The entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary for November 2, 1932, contains a reference to the novel that was eventually published as The Years. In the beginning, it was to be called “The Pargiters,” an essay-novel into which she planned to pour the total sum of her experience in the narrative of the experiences of a single family through several generations. The pattern was not to follow that of family chronicles such as John Galsworthy and Hugh Walpole had written; instead, it was to jump chamoislike across gaps in time between 1880 and 1937. A domestic story, The Years lacks the bold technical brilliance of To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931). The work may appear at first reading like a reversion to the style of Woolf’s earlier books such as Night and Day (1919), but nothing could be further from the truth. The Years is more than the story of the frustrations, ambitions, triumphs, joys, tragedies, and defeats of a middle-class family. In its episodic pattern, the novel represents an effort to record the process of time passing and to capture in fiction that sudden flash of recognition, the moment of perception, that in earlier periods was the function of poetry alone. In the separate divisions of the novel, descriptions of the seasons and the flowing movement of the prose convey the sense of change and recurrence that Woolf in her later novels tried to dredge from the depths of human consciousness.
In her essay “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf describes a young man and woman getting into a taxi together to exemplify her artistic ideal: the “androgynous mind” that unites both male and female principles. The same symbol—here the two are alighting from a taxi—is found at the end of The Years and strikes one of the few hopeful notes in the book.
The novel covers roughly the time period of Woolf’s own life, a sixty-year span that witnessed massive historical changes. It is this period—the period of late nineteenth century colonial expansion, World War I and the ensuing disillusionment, and the depression and cynicism of the 1930’s—that is narrated through the lives of three generations of Pargiters. Although social milieu is more important here than in any previous novel, Woolf does not merely provide a historical chronicle but also explores such themes as uniting the one with the many, bringing order to chaos, and seeing with the androgynous vision. The Pargiter family remains a unit despite the infrequent reunions that occur.
Eleanor Pargiter is perhaps the most important character in the novel, a young woman of about twenty years at the beginning, more than seventy years old at the end. As of the mother’s terminal illness, Eleanor is the element that holds the family together. Throughout, her thoughts and situations are given...
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