Day 10To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
May 10, 2023 by Mona Simpson
This was Woolf’s plan: she conceived of the novel in three parts late summer 1925 “with a sense of waiting, of expectation: the child waiting to go to the Lighthouse, the woman awaiting the couple.” She planned it in summer, then became ill and resumed work on it in January 1926.
Woolf calls Time Passes “an interesting experiment.”
While the titles, “The Window” of Part I and “The Lighthouse” of Part III, evoke concrete material things one could draw or paint, “Time Passes” is like a haiku.
And it exists as an anomalous movement of the piece as a whole. Both “The Window” and “The Lighthouse” take place in one short period of time, two days ten years apart. “Time Passes,” which is composed of ten sections in a little under eighteen pages, summarizes those ten years. In typical Woolf fashion, it’s not a year per section, but rather the first two chapters continue on late the same night, after we’ve seen Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay retire to the bedroom, and many years crowd up at the end.
Lily, Mr. Bankes, Andrew, and Prue come inside.
Mr. Bankes says, “We must wait for the future to show.”
Lily asks whether they should leave the light on.
These lines could be considered metaphoric, referring to the possibility of romance between these two, who, touched by the glow of Mrs. Ramsay’s evening, went outside late with the young people. We know that Lily and Mr. Bankes are staying in rooms in town, so they still have a walk together in the dark.
Andrew and Prue turn off the lights in the house and the poet, Augustus Carmichael, who, for mysterious reasons does not favor Mrs. Ramsay, stays up reading Virgil by candlelight.
While we’re still in the same night we learn, by the second chapter’s end, because Mr. Carmichael blows out his candle, closes Virgil and goes to bed after midnight, things have become much more metaphoric, in the vein of “nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness.”
We’re now following not the interior thoughts of any character, as we did in Part I, but rather “certain airs, detached from the body of the wind” as they roam about the house full of sleeping people (The Ramsays, the eight Ramsay children, the servants, Paul and Minta.)
These “airs” question and wonder over things—for example, like Mr. Ramsay, they wonder about the books, all of which are open to them, which will endure?
In Chapter 3, time begins to pass. This narrator—and there is a distinct narrator for Part II—asks the reader:
“But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken.”
This narrator seems to remain in the vacation house, long after the Ramsays have returned to London and chronicles the changes the house endures.
“The trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain-pipes and scatter damp paths.”
At the end of Chapter 3, the placement where we saw Mr. Carmichael reading Virgil and then blowing out his candle (the first parenthetical of Part II) we learn this startling fact:
“[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]”
Why is the death of Mrs. Ramsay a parenthetical?
This narrator, clearly, has different priorities than we do.
Everything we most want to know appears, from this narrator, in parentheses. I imagine some readers read “Time Passes” from parentheses to parentheses, the way some people skip the “War” sections of Tolstoy’s masterpiece and only finish “Peace.”
To this narrator, Prue’s getting married, on her father’s arm, warrants the same amount of time and space and consideration as her dying the next summer, in an illness connected with childbirth, as Andrew Ramsay dying instantly during a shell raid in France during the war, and as a volume of Carmichael’s poems coming out to unexpected success.
In Chapter 8, the narration moves from the point of the view of “airs” and of the “house” and settles intermittently specifically in the mind of Mrs. McNab, a woman hired to clean the place. It's through her that we see the years pass. She remembers Mrs. Ramsay.
“So she was dead; and Mr. Andrew killed; and Miss Prue dead too, they said, with her first baby; but every one had lost some one these years. Prices had gone up shamefully, and didn’t come down again neither.”
It’s from Mrs. McNab that I finally understood that, at Mrs. Ramsay’s table, there were, “ladies in evening dress; she had seen them once through the dining-room door all sitting at dinner. Twenty she dared say in all their jewelry, and she asked to stay help wash up, might be till after midnight.”
She tries to remember the cook’s name. In Mrs. McNab’s memory, the cook figures as vividly as Mrs. Ramsay.
“Fiery, like all red-haired women. Many a laugh they had had. She was always welcome in the kitchen. She made them laugh, she did. Things were better then than now.”
After years when “They never sent. They never wrote,” all of a sudden, Mrs. McNab hears from one of the young ladies:
“Would she get this done; would she get that done; all in a hurry. They might be coming for the summer; had left everything to the last; expected to find things as they had left them.”
And suddenly, again in parenthesis, we see (Lily Briscoe had her bag carried up to the house late one evening in September.)”