To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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Examine the concept of time in Virgina Woolf's To The Lighthouse.

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I'd like to expand upon the other answer to this question by looking at time's power to outlast human life in the famous "Time Passes" section. Here, Woolf focuses on how the passage of time affects the Ramsay summer home when its primary inhabitants are gone. Lasting a period of roughly a decade (or, at the very least, a number of years which include the outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent armistice four years later), "Time Passes" witnesses the gradual decay of the Ramsay house.

Abandoned by the Ramsay family, the house is slowly reclaimed by nature, with birds and toads nesting in the woodwork and weeds and wild grasses taking over first the garden, then the interior. During this time, Woolf seems to more or less forget about her main characters, relegating their activities to condensed bracketed paragraphs, despite the fact that these activities would normally take up a large portion of any conventional narrative—Andrew and Mrs. Ramsay, for instance, die all of a sudden, despite the fact that they were major characters in the first section of the book.

In "Time Passes," therefore, it's useful to think of time as a main character in and of itself, a force of nature that takes center stage and reduces the human characters of the novel to footnotes. From the perspective of time, human activities occur in the mere blink of an eye and are barely worth registering, while the fruits of their labor (i.e., the Ramsay summer home and the coherent community it represents) can be destroyed without any special effort. Thus, in To the Lighthouse time becomes a force that is terrifying, not because it has any animosity toward humans, but rather because human beings are entirely inconsequential and meaningless in comparison to the inevitable progression of days and months and years. It's a haunting idea, one that Lily Briscoe will grapple with at length in the novel's third and final section.

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The predominant message about time in this novel is rather a sobering one. Again and again the text points to the inevitability of the passing of time, and how experiences, no matter how vivid and real they are, will undoubtedly pass and fade as the brief and mortal span of humanity draws itself to a close. This view of time is captured through the symbol of the sea, that broadly can be said to represent the relentless passing of time and the ceaseless forward motion that embodies time as characters move on and die. In the face of time, the skills, qualities, emotions and talents of characters are shown to be supremely transient. Note how the following quote captures the way in which time is presented as a somewhat oppressive force in this novel:

They both smiled, standing there. They both felt a common hilarity, excited by the moving waves; and then by the swift cutting race of a sailing boat, which, having sliced a curve in the bay, stopped; shivered; let its sails drop down; and then, with a natural instinct to complete the picture, after this swift movement, both of them looked at the dunes far away, and instead of merriment felt come over them some sadness—because the thing was completed partly, and partly because distant views seem to outlast by a million years (Lily thought) the gazer and to be communing already with a sky which beholds an earth entirely at rest.

Events, no matter how full of joy they are and no matter how happy, will eventually pass, and what oppresses Lily and Mr. Bankes in this quote is the "distant views" that "outlast by a million years... the gazer" and that are already speaking to a sky that is indifferent to the humans dwelling upon the earth. Scene in such a massive, cosmic scale, time is something that cuts humanity down to size, and it is this meaning inherent in time that various characters struggle with and against.

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