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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)


Time the destroyer is time the preserver.

T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages” (1941)

Woolf's To the Lighthouse is a novel in three parts. The first, “The Window,” is set before the First World War in the house on the Hebridean island of Skye where the beautiful Mrs. Ramsay spends her summers along with her philosopher husband, her eight children, and invited guests. This is the longest of the novel's three sections and yet it covers the shortest period of “real” time, only a single afternoon and the long evening of a summer's day. In contrast, the novel's middle section “Time Passes,” which describes what happens to the house after the Ramsays stop coming, spans ten years in a small fraction of the pages occupied by the novel's opening section. Also much longer than this middle section is the novel's conclusion, “The Lighthouse,” which covers only a morning spent at the house by the survivors of the old family; here the painter Lily Briscoe, a longstanding summer guest of the Ramsays, assumes the central role that the now-dead Mrs. Ramsay played in “The Window.” In total, then, the time spanned by the novel is more than ten years, but the bulk of the narrative is given over to the less than two days that occupy the novel's first and third sections.

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