In the novel To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf dives deep into the consciousness of her characters through her versatile writing style. She writes in a way that permeates between the inside and outside world of each character, mirroring how the mind speaks. By utilizing both a stream of consciousness and concise writing style, Woolf forces her audience to view the paradoxical duality of time in a different light. Throughout her novel, Woolf shows how the relationship between ephemerality and permanence of time drives the plot.
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse poignantly captures the ephemeral nature of life by utilizing the internal thoughts and emotions embedded within the characters. Each of the main characters, the Ramsay’s and Lily, struggles with this awareness, thus, forcing them to helplessly grasp for symbols of permanence and stability. Mrs. Ramsay is consumed by a need to connect herself to enduring experiences; as a result, this causes her to fear the future. This is evident when she laments about how “…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 group up into long-legged monsters” (58). In this passage, we can see how Mrs. Ramsay resists the passage of time, desperately wishing her children would stay young forever. In a way, Mrs. Ramsay becomes a prisoner to the transient nature of life because of her dismal attitude towards life. In addition to fearing the future of her children, Mrs. Ramsay “…had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that” (64). From Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, humans are rendered powerless in the face of nature and time. This perception of the transient nature of life is ultimately something that was constructed by her deepest fears. To the disagreement of her husband, Mrs. Ramsay is convinced that happiness, without any exception, is innately fleeting and ephemeral. Her awareness of death and sense of the inevitability of suffering lead her to search for such moments of bliss from the beauty of the physical world. As a result, Mrs. Ramsay finds comfort in the steady stroke of the Lighthouse light as it unites her experience with stability and endurance. Not only does she seek to create communion with permanent objects, but Mrs. Ramsay also unites her family, friends, and guests in the creation of long-lasting beauty, such as the infamous dinner party.
The infamous dinner party is a perfect example of how Woolf depicts the tension between ephemerality and permanence that takes place in a span of only a few pages. In Mrs. Ramsay’s eyes, the dinner party begins as a disaster with the stars of the party, recently engaged Paul and Minta, absent and the attendees, such as Mr. Ramsay, Charles Tansley, and Augustus Carmichael, who exacerbate the hostility and tension in the atmosphere. However, there is this progression of rhythmic movement from chaos to order as the darkness descends outside and the candles are lit. Content, Mrs. Ramsay thinks “It partook… of eternity… there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced out the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feelings she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures” (105). The development of the dinner party produces these priceless moments that take on a kind of psychological permanence. The guests will surely remember this evening for the rest of their lives, serving as a moment of refuge for peace in the midst of the destructive and chaotic world. Nothing in the world is permanent; yet, with endurance also comes transience. As Mrs. Ramsay leaves the room “with her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past” (111). Despite the fact that the dinner party ends successfully, Mrs. Ramsay reflects and cannot help but notice that the experience of the evening has already become part of the past, which darkens the once hopeful tone of the book. Although ephemerality and permanence originate from opposite spheres, they are effortlessly woven to show that time and life do not remain constant but actually ceaselessly shift forms. Even though ephemerality and permanence are contrasting ideas, the dynamic between the two creates this tension and force that pushes and pulls each other from one instantaneous moment to another.
While the tension in “The Window” focuses on the internal world of Mrs. Ramsay, the tension in the section “Time Passes” moves to the external world. “Time Passes” portrays the fleeting nature of life by illustrating the effect time has on objects in the vacant Ramsay’s summer house. The irrefutable effects of nature and time on objects that were once filled with color is evident when Woolf asserts, “What power could now prevent the fertility, the insensibility of nature?… It was beyond the strength of one woman, she said… There were things up there rotting in the drawers – it was a shame to leave them so, she said. The place was gone to rack and ruin. Only the Lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment… Nothing now withstood them; nothing said no to them” (138). The housekeepers put in a tremendous amount of effort to clean up the house and get it back in order, battling the destructive effects time and nature had on the furniture and the house. This passage accurately reflects that no matter what happens, life keeps moving on, sometimes at an overwhelmingly fast pace. Woolf also portrays the overwhelming influence time has on the characters and the readers by utilizing brackets like in “[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). These brackets quickly summarize the deaths of fundamental characters like Mrs. Ramsay in order to emphasize the traumatic suddenness and ultimate lack of impact these events have in the grand scheme of things. Woolf kills off her characters abruptly in mere brackets to show how fragile and fleeting life is in the face of the relentless and conventional passage of time. The cruel and indiscriminate power of nature can accentuate the ephemeral property of life that Mrs. Ramsay feared until her last breath. In “Time Passes,” it seems as if time and nature triumphs over all events, even those that may seem to hold permanence and stability.
Even though Mrs. Ramsay passes away in the middle of the novel, she continues to influence Lily’s actions and thoughts until the very end in the section “The Lighthouse.” In fact, Mrs. Ramsay’s influence is so great that it leads to a major transformation in Lily’s perspective towards life. Whenever Lily struggles with finding inspiration to finish her painting, she remembers “Mrs. Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent) – this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability” (161). This saying of Mrs. Ramsay resonates deeply within Lily, allowing her to view her surroundings through a lens that slows down time; due to this effect, the rustling leaves and changing clouds seem to stop, bringing her vision into focus. Lily’s memories of Mrs. Ramsays propels her forward and gives her enough motivation to finally finish her painting. “It would be hung in the attics, she thought it; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? She asked herself, taking up her brush again… With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (208-209). By relinquishing herself of the need for a permanently significant existence, Lily is able to achieve a sense of fulfillment. As a result of surrendering this need, she is finally able to fulfill her artistic vision and complete the unfinished painting that once haunted her. Lily accepts the ephemeral nature of the countless experiences that constitute a lifetime and finds comfort in the fact that she was able to make “life stand still” and “make of the moment something permanent.” By changing her perspective and capturing the moment through her painting like what Mrs. Ramsay did, Lily is able to achieve a different kind of endurance and stability.
Although it may seem like humans are mortal and powerless in the face of nature and time, we have a special ability to achieve spiritual immortality. The complexity of the human mind gives us the means to transcend the physical world that confines us, allowing us to achieve immortality that even time cannot hinder. Even without religion or god, Woolf shows that we can live on even after our death. For example, the memories of Mrs. Ramsay continue to influence Lily long after her death, eventually leading Lily to finish her painting. The lack of Mrs. Ramsay’s presence and the stark change in the summer house is a constant reminder of how much space she occupied and the vitality she added to the family. By portraying the effects of ephemerality and permanence on the characters, Woolf reassures her readers that like Mrs. Ramsay and Lily, we can also transcend our physical body and let our souls continue to exist through other means.