In the novel’s first section we meet the Ramsays — 50-year-old Mrs. Ramsay, a Victorian ideal of privilege and womanly self-sacrifice, based on Woolf’s own mother; Mr. Ramsay, her crusty philosopher husband; and their eight children — at the family’s seaside idyll, surrounded by guests, servants and hangers-on. Woolf veers in and out of the minds of her characters, charting their impressions of one another across a single day and evening. The “action” is minimal: A visit to the nearby lighthouse is scrapped, two members of the party become engaged and a splendid meal is served. At dinner, Lily Briscoe, a youngish, unmarried artist with a fixation on Mrs. Ramsay, glimpses a way forward for the painting that taunted her all afternoon.
And then, well, time passes. Ten years, in fact, in which the Ramsays do not return to their house on the coast, which is battered and reclaimed by nature: “Night and day, month and year ran shapelessly together … until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself.” What is treasured and beautiful blows apart, such that “it seems impossible … we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth.” Woolf tucks into parentheticals the sudden deaths of Mrs. Ramsay (a flu, perhaps), her daughter (childbirth) and her son (the war). Only the old poet Mr. Carmichael appears to have thrived; his new collection does very well. “The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.”
Woolf wrote “Time Passes” during the May 1926 general strike that brought England to a standstill. She wanted, she wrote in an outline, to convey the “gradual dissolution of everything … contrasted with the permanence of — what?” If not permanence, Woolf finds in nature a fruitful tension between destruction and endurance, sorrow and consolation. She contrasts close description of its ravages with the “strange intimation which every gull, flower, tree, man and woman, and the white earth itself seemed to declare … that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules.” This is elegy as a study in ambivalence, the attempt to reconcile innate disparities; Woolf depicts mourning as both alinear and a process to be worked through over time.
In the last section Mr. Ramsay and his two youngest children return at last to the seaside home, as does Lily Briscoe. The Ramsays finally make their voyage to the lighthouse, and Lily attempts to finish the painting begun 10 years before. The work finds her tunneling into the past, determined to marry what was with what is; wretched loss and the abundance that remains. Like Mrs. Ramsay, she seeks to make of the moment something permanent. It is her willingness to confront “this other thing, this truth, this reality” that restores her creative rhythm.
Published 60 years after “To the Lighthouse” and set several decades earlier, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” the novel to which I turned next, extends Woolf’s notion of trauma and grief as problems of memory and of time. If, as the critic Peter Knox-Shaw has noted, tragedy charts “the ‘darkening slope’ toward death” and elegy the ascent away from it, Morrison’s story of Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman living in Reconstruction-era Ohio, suggests the ways catastrophe and its reckoning are doomed to intermix.