The Expansion and Contraction of Narrative Time in To the Lighthouse
Time is more personal than the sequential ticking of seconds on a clock. We do not measure our lives in uniform progression: some moments drag on for days, while others disappear in meager seconds. In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, wherein Woolf describes at great length a day at the Ramsay summerhouse while compressing ten years of narration to a dozen pages, she aptly delineates the sentiment that time—the concept we take to be an orderly and uniform progression from past to future—is neither orderly nor uniform. In her novel time expands and contracts; time parallels the depth of the character’s experiences where even the most fleeting of moments occasionally transcend temporality to become something more permanent and significant—something that, as Woolf puts it, “remains” (105). Ultimately, while the expansion and contraction of narrative time underscores the ephemerality of living, it resolves this existential quandary by proposing that life is not measured by its length as in a clock or calendar time, but by the meaning and significance instilled within every transient moment.
First, Woolf’s expansion of time lends a greater awareness of life’s ephemerality. While she suspends every second of reflection as a stream of consciousness which details every change in weather and activity, the narrative time sustaining each moment paradoxically undermines their permanence and stability. When Lily and Mr. Banks reflect on the beautiful view over the ocean, for example, the beauty of the scenery enraptures them, yet they are also stricken by the realization that the moment they are witnessing is short-lived and must inevitably cease: They both smiled, standing there. They both felt a common hilarity, excited by the moving waves; and then by the swift cutting race of a sailing boat, which, having sliced a curve in the bay, stopped; shivered; let its sails drop down; and … instead of merriment felt come over them some sadness—because the thing was completed partly, and partly because distant views seem to outlast by a million years (Lily thought) the gazer… (20)” Monosyllabic one-worded clauses (“stopped; shivered; let its sails drop”) generates a sense of staggered, abrupt movement, wherein the hard consonants in “stopped” and “shivered” reinforces this jarring rapidity. Time, to Lily and Mr. Banks’s dismay, does not flow at the leisurely pace but instead motions forward restlessly and precariously. Lily and Mr. Banks, on the other hand, are comparatively static and motionless, as implied by the diction of passive observation: they are depicted as ‘gazers’ that can merely “look” at the “distant views.” Through contrasting the passive immobility of humans with the restless motion of time, she underscores the permanence of nature against the transience of life. This revelation seems to catch Lily and Mr. Banks by surprise: the dash in “sadness—because” abruptly breaks the flow of the sentence, echoing their realization that, unlike their fleeting and insignificant existence, the natural world will “outlast by a million years the gazer.” Indeed, Woolf’s expansion of narrative time emphasizes the bittersweet duality of our living experiences: even the happiest moments of lives—those of which we yearn to persist and linger on the most—must eventually come to pass.
The characterization of time as an unrelenting natural force comes to fore in “Time Passes” where Woolf compresses narrative time to depict the startling discrepancy between subjective and chronological time. An entire decade is written into a mere seventeen pages that lasts a span of a night: the chapter begins when the characters go to sleep and ends when Lily wakes up in bed, shocked by death of Mrs. Ramsay’s. This disjunction between narrative and chronological time illustrates the disconnect between subjective and objective reality: while the former depends on fragile concepts of meaning and significance, the latter proceeds swiftly and indifferently. More notably, the stream of consciousness previously observed in “The Window” is now absent in “Time Passes.” In its place is an impersonal omniscient narrator and one-sentence parentheticals that function to report the events that take place over the next decade, approaching even the subject of death in a tone devoid of any sentimentality: “[Mrs. Ramsay] died rather suddenly the night before” (105); “Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth” (110); “twenty or thirty men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous” (111). By relegating the characters’ activities into condensed brackets, despite them normally taking up a large portion of any conventional narrative, Woolf demonstrates a departure from a world revolving around the Ramsay’s lives to a world marked by the cruel indifference of reality. Contrary to the perception of time that shifts according to the characters’ moods and behaviors, she instills a sense of uniformity and consistency in the decades where the Ramsay family is gone, where “winter holds a pack of [nights] … and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers” (104). The parallel structure in “equally, evenly” compounded with the connotations of tireless order in “indefatigable” emphasizes the stern authority with which time dictates the continuity of the living world. In reality, time does not expand nor contract, Woolf argues. It proceeds uncompromisingly, indiscriminately, in uniform progression.
Yet despite the transience of life and the cruel indifference of reality to our subjective experiences, it is possible to attain a sense of permanence and stability. While it was previously shown that the expansion of time underpins the fleeting nature of every moment, it is perhaps this awareness of life’s transience that heightens our appreciation for the rare moments of unity and togetherness—moments that conveying a considerable meaning and significance to our lives. At the dinner party immediately preceding “Time Passes”, Mrs. Ramsay is depicted to be the unifying force that binds together the conflicting attitudes of the characters to create this one cohesive moment: Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right …. it partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Banks to a specially tender piece, of eternity … there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out … the thing is made that remains for ever after … this would remain (105)” In this internal monologue the expansion of time does not merely create a sense of fleeting togetherness but also a lasting measure of permanence, a feeling that this moment, in spite of it taking place at an ordinary family dinner setting, “would remain.” Indeed, the seemingly trivial nature of this event does not detract from its timelessness or beauty. Through the interjecting clause on the distribution of meat between “it partook” and “of eternity,” Woolf emphasizes how the artistic merit of the scene is, on the contrary, because of how Mrs. Ramsay frames the moment in a way that instills the banal dinner interactions with meaning. This meaning comes from a sense of structural unity from the gathering, a “coherence” and stability” that renders even what Mrs. Ramsay is aware to be a fleeting moment to extend forever in her mind. Despite the characters’ search for moments of life-altering significance, as shown by Lily with her artwork, Woolf argues that there are no such transcendental moments but instead “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (135). Thus, Woolf reconciles life’s ephemerality with our subjective awareness of time by suggesting that by searching for grander significance in fleeting moments, it is possible to transcend temporality to achieve something more stable and enduring—something that, even despite the moment’s apparent triviality, “remains.”
Through the expansion and contraction of narrative time, Woolf argues that fleeting moments can endure time’s inevitable progression if we cling on to their meaning and significance. First, she lengthens of narrative time in “The Window” and “The Lighthouse” to emphasize the bittersweet ephemerality that tinges on our living moments. She then exposes the stark contrast between the perception of time and its callous and uniform reality when narrative time is compressed into a dozen pages in “Time Passes”. Ultimately, however, she favors the depiction of time as a subject of consciousness rather than chronology: that by finding a grander significance in moments of seeming triviality, we enable them to surmount the chronological boundaries of time and become something that persists as a trophy of our living experiences. To the Lighthouse thus suggests that permanence can only be achieved when we embrace, rather than deny, life’s ephemerality.
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