To the Lighthouse explores time at every scale, tracking the intricate thoughts and impressions within a single lived second while also meditating on the infinity of geologic time stretching back into the past and forward into the future beyond the span of human knowledge. Between these two extremes, the novel presents the different measures of time out of which individual experience is composed. Part 1, The Window, and Part 2, The Lighthouse, occur almost in “real time,” as the action described takes place within a period more or less equivalent to the period of time it takes to read the section. Within these sections, each character’s perspective picks up on an immense range of detail and the observant Mrs. Ramsay and Lily are especially conscious of the unique specificity of each moment. The novel also explores the vacation time of the Ramsays and their guests, for whom the scenes of the novel are lived within a “break” from their normal lives in London, and the circular, ritual time of communal activity and habit, as the characters repeat the daily routines of walks and dinners, react to one another in predictable ways, and repeatedly profess long-held opinions. Zooming out from daily life, To the Lighthouse reflects on time’s larger frameworks as Mrs. Ramsay considers the irretrievable time of childhood and she, along with Mr. Ramsay and Lily, confront human tininess in the course of the Earth’s existence. Yet Mrs. Ramsay and Lily (and, though he has his doubts, Mr. Ramsay) believe that it is possible to make “something permanent” out of the moment, and thus Lily paints to partake of eternity as Mrs. Ramsay orchestrates lived experience until it becomes as transcendent as art. In Part 2, Time Passing, the “real time” of The Window accelerates to breakneck speed and the section spans a whole decade in just a few pages. Without much attention to detail, this view on time lacks the particularity and complexity of time in The Window and is characterized only by a barebones framework of events. Thus, the enormity of Mrs. Ramsay’s, Prue’s, and Andrew’s deaths, and of World War I, are reduced to one sentence parentheticals.
As committed as it is to capturing an experience of lived time, To the Lighthouse is just as interested in the relics that linger after experience, and the novel holds up many different forms of memory. There is the history book memory of impartially and sparely recounted event as demonstrated in the bullet-like plot points of Part 2, Time Passing. There is the circular memory Mrs. Ramsay has thinking back on her youth, recognizing in her children’s youth their own future memories, and feeling life to be a cycle of marriage and childbearing passed on from generation to generation. There is the living memory of Mrs. McNab and Lily as their recollected images of Mrs. Ramsay appear visible on the surface of the present world.
To the Lighthouse ultimately demonstrates the inadequacy of clock time to measure human experience: life is not felt, Woolf shows, second by orderly second. Instead, one minute seems to drag on an eternity while the next two decades speed by. One is one second aware of a human lifespan as a long, luxurious stretch and the next second perceives it to be an infinitesimal fraction of Earth’s much more enduring existence. Memories return in the present and live on, sometimes seeming never to have passed.
Time Quotes in To the Lighthouse
…the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, ‘I am guarding you—I am your support’, but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow…
…because distant views seem to outlast by a million years (Lily thought) the gazer and to be communing already with a sky which beholds an earth entirely at rest.
The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.
It partook, [Mrs. Ramsay] felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at 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 feeling she had had once today already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that remains for ever after. This would remain.
…certain airs, detached from the body of the wind [the house was ramshackle after all] crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room, questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wallpaper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall?
The winter holds a pack of [nights] in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken.
But what a power there was in the human soul! [Lily] thought. That woman sitting there, writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived, after all these years, complete, so that she dipped into it to refashion her memory of him, and it stayed in the mind almost like a world of art.
What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.
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.
[Lily] went on tunneling her way into her picture, into the past.