To The Lighthouse: Of Time and Narratives

Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927) is a modernist literary classic. One of my favourite things about Woolf’s works, and about this novel, in particular, is her use of Stream of Consciousness narrative technique and her treatment of time within it: her art of making one day span over a hundred pages and compress ten years into a mere twenty.

The plot of the novel is very simple and seemingly uneventful: the Ramsay’s (a family consisting of Mr and Mrs Ramsay along with their eight children) and some of their friends stay at the Isle of Skye. On the day that the novel begins, Mrs Ramsay and one of her sons, James, are preparing for and looking forward to going the Lighthouse the next day. However, Mr Ramsay declares that they won’t be able to go tomorrow due to weather conditions and the sentiment is repeated by one of their guests, Charles Tansley. The day passes and ends with a dinner. This concludes the first and the longest part of the novel. The second part just records the passing of time and leads to the third part, set ten years after the first, when some of the Ramsay’s along with Lily Briscoe return. This time the Ramsay’s actually go to the Lighthouse.

What is it that makes this novel about a failed plan to visit the lighthouse, a plan that is finally accomplished ten years later, so brilliant? This is where the genius of Virginia Woolf comes in. The plot of the novel may be simple, but the narrative takes us through the minds of various characters, their thoughts making us privy to their lives beyond real-time through memories of their pasts and aspirations for their futures. This is where the true heart of the novel lies, not in the plot, but in the characters.

Woolf employs the Stream of Consciousness method, meaning that the narrative is told through the consciousness’ of its characters. We see the world of the novel through Mrs Ramsay’s eyes one moment, and Mr Ramsay’s the next; we see the artistic conflicts and insecurities that Lily Briscoe experiences in her mind just as we see the memories and nostalgia of a friendship with Mr Ramsay that William Bankes feels; we see Charles Tansley’s fascination with Mrs Ramsay and we see James’ anger at Mr Ramsay; we see all of this as the characters go about their day by being given a window into their thoughts and ruminations, a window that seems to be constantly shifting taking us from one character to the next, all the while highlighting the complexity of human relationships and experiences.

What I find most fascinating about To The Lighthouse, however, is the break between these introspections. Part one of the novel, ‘The Window’, is set during a day in the lives of the characters when they are visiting the Isle of Skye, one day before they had planned to go the lighthouse, a plan that they will not be going ahead with anymore. The third part of the novel, ‘The Lighthouse’, is set ten years after that – this time James, Cam, and Mr Ramsay actually go to the lighthouse. In both these parts, we see the events through the eyes of the characters. However, a lot changed between the ten years: marriages, war, and deaths. I find the depiction of this interim period extremely captivating.

The in-between period of ten years is covered in what is approximately twenty pages in a section called ‘Time Passes’. While the first and the third part carry us from one mind to the other of the multiple characters, the second part, or at least most of it, is told from the perspective of the house on the Isle that had been inhabited by these characters in the other two sections. The only person who’s consciousness is introduced in the narrative is Mrs McNab, the housekeeper in charge of looking after the house in the absence of the Ramsay family. This does not mean that these years were uneventful, however, all the events that took place during this period: the deaths, the war, even a marriage, are all relegated to parenthesis. These events seem to become footnotes in time as it is experienced by the house just as our lives are specks in the infiniteness of the universe.

This, of course, stands in contrast with the third section of the novel when the characters return to the house and we are once again made cognizant of their thoughts. We see the impact of the events of the past ten years, which had appeared in mere parenthesis in the previous section, on the characters. I find this contrast beautiful: the way that not only different events impact different people differently but also how something that may mean so much to us, an event that could have the potential to uproot or at least significantly alter our lives may be nothing more than a footnote in the larger narratives of time.

Does this diminish the importance of human experiences, of people’s feelings, or of their lives? Of course not. Everything, no matter how little or huge, seems tiny in the face of a neverending infinity. However, that doesn’t reduce the beauty or the intensity of the lives that we live. I think that this is reinforced when part two which seems to be set in this notion of eternity where meaningful events are sidenotes is immediately followed by the re-appearance of the people who experienced these events, for whom these were so much more than mere sidenotes. The art of balancing these two contrasting viewpoints, of presenting them both in such a beautiful manner is what (among so many other things) makes me want to return to To The Lighthouse again and again.

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