To the Lighthouse Summary and Analysis
Time Passes: Chapters I-X
Mr. Bankes, Andrew, Paul, Minta, Prue, and Lily return from their walk on the beach and then retire to their rooms. All of the lamps are slowly extinguished except that of Mr. Carmichael, who customarily lies awake reading Virgil.
Once everyone is asleep and all the lamps are put out, an "immense darkness" envelops the house, seeming to swallow and obliterate everything in it. Everything becomes indistinguishable and entirely still except for a breeze, the "certain airs" that enter the house. The breeze seems to ask each thing in the house how long it will endure. The airs, directed by "some random light" perhaps emanating from the Lighthouse, now enter the bedrooms and cease, for the bedrooms and the people in them are steadfast and the airs have no need to question when they will "perish and disappear." The airs then move through the rest of the house and then cease again, slamming a door in the kitchen with a final sigh. At this moment, at midnight, Mr. Carmichael blows out his candle.
The days pass, and autumn (with its threat of winter) arrives as night "succeeds to night," lengthening and darkening. Through all of the foreboding and life-crushing darkness, the yellow moonlight provides a mellowing influence and keeps the waves lapping against the shore without fail. It seems that "divine goodness" looks upon the house and its characters--but it is not pleased, and it closes the curtain again, confusing them and making it seem that their calm will never return.
An era of desolation and erosion follows. The world seems out of order and full of confusion. It becomes useless to ask the night "as to what, and why, and wherefore."
The narrator indicates that time has passed by declaring that the Ramsays' house is now empty "and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round." The "stray airs" that entered the house in Chapter II of this section appear again, meeting no resistance from anyone. They bluster around the house, its belongings now aged and unused, revealing that there was life in the house's past. The light from the Lighthouse still enters through the window, leaving its image on the opposite wall.
Even during this time of uninhabited desolation, something of the Ramsays pervades the house. The sea airs seem to reiterate their questions: "Will you fade"--"Will you perish"--and some force in the house answers, "We remain." The integrity of the almost entirely undisturbed silence gives the house a noble presence--until Mrs. McNab, the housekeeper, comes as directed to open the windows and dust the bedrooms.
Mrs. McNab makes her way through the house, cleaning it free of age and decay. She is world-weary and life-trodden. She hums a song that she has sung for twenty years. She feels that life is "one long sorrow and trouble," and she wonders, "how long shall it endure?" Then, some recollection brings her joy, for she grins and resumes singing her old song.
Spring arrives, and Prue Ramsay (looking quite beautiful, people say) marries. But Prue dies that summer in an illness connected with childbirth.
The house continues to be overtaken by time and age, and the Lighthouse continues to shed its authoritative light on the house through the windows. It illuminates Mrs. Ramsay's shawl, which slowly unravels off the skull in the nursery. Mrs. McNab continues to enter and clean the house for a time, until complete silence falls again, disturbed only by the occasional sense that something is falling.
Andrew Ramsay dies instantaneously in France while fighting in World War I. The war revives people's interest in poetry, and as a result, a volume published by Mr. Carmichael has unexpected success.
Time wears on with no one to witness it at the Ramsay home. The chaos of storms and lightning batter the house. Days, nights, months, and years run "shapelessly together," bringing a sense of "brute confusion." The house remains desolate and empty.
Mrs. McNab picks a bunch of flowers from the house's garden, thinking it will do no harm since it seems that the family will never come again and the house will probably be sold. Despite her efforts at cleaning the house, its years of disuse and the difficulty of getting help during the war made it impossible for her to do as much as she would have liked. She thinks of Mrs. Ramsay, now dead, and Mrs. Ramsay's clothes, which she will never wear again. She imagines Mrs. Ramsay coming up the drive with one of the children in her grey cloak, and it is clear that Mrs. Ramsay's presence still lingers in the house. She remembers how Mrs. Ramsay used to tend to the garden and the pleasant way she had about her. Mrs. McNab surveys the work--it is too great for one old woman--and she leaves the house to its quiet solitude.
The house has been deserted, left to rot and ruin, and the airs that enter the house and nibble away at it seem to be triumphant. Toads and swallows have nestled in, and the plants are overgrown. Mrs. McNab now feels powerless to prevent nature from overtaking the abandoned home. The job of reviving the house is too great for one woman. Nothing now withstands the forces of decay and destruction that replace every indication of previous life here. There is none left to watch over the house but the Lighthouse, whose beams enter and survey the rooms.
