, in order to allow her the small luxuries which were necessaries in her condition (1439).” This shows a sense of uneasiness that her own weakness and wasting illness is the cause of distress to the stronger, healthier members of her family. Furthermore, it is revealed that Miss Brown is the reason that Miss Jessie, who is, by all accounts, an exceedingly healthy and able individual, has not married and had children. Miss Brown shows remorse for holding her sister back on her deathbed, saying: “How selfish I have been! God forgive me for letting you sacrifice yourself for me as you did! (1445).” After her sister’s death, Miss Jessie is able to marry, and has a child, demonstrating her fitness to live, be happy, and leave offspring. I am unsure whether Gaskell is agreeing with Darwin’s theories of evolution or not, but she has certainly painted a subtle picture of the strong being held back by a sense of duty to their weaker kindred.

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.

Virginia Woolf: Perspective and reflections of WWI

The section “Time Passes” speaks most clearly to me about WWI and its aftermath. Much of the imagery denotes the sense of a transitional period, being at a point of change, such as the changing leaves on “autumn trees” and the passing glimpses of a beautiful moonlit night (p. 127). The following page comes Mr. Ramsey’s perspective, as he is musing in his typical philosophical way, but has strong undertones of the sentiments of those reacting to the chaos and death of the war: “Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer” (128). In the aftermath of this event, there simply were no answers to such questions asked by those reeling from the loss. Likewise, the suddenness of death and temporality of life, made more evident by the war, comes out in a bracketed statement. While Mr. Ramsey is“stumbling along a passage one dark morning” with his arms stretched out hoping for his wife, he is left alone, his arms still empty, because his wife had suddenly died. In the passing of just one night, she was gone and he is left alone.

The clean-up and later unsettled, tense house following all the deaths — Mrs. Ramsey, Andrew, and Prue — likewise reflects the painful aftermath of dealing with the losses from the war, both loss of life and of innocence/faith in society. Taking a look of the house in ruins (“too much work for one woman”) and reflecting on the deaths and sinking state of the country, Mrs. McNab muses, “But, dear, many things had changed…many families had lost their dearest. So she was dead; and Mr. Andrew killed; and Miss Prue dead too…but everyone had lost some one these years. Prices had gone up shamefully, and didn’t come down again neither” (136). Life is moving on, different. Many are dead, things have changed, but only for the worse and with no improvement in sight. Society felt exhausted after the war, and this old woman mirrors that exhaustion: “She creaked, she moaned,” and everything before her “was too much for one woman, too much, too much” (137).