What we get in “Time Passes,” the second section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, is, simply put, just what the section’s title suggests: the passing of time. What hails this section as remarkable is that it impresses upon us not only the passing of time, but also the effects that time wields upon what we create. “Time Passes” causes us to be conscious of both.
The section opens with the family and friends still alive, still intact, for at the beginning of “Time Passes,” we see that hardly any time has passed at all between the end of “The Window” and the beginning of this section. However, this insignificant change in time itself forces us to recall (and reimagine) the sentiment Mrs. Ramsay clutches as she leaves the dining area (and the life of the dinner/conversation) near the end of “The Window:” “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” (Woolf TTL 113-114). Indeed, one feels even in the first chapter of “Time Passes” that as the young people return from walking on the beach at night, everything that has happened before this moment is the past. We are suddenly very conscious of this past, especially when Prue says, “‘One can hardly tell which is the sea and which is the land,’” for this line of thought prefigures (both literally and metaphorically) the empty house once so full of life that will begin to be overtaken by nature as “Time Passes” progresses (Woolf TTL 130).
As each chapter shifts and changes in this section, so does the landscape featured in the novel, both in terms of humanity and nature. The darkness begins to become very nearly absolute, and what we’re left with as readers is a sense that time is the darkness itself, swallowing the fragments that are left behind. We begin to read time as passing, yes, but also keeping time with the sweeping of the lighthouse’s light across the land, methodical, entering the house as it always has; however, it does not disturb any habitants because the house has been deserted.
We learn of Mrs. Ramsay’s death, and we learn of Andrew’s death (Woolf TTL 132, 137). While Mrs. Ramsay’s death may leave us feeling desolate (as we have shared so many thoughts and feelings with her—there is a sense of intimacy we’ve developed), although her death is described as sudden (and, indeed, it is a shock), it appears to be natural, even expected considering no one lives forever. However, it is Andrew’s death that fully encapsulates the changes time throws down, for now we see that the world is literally at war—though later, we’re given, “It seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself” (Woolf TTL 138). This juxtaposition eerily nudges us to become aware of the house filled with remnants of humanity being disturbed by the natural world. It is the war of the universe which causes the teacups to crack and the floorboard to come loose, so that very like the house itself, Mrs. Ramsay’s death can be seen as a casualty of nature, and in juxtaposition, Andrew’s death is due to humanity battling itself.
Indeed, the house is empty, save for the material reminders of human existence in that space. Around the pig’s skull, Mrs. Ramsay’s shawl flutters, given to move in various ways in accordance with the natural world that causes these shifts. Mrs. Ramsay once hid (covered up) death in her children’s nursery; now that she herself is dead, nature is disrobing the bone head—the remnants of something that was once alive (Woolf TTL 136-137).
The house is still filled with the family’s belongings—boots, books, plates, all the accoutrement of living. Though Mrs. McNabb comes to dust the deserted house, she, too, seems but a thing of the house—to recall what Prue once thought upon seeing her mother—“That is the thing itself” (Woolf TTL 118). And to equate Mrs. McNabb to simply a thing of the house seems crude; however, she is much like the house itself, deteriorating as time passes, and though she tries to keep the house is some semblance of order, her mantra, if you will, highlights the truth: “It was too much for one woman, too much, too much” (Woolf TTL 141). This seems to echo Mrs. Ramsay’s life and death, especially since after her death, things seemingly fall apart.
After Mrs. McNabb shuts and locks the house, nature begins to invade. In this, we see the ghosts of Mrs. Ramsay as well as Andrew, I believe. Mrs. Ramsay was given to looking out of the window, out into nature, so it seems fitting that bits of nature (flowers/plants in particular) find their way into her home. And with Andrew, too, we can see his little collections and examinations of the natural world embodied in the swallows and butterflies creating life among the ruins (Woolf TTL 141). In these moments, it feels as if Lily Briscoe is rising up from the past, is coming through the awful darkness of time, telling us, "One must remember the quivering thing, the living thing...and work it into the picture" (Woolf TTL 33).
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Ed. Mark Hussey. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 2005. Print.