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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Yes, things came back to her. A long strip of life lay behind her. Edward crying, Mrs. Levy talking; snow falling; a sunflower with a crack in it; the yellow omnibus trotting along the Bayswater Road. And I thought to myself, I'm the youngest person in this omnibus; now I'm the oldest. . . . Millions of things came back to her. Atoms danced apart and massed themselves. But how did they compose what people called a life?

These thoughts, which flow through Eleanor's mind as Sara mentions her (Eleanor's) life, get at the heart of Woolf's literary project. In both biography and fiction, Woolf asked this question: how does a writer truly capture or compose a life? She felt that the way writers traditionally went about this process missed the essentials. Woolf called these essentials moments of being—small, detailed, often domestic moments—that remain in our memory for some reason, usually because they are associated with an emotional impact that influences us. Eleanor's mind jumps to such moments of being as she thinks about her life: a memory of Edward crying, or the remembrance of a sunflower. These memories, Woolf argues, are more important to capturing the essence of who a person really is than what are normally regarded as the big events, such as a wedding day or being elected to parliament. Woolf, as she does here, makes it her project to try to capture these moments and from them compose the interior reality of an individual.

It was better to die, like Eugénie and Digby, in the prime of life with all one's faculties about one. But he wasn't like that, she thought, glancing at the press cuttings. "A man of singularly handsome presence . . . shot, fished, and played golf." No, not like that in the least. He had been a curious man; weak; sensitive; liking titles; liking pictures; and often depressed, she guessed, by his wife's exuberance. She pushed the cuttings away and took up her book. It was odd how different the same person seemed to two different people, she thought.

This passage, about the death of Eleanor's uncle, deals with Woolf's preoccupation with the slippage between how a life is described in an obituary or a biography and the reality of that life. Eleanor, reading the obituary about her uncle published in the paper and now clipped out, notes that the man she knew was not like the person described. This causes Eleanor to ponder how the same person can seem like two different people, and to try to put the external, public person together with the private self.

When, she wanted to ask him, when will this new world come? When shall we be free? When shall we live adventurously, wholly, not like cripples in a cave?

After a World War I air raid, Eleanor and the others return to the drawing room. Nicholas talks about envisioning a better future, one in which the soul is allowed to expand and is not "screwed up into one hard little, tight little—knot" . This appeals to Eleanor, who longs to ask him when this new world will come about. This is as close as Woolf comes to political critique in this novel, her implication being that the patriarchal world of war they are forced to live in, when they do literally enter the "cave" of a cellar during an air raid, is responsible for their constricted lives.

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