Virginia Woolf’s Approach to Time in To the Lighthouse: A Shock of Modernity | An Essay

It would be fair to mention that Virginia Woolf left her marks on modernism, a cultural trend that redefined literature in terms of themes, plot and representation of time and space, with her high-class and over-refined writing style. She chose to focus on the development of the characters and their transformations caused by inner conflicts, rather than the physical changing of the surrounding world. To the Lighthouse (1927) is one of her most representative novels about which in one of her autobiographical essays included in Moments of being, Virginia Woolf said it was a way of laying to rest her past. In the novel she forms her own theory of temporality based on Henri-Louise Bergson’s theory which characterized time as constantly speeding or slowing down for the characters, but remaining the same for science.

Approaching time by placing both objective and subjective time in the same context didn’t make her novel easy to read, but it challenged literary norms and had a great influence on the whole modernist era: ”the representation of time is fundamental to working of fiction, and because modernist writers favoured intensity of experience, it has often been commented upon how the typical unit of time for the modernist novel was the day whereas for the realist novel was the year” (Childs 2002:129).  

The traditional approach to time pre-modernist writers used in their creations was based on the chronological development of events that focused on the actions and ongoing change of the characters rather than their thoughts and feelings. Chronological or objective time defined the order of the narrated events, their linearity, frequency or duration, allowing the reader to easily follow and understand how the events unfold, their causes and effects and how they are related to other situations which the characters experiment.

Based on Henri-Louise Bergson’s concept of durée, literary critic Gudz states that time can be defined as “the flowing of life that never subsists, with birth, growth, death, the changing of the seasons progress in an unceasing, mechanical rhythm” (Gudz, 2005:4). In the same vein, Virginia Woolf contoured her own theory of the double nature of time, thus challenging literary norms. One of the novels in which she replaces the well-defined temporal frame that was used before with her own artistic device, in order to express the effects of both subjective and objective time has on the characters is To the Lighthouse.

The structure of the novel is conspicuous from the beginning: “two blocks joined by a corridor” (Dick, 1982:48), it presents events that occur in only two days, but ten years apart. The two blocks represent the first (The Window) and last (The Lighthouse) chapter, while the second chapter (Time passes) is presented as a thin and barely lit corridor that brackets the shadows and horrible effects of the First World War. To the Lighthouse is limited in preoccupations: the novel emphasizes the inner states of the characters, feelings such as loneliness, nostalgia, melancholy, rather than the external events occurring in their surroundings. In this case, the plot ceases to matter and the focus falls on inward experiences and the Universe is being considered as a prison in which the mind is locked in and can’t escape because “nothing was simply one thing” (Woolf, 2013[1927]: 172).

In the novel both subjective time and objective time are omnipresent in order to offer a greater depth of character. For instance, Mrs. Ramsay perceives temporality as “a continual process of negotiation with the past, not a reliving of it” (Marcus, 1997:107), she is constantly torn between the past and the present, always thinking about moments that can’t be relived but only remembered. Using stream of consciousness to offer a sense of partaking in the intimate thoughts of the female protagonist, Woolf captures Mrs. Ramsay’s very quick transition of focus influenced by the constant passing and pausing of time. Woolf approaches time as a process of the mind that establishes a direct relationship between the characters evolution in terms of thinking and the influences of both the chronological, destructive time, and the time of the events. The passing of time highlights the strong feelings of loneliness and need of love and affection Mrs. Ramsay is dealing with during her life, these thoughts being represented through the prisms of the passing time and rather metaphorically than directly.  The distance between “time on the clock and time in the mind” (Woolf 1928:68) emphasizes the contradictory feelings the characters are constantly battling with. The best example to illustrate it is Lilly Briscoe’s constant struggle with feeling lonely and content with her life at the same time: “For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time” (Woolf 2013[1927]:95).

Virginia Woolf turned to new theories of time to explore the complex mechanisms of memory. For her characters time is moving either very slow or very fast. For example, in the first chapter, The Window, the events that imply the Ramsay family and their guests occur in a single day, but for the reader, because of the countless thoughts and moments of nostalgia, time seems to be moving on slowly. As for the characters, every minute is another opportunity to fantasize of the present, past or future. In the first few pages of the novel Mrs. Ramsay thinks of the present, her husband and James’ discussion, but at the same time she reminisces the past which accentuates her feelings of isolation and loneliness. In the second chapter time for the characters seems to be flowing really fast, few years are presented as few hours, damages of the First World War and the pain left by Mrs. Ramsay’s passing are briefly described. In this case Virginia Woolf establishes a contradiction between the traditional time, in which painful moments seem to be last forever, and the modernist approach to time, where time quickly passes in moments of suffering. The last chapter, The Lighthouse, is directly connected to the first chapter, everything goes on but the protagonists seem to be stuck in the past and their thoughts revolve around the character in absentia, Mrs. Ramsay.

Temporality is perceived as a process of the mind that makes thinking as an ongoing, damaging mental act. Not only the connection between past and present is obvious, but the blending into some sort of community of the individual character’s mind and their thoughts as well. They all fight to overcome destructive feelings, they struggle to stop time by trying to “make of the moment something permanent” (Woolf 2013[1927]:149). Thus, by establishing a relationship between time and thinking, Virginia Woolf microscopically analysis and brings to the surface the inner thoughts of each individual, without according too much importance to the external events.

Virginia Woolf broke the traditional usage of time and, instead of focusing on what happens from Monday to Sunday in the external reality of the character, she chose to emphasize what happens from Monday to Sunday in the inside of the brain, on how the inner thoughts of her characters are formed, influenced by time, and how they affect other characters’ mindset. Her characters see the passing of time as a challenge, going back in time gives them a sense of security, not only because the past can’t be changed, but because their distorted version of it makes living in the present easier. Her usage of subjective and objective time in the novel emphasizes the inner thoughts of the protagonists: temporality becomes for them a process of mind that defines their whole existence. By challenging well-defined literary norms, she turned her writing into high art, providing a sense of contentment for the reader when flipping the pages of the book.  Her novel demands a mental workout to be understood, just as in order to understand human being we need to make an effort. 


Childs, Peter. 2002. In “Texts, Contexts, Intertexts”. In Modernism (The New Critical Idiom). London: Routledge.

Dick, Susana. 1982. To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft. Toronto: University of Toronto.

Gudz, Nataliya. 2005. Concepts of Time in Virginia Woolf. University of Magdeburg.

Bergson, Henri-Louis. 1957. Time and free will. An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Marcus, Laura. 1997. Virginia Woolf­.  Plymouth: Northcote House.

Woolf, Virginia.  2013. To the Lighthouse. Hammersmith: Harper Press.

Woolf, Virginia. 1928. Orlando. London: Hogarth Press.

Woolf, Virginia. 2002. Moments of being. Pimlico: Penguin Books.

4 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf’s Approach to Time in To the Lighthouse: A Shock of Modernity | An Essay

  1. Enjoyed reading the article above, really explains everything in detail. It is very interesting and effective. I found this interpretation very meaningful. Good work!

    Liked by 2 people

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