Finally the Ramsays write Mrs. McNab, telling her of their intention to return to the house for the summer. Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, and Mrs. Bast's son George restore the house as best they can, groaning about the tremendous task. Mrs. McNab remembers Mr. Ramsay and his odd solitude and blindness to others. Sitting with a cup of tea, Mrs. McNab unwinds her ball of memories of the Ramsays. After days of cleaning inside the house and tending to the mess of a garden outside, the task is complete. Then Lily Briscoe arrives late one evening in September.
The house is full again, with Lily, Mr. Carmichael, and Mrs. Beckwith there to visit. Lily lies in bed listening to the ocean, feeling quite peaceful. Mr. Carmichael stays up late reading as he used to. He thinks, as he shuts his book, that it all looks "much as it used to look" ten years ago. In the morning, Lily awakes sitting bolt upright in bed.
The rhythm of the novel changes drastically in this middle section. In "The Window," time is subjective and extended, with the events and thoughts occuring essentially over the course of a single day. Time there is not strictly chronological; it is dictated by the consciousness of a particular character at a particular time, and a moment can elapse in a single sentence or it can take several pages. Time is not linear in that chapters move backwards and forwards, and reality bends to fit the narrative.
In "Time Passes," however, the pace of the novel rapidly accelerates, and ten years elapse over the course of about twenty pages. Linear chronological time replaces subjective time as the consciousness of characters disappears almost entirely from the narrative, while objective reality takes over. Almost nothing of the Ramsays remains. Three family members, including Mrs. Ramsay, die unexpectedly, and the house is now frequented by a character who had been completely absent from the first section of the novel.
Death and destruction take over, just like the characters had always feared. The narrative gives a sense of great potential lost. Amdist the chaos of merciless time, however, the Lighthouse beams still enter the house.
The elusiveness of the Lighthouse is matched by its permanence and everpresence, and this characteristic is explored in the narrative of "Time Passes." In this section, since the house remains empty for ten years, the narrator has complete sovereignty over the text, except for brief interludes by Mrs. McNab. Like the Lighthouse, the narrator presides over the abandoned house. Here the function of the Lighthouse is firmly solidified; its immovable endurance becomes obvious, and it illuminates the ravages of time.
Though the stroke of the Lighthouse lays itself with "authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern," it still cannot exert its influence over the changing world of the Ramsays. The Lighthouse bears witness to these happenings, but it does not interfere with or inhibit them. It is incapable of withstanding or denying the effects of time or the paths of individual consciousness.
Thus the Lighthouse is neither partial nor invasive, merely drawing attention to the changes taking place and making them perceptible to the reader by illuminating them. This function of the Lighthouse again parallels a main role of the narrator in the novel. The narrator chooses to witness, comment upon, and render the story, making it perceptible to the reader, while maintaining the distance of an outside observer who does not interfere. This distance gives readers the sense that the various consciousnesses of the characters determine the shape and rhythm of the text without intervention by the narrator (or even, if we are caught up in the story, without intervention by the author). Woolf creates a reality that, from within the novel, is determined solely by subjective consciousness.
The depiction of subjective consciousness and subjective reality is further achieved in "Time Passes" through the spasmodic, bracketed announcements of the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew. The narrator's lack of objective, informative, or creative authority is apparent not only in the narrative's reflections and impressions of the characters, but also in these scattered accounts of distinctly factual events in the novel. For example, here is the news of Prue's death: "[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]" The abrupt, isolated accounts read almost as news briefs or short interruptions of the narrative to convey information of which the narrator has just become aware. They are parenthetical and disruptive of the narrative rhythm, suggesting an element of surprise even for the narrator, thereby indicating that the narrator is neither omniscient nor prescient of the various elements of the plot.
In addition, this narrator does not even have complete knowledge of the events themselves; like a third-party observer, some of the knowledge is secondhand. Prue Ramsay died "in some illness connected with childbirth," but the narrator is apparently not aware of the details. Most of the information provided between brackets simply relays the impression of an unspecified "people," and this detail emphasizes the uncertainty of facts that have been garnered from an unrevealed source. Readers who prefer ominiscient, reliable narrators will be disappointed that there is no objective certainty even regarding information as factual and significant as the death of the Ramsays. The narrator is characterized as the unknowing, inactive witness and recorder of the fictional world. In this sense the pulse of the Lighthouse is like the flash of a camera, illuminating for the record but not interfering with the Ramsays' house, and illuminating the inside of the house only through selected windows.
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- Summary and Analysis of The Lighthouse: Chapters VIII-XIII
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