Time Passes

Time Passes is the shortest part of “To the Lighthouse” yet the longest span of time. The first part focuses on one day yet is over a hundred pages long whereas Time Passes is less than 25 pages. Also unlike The Window, it is told through a nonhuman perspective, focusing mainly on the house and the changing weather. In the first half there are many different perspectives from the people staying in the house. They wonder about their life and how much they have done. They think about their impact in the world and in this section of the book Woolf provides the answer to that. One way she does this is by mentioning the deaths in brackets saying how Mrs. Ramsey, “died suddenly the night before,” or how “Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay.” They seem to be after thoughts and give us an idea of how much time has passed and what is going on in the world. How she introduces them shows the insignificance they hold compared to time. Time keeps moving on no matter what else is happening and is portrayed in a somewhat mechanical way.

The deterioration of the house and Mrs. McNabs struggle to clean it conveys feelings of WWI. Mrs. McNab is an old woman and is seeing this grand house and the remnants of the people that stayed there decay and be taken over by nature. It talks about how rain came in, things had gone mouldy and the attics being inhabited by rats. Finally Mrs. McNab gives up, thinking, “It is too much for one woman, too much, too much.” This portrays the overwhelming feeling that WWI brought and the inability to deal with it. This could also pertain to the “shell shock” that soldiers experienced and woman’s struggle to deal with them due to lack of knowledge on PTSD during that time. Just like the house, men’s minds deteriorated and like Mrs. McNab, women felt that they could not help them by themselves.

The deaths during Time Passes also show the effects of WWI. Mrs. Ramsay’s death is the fall of the Victorian woman. She played the domesticated wife whose duty was to nurture her children and worry over men, and her death marks the fall of these characteristics. Prue’s death comments on beauty, youth, and fertility. Andrew whose future was so bright in his parents eyes shows how war ended that hope. Overall their deaths and the state of the house convey uncertainty and lack of hope for the future.

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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.

Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

In T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, many aspects of the aftermath of WWI are present throughout. One of the first notable places is a questioning of identity in Line 12: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” Because Britains felt that the war was waged unnecessarily (or for an unnecessarily long time), there’s a sense of displacement–they’d lost hope and pride in their country, so questioning identity becomes prominent. I also wonder if in this way, showing so many types of people/languages/age groups exemplifies just how widespread the first world war expanded. If that is the case, the poem is unifying the groups of people by their reactions to the war–despite their differing circumstances, many of the reactions are the same. This is displayed in different areas of Part I and II. The theme questioning states of living and of death (and of some sort of in between) present themselves. Lines 39-40 portray a girl and boy, and the girl describes herself as “neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing”, while line 126 shows a man asking “‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'” Eliot may be getting at the state in which soldiers from war returned. They were often described as “shell-shocked”, and these descriptions of living while dead reinforce that.

Another anxiety in The Waste Land–and probably the most obvious, is the fear and remembrance of death. So many British men lost their lives in WWI, which is exhibited in lines 62-63, where “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” The deaths were not only numerous, but many British citizens felt that the deaths were unwarranted. They felt that the deaths were unjustifiable. The overwhelming confusion about where to go from that point stems from this loss. Confusion also stems from other fears as well. Eliot incorporates fear of the unknown, where he shows something “different” from one’s “shadow at evening striding behind” them, or one’s “shadow at evening rising to meet” them, he plans to show “fear in a handful of dust” (lines 27-29). The media initially tried to play the war off as some glorious service, and as deaths grew and as publications came out with gruesome information, people didn’t know what to believe of the war.

Another fear would be of the future, but more importantly, of the now. Line 59 projects from a clairvoyante, Madame Sosostris, that “One must be so careful these days.” So The Waste Land also introduces the fear that no one is safe any longer. The overwhelming rule of the British Empire had already been declining, but the first world war shut it so completely. The sense of power and importance that Britain once had was gone, and now people weren’t sure what protocol was for living, and for being. Eliot incorporates the stresses people had of future generations as well. Specifically, when Lil describes that she looks unappealing because of “them pills” she took, it is slantly referring to her aborting a child (line 159). Eliot the poet responded to Lil by asking “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (line 164). She may have gotten the abortion because she felt the world was unsafe to bring a child into, she may have been unfaithful during the war, or she may just be done risking her life for childbirth (as she’d had five kids and almost died with the last one) but as it isn’t explicitly stated, it’s hard to know.

