To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Time Passes, Chapters 1-7 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868

New Character:
Mrs. McNab: elderly caretaker; suffers aches and pains of age

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Some years after the day recorded in The Window, Andrew and Prue Ramsay, as well as Mr. Bankes, Mr. Carmichael and Lily Briscoe, return to the seaside house. Mr. Bankes remarks, as he enters the house, “Well, we must wait for the future to show.” The others comment on the extreme darkness of the evening. When they’re all safely indoors, they extinguish the lights and retire for the evening.

After this brief glimpse of the characters met in The Window, Nature becomes personified as the main character of Time Passes. The “immense darkness” and the wind invade and explore the house “ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the persistency of feathers.” They surround and touch the sleeping figures, the furniture, and all of the inanimate objects. These elements of nature sigh and murmur, asking, “How long would they endure?” The night is superseded by a restless passing of many nights. Autumn follows summer and the trees “take on the flash of tattered flags.” Nights become filled with “wind and destruction.” The sea tosses and frustrates any would-be seeker of truth.

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We learn that Mrs. Ramsay has died rather suddenly one night, at an indeterminate point within this passage of time. (This, and all other references to the fate of the family, is given in parentheses.) The “stray airs” continue to move ceaselessly through the rooms. They explore the remnants of the former inhabitants, the clothes they have shed and left. These are the only reminders of life. Then, after the wind has examined all aspects of the deserted house, loveliness and stillness take over and the restless questions seem to fade.

Mrs. McNab, the caretaker, breaks the silence as she enters the house to open The Windows, and dust the bedrooms. She moves awkwardly through the house, dusting and singing. She is toothless, witless, and bowed down with weariness. She lurches “like a ship at sea” and leers “ aimlessly smiling.” Though her 70 years have not been easy, she possesses a vague happiness.

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Spring comes. (Prue Ramsay has married.) As the season matures, Nature is once again personified. With the awakening of the earth, hopefulness, happiness, goodness, and order seem to return. Yet, as spring departs, she averts her head and seems to take upon herself the “sorrows of mankind.” Summer follows spring and we learn that Prue has died in childbirth. At night the Lighthouse throws a stroke across the carpet and bed. Mrs. Ramsay’s shawl, hanging on a hook, loosens and sways in the wind. The long summer days bring the hum of flies and the yellow haze of the sun. But, later in the summer, ominous sounds menace the summer days. (Andrew Ramsay has been killed by a shell in France.)

The beauty and harmony of the sights and sounds of summer—the sea, the sunset, the fishing boats, the children on the beach—is marred by the sounds of war. (Mr. Carmichael has published a volume of poetry.) The seasons repeat themselves, yet “month and year ran shapelessly together” as if the universe were battling in brute confusion. The flowers and trees continue to bloom, but it is as if they exist in emptiness. Chaos seems to rule.

Time Passes is a short poetic interlude which functions to make important connections between the first and last sections of To the Lighthouse. Using an omniscient narrator, Woolf dramatizes the decay of the house, which is neglected for ten years. Left to the forces of Nature, the abandoned house comes perilously close to absolute disintegration.

In The Window, all of the movement was forward: the anticipation of the trip to the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay’s fantasies for her children, the future estimation of Mr. Ramsay’s work, Minta and Paul’s engagement, and so on. In Time Passes, the movement of Time only serves to erode and destroy. The remnants of human habitation in the house suggest, not only decay, but death.

Virginia Woolf creates powerful visual images as she personifies the darkness enveloping the house and the sea air intruding into every empty inch. The havoc wrought by the elements of Nature is meant to parallel the events taking place in the larger world. The forces of destruction, so overpowering during these war years, come perilously close to threatening civilized life. It is a dark time, a dark night. As the wind moves through the house, toying with a flap of wallpaper and rustling papers in the wastebasket, it questions, “Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?” Thus, Mr. Bankes’ opening remark, “Well, we must wait for the future to show,” and the falling of the immense dark in the house, suggest the uncertainties and fears experienced in the world at large.

There is another, more personal form of darkness, which is intimated here. To the Lighthouse is Woolf’s re-creation of her early life and her reminiscences of her parents. Time Passes suggests Woolf’s struggle with her personal darkness. She spoke often of the ghostly presence of her beloved mother, as well as her mourning for her brother, Thoby, and her half-sister, Stella.

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