Time in Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf admitted that life reflected in fiction is not a regularly patterned universe with an objective existence, it is a state of mind.
Life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
Because existence is not objective, it cannot be absolute. And even time, as thoroughly interwoven into the fiber of being, cannot be absolute itself. This is why all of Virginia Woolf’s novels are, in one way or another, experiments upon the concept of time. Perhaps the most obvious is “Mrs. Dalloway”, which envisions time as a complex interplay between the present experience and what remains in our minds in the form of memories. But other novels, like “To the Lighthouse”, make use of the concept of time in a much deeper sense: they create an intricate temporal fabric that is meant to underline the destructive force of the universe, upon which the human being watches helplessly. “To the Lighthouse” is an elegy upon time and that is why time appears in such novels as a complex entity itself.
“To the Lighthouse” is made up of three distinct parts, each of which envisions time differently. In the first section, entitled “The Window,” Virginia Woolf conceives of time as a matter of psychology rather than chronology. She creates what the French philosopher Henri Bergson termed durée, a conception of the world as primarily intuitive and internal rather than external or material. “The Window” deals with the minute details of a single afternoon and evening, stretching them out into a considerable piece of prose: we are able to follow the thoughts of the key figures of the Ramsays, Mrs and Mr Ramsay, as they take care of their guests at the holiday house in the Hebrides. This is how we also realize that time itself is interiorized and seen different by the two protagonists, it is actually a mosaique of the different perceptions each of the guests at the house have. For Mr Ramsay, time is not forgiving. As a philosopher, he most fears for his popularity and that in the end, he will be forgotten under the thick veil of time:
And his fame lasts how long? It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousand years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still.
It seems that the only comfort he can find is not in knowledge, which seems relative and absurd, but in the surrendering to the soothing existence of his family:
Who shall blame him? Who will not secretly rejoice when the hero puts his armour off, and halts by the window and gazes at his wife and son, who, very distant at first, gradually come closer and closer, till lips and book and head are clearly before him, though still lovely and unfamiliar from the intensity of his isolation and the waste of ages and the perishing of the stars, and finally putting his pipe in his pocket and bending his magnificent head before her—who will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world?
He considers their existence the only beauty of life, but is also embarrassed, as an intellectual individual, for his incapacity to fully admire the beauty of the world without remorse and with detachment.
Mrs. Ramsay, on the other hand relies more on intuition than on intelligence in order to make sense of the world. She even admits that the intellectual air of the men around her (including her husband) is sometimes too tiring for her simple, yet beautiful and gracious mind: ”they were walking on and Mrs. Ramsay did not quite catch the meaning, only the words, here and there … dissertation … fellowship … readership … lectureship. She could not follow the ugly academic jargon, that rattled itself off so glibly.” She accepts the passing of time just as well as she accepts the authoritative nature of her husband, because she knows she can make the world better with her beauty and give everything the air of rightfulness:
She went out of her way indeed to be friendly. She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent. She had been admired. She had been loved. She had entered rooms where mourners sat. Tears had flown in her presence. Men, and women too, letting go to the multiplicity of things, had allowed themselves with her the relief of simplicity. It injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded, coming as it did on top of her discontent with her husband;
But at the same time, there are things that startle her. First, it is the fact that some people are immune to her charms and accuse her of trying to impose a philosophy upon life on everyone. Then, there is the transactional level of life, the financial problems for example, that contrast so deeply with her natural, pervading beauty. And thirdly, it is her own fear that her children will grow up and lose the innocence of childhood. These are all signs that in the end time wins the fight, and that the temporary paralysis that happy moments instill is just a fleeting victory upon the inevitable nature of the universe.
And indeed, in the second chapter of the novel, “Time Passes” Mrs. Ramsay is defeated and with her the narrative flow of the beautiful summer day is disrupted. Many of the characters from the first section disappear. In “Time Passes” time is fully objective and compresses an entire decade into barely twenty pages. Virginia Woolf chooses to portray the effects of time on objects like the house and its contents rather than on human development and emotion. “Time Passes” validates Lily’s and the Ramsays’ fears that time will bring about their demise, as well as the widespread fear among the characters that time will erase the legacy of their work. Here, everything from the garden to the prized Waverley novels slowly sinks into oblivion.
Because the focus shifts from psychology in “The Window” to chronology in “Time Passes,” human beings become secondary concerns in the latter section of the novel. This effect replicates the anxieties that plague the characters. Mr. Ramsay’s fear that there is little hope for human immortality is confirmed as Virginia Woolf presents the death of the novel’s heroine in an unadorned aside:
[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.]]
What we learn of the central character in this brief section is presented as an aside, set apart by brackets. Here, Virginia Woolf starts to chart the relentless, cruel, and more conventional passage of time by adopting the tone of news bulletins and marching orders. The passage may well allude to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a husband losing his wife at the gates of Hell.
