Time after Time

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighouse is ultimately a celebration of the human spirit. In the novel, time is synonymous with the ocean and darkness, and this triumvirate of forces, in essence, acts as the antagonist. Time ebbs and flows, continuing on ceaselessly, destroying whatever lies in its path. It is nature’s supreme force unstoppable, unyielding. Whereas it emphasizes the utter insignificance and transience of humanity, it simultaneously underscores humanity’s two greatest abilities the ability to adapt to monumental change and the ability to freeze certain instances of time. Indeed, in these two abilities, humanity has managed to somewhat tame the effects of time, defeating it at least momentarily. Though it initially appears as though time will defeat humanity in the end, erasing all its achievements and glory, one realizes by the end of the novel that though it may eventually erode human honor, it is necessary, even essential, in allowing human brilliance and happiness to be as intense and as cherished as it is.

From the beginning of the novel, Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay contemplate time and its effects. In the first mention of the passage of time, Mrs. Ramsay compares it to the waves, saying, “…[T]he monotonous fall of the waves on the beach… like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat[ing] the measure of life… made her think of destruction… and warned… that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow…” (15-16). Similarly, Mr. Ramsay recites to himself lines from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem of glory, honor, and immortality. He thinks to himself, “…[F]ame lasts how long? …The very stone one kicks with one’s boots will outlast Shakespeare” (35). They are both painfully aware of how insignificant humanity, and they in particular, are to the world and in the larger scheme of things. For Mrs. Ramsay, the waves act as a clock, measuring out the remainder of her life, tauntingly reminding her that she is nothing, and that all she is and all she does will eventually be destroyed. The same is true for Mr. Ramsay, who thinks to himself that even the greatest of people will eventually be forgotten, their memories eroded by the passage of time, outlasted by any and every seemingly insignificant rock. He cannot accept this, though, and so needs to be reassured by others, namely Mrs. Ramsay, that he is indeed important to the world.

Mrs. Ramsay considers the passage of time on a much more personal, emotional level than Mr. Ramsay, accepting and handling it much differently than he. She thinks to herself that, “…she never wanted James to grow a day older! or Cam either. These two she would have liked to keep just as they were… never to see them grow up… They were happier now that they would ever be again… Why must they grow up and lose it all?” (58-59). Here, she ponders the issue, finding it unfair, but ultimately, she is able to accept the reality of the situation. She acquiesces that happiness is indeed fleeting and evanescent, but believes that though it passes in an instant, it can nevertheless be frozen in time, in memory for as long as one is willing to hold it there. At the dinner party, her ultimate triumph, she thinks to herself:

Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment…) just now she had reached security… Nothing need be said… She carefully help[ed] Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece of eternity… [T]here is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out… in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral… Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures… It could not last, she knew… [but] for the moment, she hung suspended (104-106).

Here, in this splendid moment of glory, of ecstasy, of her greatest success, she revels in the perfection of it all. Everything has finally clicked, fallen into place, and for once, all she needs to do is enjoy it and remember it. While she indulges in the rapture of the moment, however, deep inside she also knows bittersweetly that it cannot and will not last. Such is the essence, the fragile sweetness of happiness, and she accepts it. “With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then… it changed… it had become, she knew, giving one last look over her shoulder, already the past” (111).

With the conclusion of the first section, The Window, a part in which an afternoon’s time is passed in one hundred and twenty-four pages, we come to the second part of the novel, Time Passes. In this section, time literally passes; it is the principal plot action. It passes powerfully, forcefully, without delay and without emotion. It sweeps the occurrences of human life into the insignificance of oblivion, reminding humanity that each life is but a transitory flame, burning brightly but shortly. Ten years’ time is covered in less than twenty pages and in this span, Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew all die. Each is killed in bracketed asides no longer than two sentences. No death is explained more than that, because ultimately that is all each life is a bracketed aside. The death of Mrs. Ramsay, the beloved protagonist from The Window, is only given one sentence and only after the fact. Woolf writes, “[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]” (128). Such is life, and such is time. With time, things have changed. Where Mrs. Ramsay was once the focus of the book, here her death warrants only a single sentence. It would appear that time has taken Mrs. Ramsay away and has already begun to erase her memory as well. Furthermore, it has also taken the legacy of her beauty, Prue, and the legacy of her husband’s greatness, Andrew. Time can move slowly, ploddingly, with each minute dragging lazily into the next as evident in the first part; however, at other times, it races along coldly, precisely, disappearing into limbo and seemingly leaving humanity behind. It is thus that Time Passes begins, continues, and ends.

With the final part of the book, we return to the beginning. The name of the section, The Lighthouse, returns to the title of the novel, and paralleling this return, the pace of time does the same. The scene similarly returns to the coast of Scotland where once the entire family vacationed, and it is only now that the reader is able to see clearly, starkly how greatly things have changed. The family has been decimated, the house fallen into disrepair. Everyone is unhappy, and relationships are strained, weak, and uncomfortable. Yet, in the face of such complete and total change from the last scene where we witnessed the family in the summerhouse, Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party, there remains a spark of hope. In returning, the memories are strengthened. Indeed, Lily cannot stop thinking of Mrs. Ramsay. Time has not erased her memory, and this is furthest possible thing from the truth. She lives on now, as strongly as ever. Time has failed to erase her or her legacy. In remembering Mrs. Ramsay, Lily also remembers Charles Tansley. She likens her memories to a work of art. Woolf describes this, saying, “…[T]his scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking which survived after all these years complete, so that she dipped into her memory to re-fashion her memory of him, and there is stayed in the mind affecting one like a work of art” (160). Time has failed to erase the memories of people, and the happiness that appeared so fleeting has also lasted. Lily remembers most vividly Mrs. Ramsay’s command for life to “stand still here” (161). In Mrs. Ramsay’s moment of joy, she also created a work of art in her memory, freezing it forever, and preserving it from time’s eroding effects. Lily does the same, and in doing so, stops Time’s seemingly irresistible advance. That ability to freeze time, to isolate the joyous memory and preserve it, in tact, forever, is what allows humanity to adapt to change. Those memories act as the anchors, the invariables, the lighthouses, guiding humanity through the treacherous waters of the unknown, allowing more of those memories to be made in circumstances that seemingly will not allow for their creation. Woolf writes, “[T]his eternal passing and flowing… was struck [finally] into stability” (161).

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