Sally Minogue’s “Was It a Vision? Structuring Emptiness in To the Lighthouse” does a fine job of connecting Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical writings (letters, diary entries, manuscript notes, etc.) to the narrative structures found in her fiction, such as Mrs. Dalloway, Jacob’s Room, and most importantly, To the Lighthouse. From the very beginning of her article, Minogue notes that Woolf’s diary contains a passage (written before “Time Passes”) that calls upon impersonality and the “‘great sense of the brutality and wildness of the world’” (Minogue 281). While Minogue threads these two effervescent concepts through Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob’s Room (in terms of bathos, which “depends on a sense that some objects and events have greater significance than others” (Minogue 283)), she encapsulates the “emptiness” Woolf writes about in her journal within the context of To the Lighthouse, more specifically within the second section, “Time Passes” (Minogue 281-294).
As Minogue notes, Woolf wrote in her diary, “‘There is vacancy & silence somewhere in the machine…If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness & silence from the habitable world…But I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all’” (Minogue 283-284). Minogue goes on to say that the way Woolf structures her narrative in To the Lighthouse highlights such autobiographical passages as the one noted above (Minogue 284). She also discusses how Woolf’s diary entries display an impersonality which “blur[s] her response to the deaths of others and some notion of her own death” (a bit like Mrs. Dalloway), a blurring that is fully mature in To the Lighthouse (Minogue 284-286).
Similarly, Minogue points out that “Woolf’s inclination to answer death’s indifference with her own it, of course, at the same time a recognition of its power: human response can make no difference to it” (Minogue 285). This notion seems especially important when considering “Time Passes.” Calling upon Woolf’s own description of the second section, Minogue reinforces the idea that “Time Passes” is “a narrow ‘corridor’ joining ‘two blocks,’” the corridor being “Time Passes,” and the two blocks being “The Window” and “The Lighthouse” on either side (Minogue 286). Ultimately, what Minogue initially envisions as emptiness, moves toward vacancy—perhaps the same sense of vacancy that Woolf discusses in the diary entry quoted above.
This emptiness or vacancy has to do with impersonality; indeed, Minogue speaks of “Time Passes” as having “impersonality [that] strengthen[s] its grip as the section progresses, to the point that it is difficult to remember that there is a living author behind it” (Minogue 287). And yet, we cannot deny the author, especially given the attention to syntax and grammar that is of great significance in “Time Passes” (Minogue 288-293).
For Minogue, “Time Passes” serves to represent experience, much like “The Window” does; however, in both sections, representation is exacted using different techniques (Minogue 289). In “Time Passes,” Woolf “seeks to convey the suddenness, the unpredictability, the resultant savagery of death, but perhaps most of all its devastating effect on our sense of the life that has gone on before” (Minogue 289). In this, Minogue discusses Woolf’s use of brackets to relay the deaths of her characters, and how these brackets and the grammatical structures of what they contain shows that the bracketed information is less significant than the surrounding text (Minogue 290). Here, we have the return of bathos in terms of significance. Due to the brackets and the syntax of the bracketed text, we, as readers, experience death through Mr. Ramsay’s empty arms—through the vacancy of knowing the particular circumstances surrounding the death of the character we have grown accustomed to in “The Window” (Minogue 291).
Interestingly, Minogue, while honoring the elements of prose at work in “Time Passes,” agrees with Woolf in that the section should be critiqued using the rules more bound to poetry. Due to the above mentioned syntactical tools and the bathos at work in this section, Minogue classifies “Time Passes” as using “a grammatical device much more commonly used in poetry…zeugma,” which is “mock heroic…from the yoking of the great and the trivial together as objects of the one verb. Thus, great is reduced grammatically to the level of the trivial, and its emptiness exposed through the very structure of the sentence it occupies” (Minogue 292). Consequently, we see that what is given great importance in “Time Passes” is nature itself—from insects to planets—and what is trivial is the actions of humans reduced to occupy the space between brackets.
Sally Minogue’s article can be dense at moments; however, her work enables us to re-vision “Time Passes” in such a way that, perhaps, we, too, can recognize our own indifference and impersonality. For it does not seem, according to what Minogue deciphers for us, that indifference and impersonality is something that only Woolf wrote about in her diaries and expressed through her (semi)fictional characters; rather, these are the “impersonal things” which reside in us all.
Minogue, Sally. “Was It a Vision? Structuring Emptiness in To the Lighthouse.” Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 21, No. 2 (1997-1998): 281-294. JSTORE. Web. 29 Sept. 2010. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.clemson.edu/stable/3831464?seq=1&Search=yes&term=minogue&term=sally&list=hide&searchUri=/action/doBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dsally%2Bminogue%26gw%3Djtx%26acc%3Don%26prq%3Dsally%2Bmingoue%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=2&ttl=158&returnArticleService=showFullText&resultsServiceName=null