Time Passes

“Time Passes” is an appropriate title for this section of Woolf’s novel.  The first section of the novel felt as if time were standing still.  Mr. Ramsey’s thoughts, for example, take up substantial space within the novel while progressing very little of the plot.  As he walks around thinking on how Shakespeare is irrelevant, he slows the plot down to a mere crawl.  This contrasts greatly with the form of “Time Passes” say many important things in a short amount of time.  Late in the passage, Woolf writes “So she was dead; and Mr.  Andrew killed, and Miss Prue dead too, they said, with her first baby; but everyone had lost some one these years”(77).  The twenty year time-travel is evident in this passage through its simulation of the effect of a whiplash speed of time; one only has time to see brief important things and repeat them later as a representation of the whole.  Furthermore, Miss Prue’s death in childbirth represents the inability to reproduce and continue time through human’s own ability, as if time continues while leaving humanity behind.  The irrelevance of man in the riptide of time is evident again through the observation of the cook.   Woolf writes of “The cook now, Mildred, Marian, some such name as that”(77).  The phrasing implies that the cook is a replacement whose name is not worth memorizing, possibly referencing how soon she will be gone too and thus replaced by another nameless cook.

The passage connects with World War I in its confusing and quick movements characterized fewer insights into the characters themselves.  “The Window” contained multiple passages that delved deep into the psyche of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, while “Time Passes” implies that the replacement cook, who will soon be replaced herself, is not worth the time taken to memorize her name. In addition, Woolf juxtaposes stillness and chaos with day and night as she says “the stillness and brightness of the day were as confusing as the chaos and tumult of the night” (76). Historians characterize World War I as an unusually uniform war.  Two trenches: one side attacks, the other attacks subsequently, and it goes on. The war dragged on for such a monotonous stalemate that any sort of stillness in the constant fighting would be alien and disorienting.  The passage as a whole uses the speed of time, which was proven to be relative in the early 1900’s, to bring out a meaning of the War’s ability to warp time.  Nature continues on, patient as usual, while humanity gets caught in its own storm, getting left behind in the night.

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To The Lighthouse: Time Passes

In the Time Passes section, Woolf uses a much quicker and shorter usage of time. Instead of spending an entire section to describe the actions of the family on one day, as she did in section 1, Woolf spends a much shorter amount of pages describing 20 years. She also uses mostly non-human entities to describe the passage of time instead of actual humans. Though she says that summers and winters pass through the house’s life, she doesn’t out-right say how much time has passed until she uses brackets and thoughts by Mrs.McNab.

The brackets are used to express that the events within the brackets are happening elsewhere. We can see this when she writes on page 133, “{A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up i France, among them Andrew Ramsey, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.}” This is a sudden departure from the ghost-like description of the aging house to let the reader know that the war was happened and a major character has died. This is said so quickly and without warning so that Woolf’s form may embody how people experienced the war when it happened. It may be in brackets to also let the reader know that the house only knew that time was passing, not that major tragedies were happening.

The thoughts by Mrs.McNab are used to bring together the mundanity of human consciousness that is shown in part 1 and the almost omniscient, quickly passing consciousness of the house. We hear her thoughts on page 135 saying, “Mrs. Ramsay’s things. Poor lady! She would never want them again. She was dead, they said; years ago, in London.” This shows us an estimate of how much time has passed and gives us another insight to a character’s death. It quickly switches back over to the house’s consciousness, where we don’t spend a lot of time on Mrs. Ramsay’s death, but swiftly move through more seasons.

Working with this very quick movement of time by the house’s perspective is the concept of stillness. The stillness is the opposite of human action and the explanation of the house’s spirit. On page 129, Woolf writes, “So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted.” The absence of human interactions and thoughts in the house make the slow movement of time seen in the first part turn into a very rapid movement of time by the house. This is because there is only the stillness of the house, and not any human motives or actions to ponder about and spend longer time thinking over. The Lighthouse is seen by the house’s perspective as the epitome of stillness when Woolf writes, “Only the Lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over a bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw” (138).  This calmness that the lighthouse projects onto the house is fleeting and not very effecting, unlike the lighthouse’s characteristics to the humans in part 1. The human characters in part one spend large amounts of time on the lighthouse and project onto it their thoughts, judgements, histories, and feelings. This expands the amount of time Woolf must spend explaining it. This means that the house only projects its stillness onto the lighthouse, so that it what the lighthouse gives back to it.

This technique of slowing down time when it pertains to human life and speeding it up when it pertains to nature and an empty house is a way to express the processing of the war. Woolf separate the events of the war, which happen very quickly, and how the characters process the war, which takes a considerable longer amount of time. Nature and the house are still, seeing the time of the war only as the passing seasons, while humans are unable to see the passing of time or the effects of the war without their day-to-day, moment-to-moment understanding of it.

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.

“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.