The last thing I want to comment on is the return of the nightingale (in relation to John Keats). It’s interesting to see the nightingale return in lines 100-102, harmed but still singing with an “inviolable voice”, like how after the war people had to keep living. In Keats’s poem, the Nightingale sung, ignorant of human suffering, and here, the nightingale is singing despite her suffering. Yet there is a sense of deliberate ignorance of what was happening, a numbness to the aftermath of the war as an attempt to preserve oneself: “‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” / Nothing again nothing” (lines 119-120).

The Waste Land and WWI

The Waste Land is a very complex poem that uses multiple voices and quotations to connect with the reader and share a point about World War I. The entire poem begins with a Latin reference to an ancient Roman figure, Sybil, wishing she could die, which sets the dark tone for describing the aftermath of World War I. The poem then follows with rotating narration that cycles from a woman describing April with German quotations to the description of a hyacinth girl to a tarot card reading, and finally to a man walking through London who is able to see a dead man he knew from the war. The purpose of so many voices could be to show the vast impact of the War; it seems to me that what appear to be unconnected stories come together in the last bit of Part 1 with the French quote “hypocrite lecteur!- mom semblable,- mon frère!” This statement stood out to me most because I saw it as a way of bringing attention to how everyone was affected by the war. Particularly how it is not just the soldiers who have lost and carry the weight of many dead ones on their shoulders.

Another tactic Eliot uses is quotation for indicating speaking of characters in the poem. This stood out to because it is not something I typically see in poems. Particularly, the section in Part 2 where the woman wonders “Where the dead men lost their bones. What is that noise?” She seems to be going slightly insane and with the reference to dead men alludes to the fact that the war and the significant number of dead might be having an effect on her mental stability. This point is only further proven when she later wonders, “What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?” The sentiment this woman expresses likely mirrors how must of Europe was feeling in the wake of this catastrophe as they questioned what now becomes of their lives.

Endgame

Through the detachment from history and absence of time Beckett establishes in his play Endgame, Beckett is able to illustrate the meaninglessness found across Western Civilization post World War II. Just as Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land” emphasizes meaninglessness and numbness, Beckett’s play profoundly demonstrates that life post-world war no longer holds meaning. Both Beckett and Eliot’s works demonstrate that society found their means of coping with the emptiness left by the war through the mechanical routine of day to day life. Beckett’s characters’ actions and dialogue are almost painfully mechanical and minimalistic; yet it is so to exemplify the mechanical, numb routine society had fallen into. The play begins and ends with Hamm in the exact same position, “motionless,” demonstrating the play’s theme of stagnation and meaninglessness.

Beckett’s use of time or rather, his purposeful lack of time and place in history is a different approach than Eliot took in “The Waste Land;” yet both works equally communicate the futile sense of existence that hung over society due to the world wars. Beckett’s characters lack purpose and meaning in their lives to the extent they are looking forward to death, “finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” but the future as well as the past is illusory (2579). The past, present, and future is illusive because of the absence of time, making it impossible for the characters to find hope in their present state or in the future because death is taking so long to come.

Detachment as Time Passes

Through the use of a very detached perspective, Woolf engages with the desensitizing effects of WWI in Book 2, “Time Passes.” Perhaps the most obvious example of desensitization is the use of bracketed text to describe all the events happening to the characters while the house is abandoned. By using the brackets, Woolf makes the important events in the lives of the characters an after thought. The deaths of three important characters, Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew are all mentioned within brackets and with very little description, almost as if they have no meaning. Take, for example, the description of Prue’s death: “[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with child-birth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, They said nobody deserved happiness more.]” (380). Her situation mirrors that of the millions of soldiers who died in WWI. To the world, the death of one soldier is merely a drop of water in a vast ocean. Yes, it is sad; but death so pervade the world that hardly anyone notices. People are detached and desensitized.

Another way the Woolf uses a detached perspective to show the effects of WWI is by keeping her characters out of the summer home during the war. Left almost entirely to the whims of nature, the house falls into shambles. Rats invade the attic, “plaster fell in shovelfuls,” mold grows on everything, and the rooms fill with a “yellow haze.” The Ramsay family detach themselves from the house, a place for happiness and peace, during the war. Similarly, Europe also loses internal and external peace during the war. Through the Ramsay family and their detachment from the summer home, Woolf creates a microcosm representing Europe throughout World War I.

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.