Book Review · Literature · Reading · Writing

The Concept of Time in “To the Lighthouse”

In modernist literature, “Time comes to be conceived as a complex phenomenon composed of different temporalities or speeds, and in which past, present and future interpenetrate”[1]. This is recognised in James Joyce’s renowned modernist novel Ulysses, in which “the close connection between time and matter is heavily emphasised.”[2] Joyce uses stream of consciousness as a window into the minds of his characters, leading readers to regard the concept of time in terms of thoughts rather than how it works in the external world. Similarly, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse poses questions concerning the extent to which people live their lives in time or just in their own minds.

“As a novelist centrally concerned with how to represent consciousness and subjectivity, [Virginia Woolf] was intensely aware of time, both as an impersonal force and as a personal experience”[3], and she experiments with it as one of the pivotal themes in To the Lighthouse, exploring the concept at every scale. The style in which it is written is of more importance than the plot or the characters and Woolf shows this by fluctuating her handling of time.

Woolf pursues the elaborate thoughts and intuitions within the lived present, using stream of consciousness comparable to Joyce, as well as deliberating on the perpetuity of geologic time, reaching behind into the past and forward into the future further than the extent of human awareness. To elaborate, in Woolf’s novel, time is what establishes her characters because it is measured as it is felt by them; moments of incredible importance are spanned out across many pages and revealed in great depth (in parts one and three), whereas in part two of the novel, ten years is depicted over as little as a dozen pages. This shows how time is both stretched out and compacted in To the Lighthouse, which totally misrepresents it from the way it is experienced by a clock. In contrast, Ulysses progresses over the course of a day whereby each episode begins at a particular hour, delving deeper into the thoughts and experiences of the characters.

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf adopts thematic features of modernism by decomposing the limitations of space and time. Her experimentation mirrors that of Cubist, Vorticist and Futurist representatives such as Wyndham Lewis, Pound and Eliot. She presents time as amply individual, independent and flexible and most of the mature characters in the novel are preoccupied with time in some way. Both Woolf and Joyce incorporate an internal weight on modernism by building their narratives entirely within the views and feelings of their characters. In To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe are particularly mindful of the distinctive precision of each moment; Mrs. Ramsay cannot help but observe that the present moment quickly turns into the past, and she pursues entities in the external world to position her in the moment. For example, she focusses on “the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach”[4], existing to the timing and rhythms of the encompassing sounds, distracting herself from thoughts of the future.

There are many references to the sea throughout the novel, as the forever shifting waves correspond to the relentless onward movement of time. These noises and other entities in the external world represent a sense of stability for Mrs. Ramsay which she connects herself to, in the hope of gaining a comparable sense of stability in her present-day and her impending future. In an analysis of modernist narrative, “Woolf suggests that a concentrated focus on commonplace objects releases a series of memories and ideas with important psychic resonance”[5], which she highlights through Mrs. Ramsay’s fixtures on everyday things that allow her to contemplate her responsibility as supporter of her family. This is portrayed by her continuous worrying regarding the way in which time will alter the lives of her children; she wishes to stop the clock for them and “never wanted James to grow a day older or Cam either”[6] because she knows that when they do inevitably grow up they will inescapably suffer. This provides another explanation as to why Mrs. Ramsay chooses to position herself in the present.

Mr. Ramsay is another character in To the Lighthouse who highlights Woolf’s notion that time is intricately more personal than the time on a clock. Although in many respects, Mr. Ramsay stands in opposition to his wife, they both act with an understanding that life is ephemeral and concentrate on time in some way. Unlike his wife, Mr. Ramsay fixates on the future, particularly the future of his profession and relies “upon people’s praise”[7]. He is a distinct example of how “Modernist texts often combine descriptions of the banal or bodily features of everyday life with philosophical reflection.”[8] Mr. Ramsay anxiously yearns for success as a philosopher, but doubts he can achieve it and is obsessed by the hope of being acknowledged and reminisced. At one point, Mr. Ramsay thinks to himself “It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter”[9] proving his long-term perspective of time and his obsession with how people view others after death.

With this in mind, Mr. Ramsay emphasises Woolf’s awareness of time “also within the life of the body, moving from moment to moment towards that final obliteration of consciousness which is death.”[10] Towards the beginning of the novel, Lily Briscoe reveals comparable attitudes to Mr. Ramsay in wondering if her work will thrive and be remembered. However, by the final section, Woolf exposes Lily’s thoughts and memories in immense detail and shows how she is able to relinquish her desire for perpetuity, focussing more on the past and in her memories of Mrs. Ramsay. She deliberates “What does it mean then, what can it all mean?”[11] and “What was the meaning of life?”[12]; thoughtful considerations which emphasise Woolf’s idea that time is worthless unless it has a sense of commemoration and personal importance. In the end, Lily’s memories help drive her inspiration by bringing her vision into focus and she is thus ultimately able to accomplish her artistic dream.

In To the Lighthouse, “the notion of time as a linear and diachronic entity of homogenous and measureable quality, as instanced by clock and calendar time, comes under severe scrutiny”[13], a premise frequently implemented in modernist literature. In other words, Woolf experiments with the rate of time, adjusting it to parallel the mind-sets of the characters. The attitudes carried by each of these characters clearly indicate the concept that a lifetime is not measured by its length, but is given meaning by the experiences and achievements of its possessor; events of great magnitude to each character are managed in excessive depth, such as Lily’s completion of her painting in the final section, whereas occurrences of insignificance are hurried through. In the first section of the novel, “The Window”, Woolf formulates time as a subject of consciousness as opposed to chronology.  She produces what the French philosopher Henri Bergson labelled durée which “designates that sense of the real passing of time, or duration, which is overridden by our spatializing of time as units or commodities”[14]; a comprehension of the world as first and foremost instinctive and internal rather than external substantive. Woolf revisits this narrative approach in the concluding section of the novel, “The Lighthouse”, however, in the middle section, “Time Passes”, she shifts style completely by portraying the ruthless, vicious and more traditional passing of time. In this passage, Woolf highlights the harrowing abruptness and essential absence of magnitude of the end of a lifetime.

[1] Jeff Wallace, Beginning Modernism, 2011, (Manchester University Press) p 136

[2] Sheldon R. Brivic, James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1969, (University of Tulsa) p 30

[3] Julia Briggs, Reading Virginia Woolf, 2006, (Edinburgh University Press) p 125

[4] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 2008, (Oxford University Press) p 16

[5] Rachel Potter, Modernist Literature, 2012, (Edinburgh University Press) p 30

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 2008, (Oxford University Press) p 49

[7] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 2008, (Oxford University Press) p 22

[8] Rachel Potter, Modernist Literature, 2012, (Edinburgh University Press) p 30

[9] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 2008, (Oxford University Press) p 32

[10] Julia Briggs, Reading Virginia Woolf, 2006, (Edinburgh University Press) p 125

[11] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 2008, (Oxford University Press) p 121

[12] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 2008, (Oxford University Press) p 133

[13] Jeff Wallace, Beginning Modernism, 2011, (Manchester University Press) p 136

[14] Jeff Wallace, Beginning Modernism, 2011, (Manchester University Press) p 137


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