Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535
Mrs. Bast: caretaker, born in Glasgow; did not know the Ramsays; assists Mrs. McNab
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George: Mrs. Bast’s son; quiet, hard worker
Mrs. McNab has heard that the family will never come again. She picks some flowers to take home with her. She wonders what will happen to the house. She looks at the moldy books and knows they should be laid out on the grass in the sun. Talking to herself, she thinks that the war and the difficulty in finding help, have rendered the house beyond repair. It’s beyond her strength to do it. But, why hasn’t anyone come to see it? Why did they leave clothes in all the bedrooms? She thinks that poor Mrs. Ramsay won’t want them again; she has been dead for years. Mrs. McNab fingers Mrs. Ramsay’s grey gardening cloak. She remembers her in the garden as she walked up the drive with the washing. She knows that once they had planned to come to the house, but the war made travel impossible.
Mrs. McNab recalls the day that she brought the washing. Mrs. Ramsay had asked the cook to keep a plate of soup for her. She thinks how all the help liked Mrs. Ramsay, she had a pleasant way with her. As she thinks of Mrs. Ramsay, she thinks how much has changed. Prue and Andrew are dead, and there have been so many other losses during the war. Prices had gone up and never come down. She is despairing as she looks at the falling plaster, where the rain has come in. It was too much for one woman to repair. She locks the house and leaves.
The deserted house degenerates even further. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with grains of salt now that life has left it. The night and the airs seem to have triumphed. What power could prevent the fertility, the insensibility of nature? Mrs. McNab’s memories are not powerful enough to stay the rack and ruin. Only the Lighthouse beam enters the house for a moment, looking with calmness at the decay.
The fate of the house is poised, a feather could change the balance. A feather could result in the house pitching into darkness. Stray picnickers or lovers or tramps might take over. The roof might cave in, briars and hemlocks might cover the steps and windows. A broken china cup might be the only evidence of human habitation a trespasser might discover.
Suddenly, a letter from one of the young ladies requests that the house be put to order. Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, old and stiff, with creaking legs, are set to work. They become the force that stays the rot; they rescue the house from the pool of Time. A kind of laborious birth takes place. Together with Mrs. Bast’s son, George, they slowly return the house to life.
The two women pause sometimes for tea, contemplating their magnificent conquests and their partial triumphs. As they rescue the books from spiders and pale mushrooms, she remembers Mr. Ramsay, lean as a rake, talking to himself on the lawn. He had never noticed her.
Mrs. McNab remembers the pleasant times in the house—the kind cook with the sense of humor who saved delicious morsels for the help. She thinks they lived well then. Mrs. Bast, who never knew them, asks about the beast’s skull. Mrs. McNab tells her that the Ramsays had friends in eastern countries, perhaps one of them had brought it. She remembers the gay evenings with ladies in evening dress and jewelry. She would be asked to do the washing up and might stay as late as midnight. Mrs. Bast comments that they’d find it changed.
As she watches George scything the grass, she thinks again that they’d find it changed, referring to the grounds. Old Kennedy, who was supposed to have charge of it, had fallen from a cart and couldn’t work.
At last, after days of labor, the task is finished. There seemed to arise a kind of melody, an intermittent music of barking, and humming and all manner of sounds which the ear strains to bring together in harmony. Then, as evening falls, quiet descends. (Late one evening in September, Lily Briscoe had her bag carried up to the house.)
Messages of peace breathe from the sea to the shore. As Lily lays her head on the pillow, she senses that the murmuring messages are the voices of the beauty of the world. The house is full again and the voices seem to be entreating the sleepers to go out and see the night, with head crowned and scepter jewels ready to meet the eyes of a child. If the sleepers didn’t awaken, the voice, without complaint would continue to lull them. Gently the waves would break and tenderly the light would fall. Mr. Carmichael, shutting his book, thinks it looks much as it used to look.
Nothing disturbs the sleepers until the early morning arrival of the birds, the sun, a cart grinding, and a dog somewhere barking. Lily stirs, clutches her blankets, like a faller on the edge of a cliff, and then sits bold upright in bed, awake.
Mrs. Mc Nab, picking flowers and laying them on the table, presides over a kind of funeral: the family will not return, never again. She asks herself what she is to do with the abandoned clothing like a widow, wringing her hands at her husband’s death. Woolf’s repetition of words, “It was too much for one woman, too much, too much,” creates a kind of lamentation.
Woolf’s elegy on the deserted house is nothing short of poetry:
The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it… The swallows nested in the drawing room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind wainscots. Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the windowpane. Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass; giant artichokes towered among roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages; while the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winter’s nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars which made the whole room green in summer.
The omniscient narrator tells us that total dissolution of the house might be caused by as little as one feather, tipping this perilous scale. However, there was a “force” working. Suddenly one of the young ladies wrote to Mrs. McNab. “Would she see that the house was ready? Would she get this done; would she get that done; all in a hurry.”
Ironically, it is Mrs. McNab and her co-worker, Mrs. Bast who become the force to save the house from total ruin. Their age and their physical condition make them unlikely heroines. They are not attractive figures: they creak, they leer, they hobble, they lurch; they are toothless and dimwitted. They do not go about their work “with dignified ritual or solemn chanting.” Yet, like dumb forces of nature, they reverse the decay and save this microcosm of civilization.
When we contrast the attractiveness and intelligence of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in The Window, with the decrepit caretakers in Time Passes, we are stunned. Virginia Woolf’s brilliant creation of the two haggard women is masterful. The personalities in The Window are vibrant and alive. Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, in contrast, suggest nothing so much as old crones, rattling around a haunted house. All that is left of Mrs. Ramsay is her shawl, flapping on the door. Mr. Ramsay’s precious books are covered with mold and spiders. These ghost-like reminders suggest that philosophy can’t save us; the social fabric, elegantly embroidered though it may be, can’t save us. However, sometimes, if we are lucky, forces far removed from our planning and understanding step in.
Despite their groaning and stumbling, the caretakers, like old soldiers, (“...breaking off at mid-day with the smudge on their faces, and their old hands, cramped with the broom handles. Flopped on chairs ...”) are revived as they restore the house. They chat, they remember the good times, they feel triumph in their success. Life is resurrected through them. Woolf is saying, indirectly, yet profoundly: war is ugly, it results in havoc and destruction and the recovery from war is not pretty or dignified, but the life force, this time at least, prevailed.
We learn, as soon as the caretakers have finished, that peace has come. Lily Briscoe, returning to the house, sleeps wrapped in the gentle and kindly arms of the night. The arduous task of restoring the house, parallels the exhausting struggle of war. Things have, finally, been put right. Nature no longer bodes ill, but offers comfort and beauty. The long hard night is over. Morning breaks. The artist who seeks a vision wakes up. Life has returned.