This choice is remarkable on two levels. First, thematically, it skillfully asserts that human life is, in the natural scheme of things, incidental. Second, the offhand mention of Mrs. Ramsay’s death challenges established literary tradition by refusing to indulge in conventional sentiment. The emotionally hyperbolic Victorian deathbed scene is absent for Mrs. Ramsay, and Virginia Woolf uses an extreme economy of words to report the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.
In this section, the darkened tone that begins to register toward the end of “The Window” comes to the fore both literally and figuratively. Mrs. Ramsay’s death constitutes the death of womanhood and the dismantling of domesticated power in the novel. With the deaths of Prue and Andrew, the world’s best potential and best hope seem dashed. Prue’s death in childbirth strikes out at beauty and continuity, while Andrew’s demise brings out the impact of war and the stunting of masculine potential so important to the novel’s historical context. In a way, the novel miniaturizes a vast historical moment for Europe as a whole. “Time Passes” brings to the Ramsays destruction as vast as that inflicted on Europe by World War I. When the Ramsays return to their summer home shaken, depleted, and unsure, they represent the postwar state of an entire continent.
In the final part of the novel, named ”The Lighthouse”, Virginia Woolf returns to the narrative technique of the first chapter, giving the time back its subjective nature. In fact, if we try to see the novel through the eyes of the young James, who wanted to go to the lighthouse in the first chapter, we realize that the writer wants to give the impression that only a day had passed. The short intermezzo chapter Time Passes has taken place during the night and now the morning finds the remaining characters returning at the house in the Hebrides.
Gently the waves would break (Lily heard them in her sleep); tenderly the light fell (it seemed to come through her eyelids). And it all looked, Mr Carmichael thought, shutting his book, falling asleep, much as it used to look.
But there is a fundamental difference between the time here and the time of the first chapter. If at first time was more of a sensorial perception, now time makes a different imprint upon the minds of the characters; it operates to forge the matter of memory, “leaf upon leaf.” And we might say that memory, concretized, does appear to James just as they enter into a strange proximity with the lighthouse that has lain for so long in imagination only.
“He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?”
The lighthouse that comes into view as they approach in the boat emerges as a solid, material object in contrast to the “silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye” that had sat nestled among “leaves and flowers” of “that happy world” of his past. Both are the lighthouse, he quickly decides, as Virginia Woolf insists on leaving open the ethics of memory and immediate experience to their inherent pluralisms:
“For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too”
Not only may memory be traced as a physical impression “folded” within, returned to as a material object, but in the middle of the novel Mrs. Ramsay imagines the past as something “sealed up” that one might return to through volition. During the climactic dinner party that occupies the exact center of the novel, Mrs. Ramsay takes brief moments out of her demanding role as orchestrator and unifier of the diverse needs of her guests to take respite in the past: “that dream land, that unreal but fascinating place, the Mannings’ drawing-room at Marlow twenty years ago; where one moved about without haste or anxiety”
The past is “more real than the present” because it is available both to experience and re-experience – to understanding and to the enhanced re-cognition involved in knowing again. As Henri Bergson proposes in his 1911 lectures at Oxford, “We tend to represent the past as if it were non-existent”; while this is an “illusion,” he claims, that is essential for life, it is “dangerous in the highest degree.” Further, “the past makes a body with the present and continually creates with it.”One’s position toward the past is open both to the ongoing becoming of the past, and to a stabilization of previous experience that the present cannot yet offer.
For Woolf – as for Freud – the intenser moments of the past leave palpable psychic and sensual remains, while memorialization itself, and especially writing of the past, becomes a way of approaching a temporality deepened by the past’s enduring becoming.
As a conclusion, in To the Lighthouse, Woolf approaches time with a near-cubist depiction. We end up with a triangle of temporality, with each aspect of past, present, and future often synchronically evoked. In retrospective, we could say that the second part, “Time Passes,” works as a pure present, rendered with an acceleration of narrative time alongside a condensation of intensely lyrical prose; while we might think of the last section, “The Lighthouse,” as the pure, realized and realizable, future. This seems simple, but what is interesting is that in this text the present is always anticipating its future while registering the materiality of the past, while the future finds its meaning in enacting a similar return.
After Part One – which already through its title, “The Window,” proposes a kind of vantage outlook to both space and time – the text changes its focus from futurity to anteriority, from hoping for a trip to the lighthouse, to alternately remembering and repressing the past and its originary mother figure. The novel as a whole bears the pressure of answering to the intensely pure, willed, desiring “I” of James as a six-yearold boy. From the moment when James’s desire – with all the profound metaphorical significance this yearning implies (we wonder if James does not want to go to the root of symbol or to the heart of metaphor itself in wanting to go “to the lighthouse”) – is refused, his delighted fervor is transformed into a memory of thwarted desire.