To the Lighthouse


Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse: Style 1 key example

Time Passes, 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Woolf uses a hyper-stylized narrative voice in To the Lighthouse, capitalizing on the freedom of expression and structure that was all the rage during the literary modernist movement. The narrative is delivered in lyrical, sweeping sentences that explore the characters' thoughts and dialogue in long streams-of-consciousness.

The novel is divided into the three sections, and each of these sections has its own distinctive stylistic features. In the first section, "The Window," time passes slowly. The entire events of some 150 pages only cover the span of about a day. Woolf dives deep into her cast of characters' thoughts and interactions, the Ramsay family and their guests at their summer house on Skye, and manipulates this slow pacing to thoroughly explore each person's inner lives and interpersonal relationships.

In the second section, "Time Passes," the pacing abruptly changes. Time begins to zoom by, entire seasons are represented in a single paragraph, and the focus shifts from individual characters to features of the environment: the house, the weather, the ocean. Monumental tragedies in the Ramsays' lives—the marriage and death of Prue Ramsay, the death of Andrew Ramsay during World War I, and the death of Mrs. Ramsay herself—occur parenthetically, tucked between larger meditations on time. Consider this example, juxtaposing the passing of night after night during World War I and Andrew's death:

But slumber and sleep though it might there came later in the summer ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt, which, with their repeated shocks still further loosened the shawl and cracked the tea-cups…. Then again silence fell; and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain midday when the roses were bright… there seemed to drop into this silence this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling.

[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]

Finally, in the last section, "The Lighthouse," the narrative pace and style returns the reader to the human, stream-of-consciousness scale. By alternating her style to accommodate the complexities of her characters’ lives at the highest resolution juxtaposed against a big-picture consideration of the movement of time through the universe, Woolf delivers a thorough reflection on the defiant act of living and creating as mortal beings who are relatively small and insignificant.