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The Notion Of Time And Duration In To The Lighthouse

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There is no shore of Time, no port of Man. It flows, and we go on. Literature introduces various conceptions of time depending on the literary genres. For instance, romantic poets like Alphonse de Lamartine and John Keats take into account the eternity of time by focusing on the ephemerality of men in order to share their melancholy. On the contrary, in response to Romanticism, realist novelist like Émile Zola and Charles Dickens set their feelings aside and tend to rely on scientific data to portray life as it is. The scientific conception of time, whether it is based on Einstein’s theory of relativity or Quantum Physics, relies on clock time, that is to say the succession of the past, the present and the future. However, according to Henri Bergson’s theory of duration, there are two aspects of time: objective, based on clock time and subjective, based on the human experience of life. Under the influence of Bergson’s philosophy, Virginia Woolf argues that ‘life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged [for it] is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’. As a matter of fact, this essay will show that her novel To The Lighthouse illustrates the theory of duration and pushes the reader to a critical reflexion on the ephemerality of men, by analysing the discrepancy between the physical conception of time and the human perception of it.

The novel introduces two aspects of the physical conception of time. In a first place, there is a human perspective of the physical time, as the use of the stream of consciousness demonstrates. Not only does it show that the characters belong to the present, but it also proves that they cannot escape it. For instance, Mrs Ramsay’s opening line ‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow’ shows her helplessness since the use of the conditional tense and the adverbial phrase ‘tomorrow’ demonstrate that the characters cannot physically escape the present nor foretell the future. This idea is reinforced by Mr Bankes’s statement ‘we must wait for the future to show’, for the modal verb ‘must’ and the verb ‘wait’ turn the characters into spectators of life and time. In a second place, as Paul Sheenan explains To the Lighthouse also introduces a non-human perspective of the physical time.

But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. […] The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

Time goes by ‘without interference’ as the enumeration of the seasonal elements shows. The continuity of time highlights the absence of human activity and the change of narrative perspective, which allow Virginia Woolf to control the passing of time for there is no human present. Besides, the metaphor of the wave illustrates the endless cycle of seasons. It also emphasises the lack of human intervention since time is only measured by natural phenomena. The only human activities are in brackets such as Mrs Ramsay’s death, World War I or Prue’s marriage. It emphasises the ephemerality and insignificance of the human time compared to its physical conception.

Contrasting the physical concept of time, there is the human perception of it, which changes according to the characters because of the use of stream of consciousness, as Michael Levenson points out. First, there is the viewpoint of Mrs Ramsay, who is not only a wife and a mother but also the representation of the Angel of the House and the embodiment of Victorian values. As her obsession with the past shows, she wishes her present to last forever. Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older! or Cam either. These two she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters. Nothing made up for the loss.

The opposition between childhood and adulthood illustrates her melancholy of the past and her fear of the future. For instance, she uses metaphorical and hyperbolic periphrases in order to draw a parallel between children and adult, and highlight the evilness of grownups. It allows her to criticise the passing of time and the notion of change, which threaten the Victorian values and express her fear of the future. Furthermore, Mrs Ramsay’s need to objectify time reinforces her apprehensions. She creates a parallel between both material and mental worlds in order to set memories in time and make them last forever.

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She righted herself after the shock of the event, and quite unconsciously and incongruously, used the branches of the elm trees outside to help her to stabilise her position. Her world was changing: they were still. […] Now one thought of it, cleared of chatter and emotion, it seemed always to have been, only was shown now and so being shown, struck everything into stability. They would, she thought, going on again, however long they lived, come back to this night; this moon; this wind; this house: and to her too. It flattered her […] to think how […] she would be woven; and this, and this, and this, she thought, going upstairs, laughing, but affectionately, at the sofa on the landing (her mother’s); at the rocking-chair (her father’s); at the map of the Hebrides. All that would be revived again in the lives of Paul and Minta; […] it was all one stream, and chairs, tables, maps, were hers, were theirs, it did not matter whose, and Paul and Minta would carry it on when she was dead.

The enumeration of furniture and the antonomasias in parentheses show that Mrs Ramsay considers objects to be passed on to have a temporal value, as a way to remember one’s existence. Besides, the metaphor of the tree shows the discrepancy between human and non-human time because it reinforces the insignificance of human life compared to nature. Nevertheless, Mrs Ramsay’s pathetic fallacy draws a parallel between the two by associating her memories to the trees, hence anchoring her ephemeral mind onto the eternal nature. It is strengthened by the parallelism ‘her world was changing: they were still’ in which the shift of tense also highlights the discrepancy between the physical and the human conceptions of time. The branches of the tree is also a metaphor for these of a family tree because Mrs Ramsay mentions both her parents, who belong to the past, and the Rayleys who represent the next generation, hence belong to the future. It emphasises her wish to last over time.

Then, there is the perspective of Mr Ramsay, who contrary to his wife, does not focus on the past nor fear the future, for his objectification of time is turned towards it:

How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all? Surely the leader of a forlorn hope may ask himself that, and answer, without treachery to the expedition behind him, ‘One perhaps.’ One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, and till he has no more left to give? And his fame lasts how long? It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousand years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still.

Not only do the rhetorical questions reveal his curiosity about the future, but it also reinforces the idea that the characters are physically stuck in the present and cannot foretell the future, as aforementioned. Nevertheless, even if his body is stuck in the present, his mind is not, for it does not belong in the physical world. Therefore, it allows him to travel through time. As a matter of fact, the light is a metaphor for Mr Ramsay’s philosophical knowledge and theories, which illustrates his posterity and also echoes Virginia Woolf’s statement, mentioned earlier. It also shows that he is not afraid of being forgotten, like his wife, because he is aware of how little his impact is regarding the different time scales.

Finally, there is Lily Briscoe, whose perception of time is a combination the Ramsays’. For instance, she is using her painting as a way to capture time, like Mrs Ramsay with her parents’ furniture. The parallelism ‘Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)’ highlights the comparison between Mrs Ramsay and Lily’s conception of time. It is also emphasised by the parentheses, which creates a hierarchy between the two conceptions, for Mrs Ramsay’s appears to have had influenced Lily’s. It illustrates the transmission of Victorian values. Nevertheless, contrary to Mrs Ramsay, Lily is able to move on and does not wish for time to stop.

There it was – her picture. […] It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I had my vision. The possessive adjective ‘her’ shows that Lily has gotten rid of Mrs Ramsay’s influence and has set free from the values she preached. Besides, the gradation ‘it was done; it was finished’ and the use of past tense in the last sentence illustrate Lily’s detachment from the past.

To conclude, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse explores two aspects of clock time – a human and a non-human conception, which allow her to expand and contract time itself. Comparing different perspectives is a way to account for the ephemerality of men, because throughout the novel, the conception of time changes. At first, it is focused on the past through Mrs Ramsay’s eyes, then it turns towards the future in Mr Ramsay’s mind and finally it considers both past and future in order to create the present as Lily’s painting shows. The variations of the conception and perception of time push the reader to a critical reflexion on the ephemerality of men.

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The Notion Of Time And Duration In To The Lighthouse. (2021, September 30). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from
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