Paul, Minta, Andrew, Prue, and Lily return from the beach. One by one, they retire to their rooms and shut off their lamps. The house sinks into darkness, except for the room of Augustus Carmichael, who stays up reading Virgil.
Darkness floods the house. Furniture and people seem to disappear completely. The wind creeps indoors and is the only movement. The air plays across objects of the house—wallpaper, books, and flowers. It creeps up the stairs and continues on its way. At midnight, Carmichael blows out his candle and goes to bed.
Nights pass and autumn arrives. The nights bring destructive winds, bending trees and stripping them of their leaves. Confusion reigns. Anyone who wakes to ask the night questions “as to what, and why, and wherefore” receives no answer. Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly. The following morning, Mr. Ramsay wanders through the hallway, reaching out his arms for her.
The contents of the house are packed and stored. The winds enter and, without the resistance of lives being lived, begin to “nibble” at the possessions. As it moves across these things, the wind asks, “Will you fade? Will you perish?” The objects answer, “We remain,” and the house is peaceful. Only Mrs. McNab, the housekeeper, disturbs the peace, as she arrives to dust the bedrooms.
Mrs. McNab makes her way through the house. She is old and weary and hums a tune that bears little resemblance to the joyous song of twenty years earlier. As she cleans the house, she wonders how long it all will endure. Some pleasant memory occurs to the old woman, which makes her job a bit easier.
It is spring again. Prue Ramsay marries, and people comment on her great beauty. Summer approaches, and Prue dies from an illness connected with childbirth. Flies and weeds make a home in the Ramsays’ summerhouse. Andrew Ramsay is killed in France during World War I. Augustus Carmichael publishes a volume of poetry during the war that greatly enhances his reputation.
While the days bring stillness and brightness, the nights batter the house with chaos and confusion.
Mrs. McNab, hearing a rumor that the family will never return, picks a bunch of flowers from the garden to take home with her. The house is sinking quickly into disrepair. The books are moldy and the garden is overgrown. While cleaning, the old woman comes across the gray cloak that Mrs. Ramsay used to wear while gardening, and she can imagine Mrs. Ramsay bent over her flowers with one of her children by her side. Mrs. McNab has little hope that the family will return or that the house will survive, and she thinks that keeping it up is too much work for an old woman.
During the night, only the beam of the lighthouse pierces the darkness of the house. At last, once the war is over, Mrs. McNab leads an effort to clean up the house, rescuing its objects from oblivion. She and a woman named Mrs. Bast battle the effects of time and, eventually, after much labor, get the house back in order. Ten years have passed. Lily Briscoe arrives at the house on an evening in September.
Lily listens to the sea while lying in bed, and an overwhelming sense of peace emerges. Carmichael arrives at the house and reads a book by candlelight. Lily hears the waves even in her sleep, and Carmichael shuts his book, noting that everything looks much as it looked ten years earlier. The guests sleep. In the morning, Lily awakes instantly, sitting bolt upright in bed.
The “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse radically alters the novel’s development. Many of the characters from the first section disappear. What we learn of them in this brief following section is presented as an aside, set apart by brackets. To the Lighthouse frequently comments on the notion and passage of time. In “The Window,” Woolf conceives of time as a matter of psychology rather than chronology. She creates what the French philosopher Henri Bergson termed durée, a conception of the world as primarily intuitive and internal rather than external or material. Woolf returns to this narrative strategy in the final section of the novel, “The Lighthouse.” But here, in the intervening chapters, she switches gears completely and charts the relentless, cruel, and more conventional passage of time. The brackets around the deaths of Prue and Andrew associate them with Mrs. Ramsay’s intermittent refrains in “The Window” and accentuate the traumatic suddenness and ultimate lack of impact these events possess. These bracketed sentences take on the tone of news bulletins or marching orders.
While “The Window” deals with the minute details of a single afternoon and evening, stretching them out into a considerable piece of prose, “Time Passes” compresses an entire decade into barely twenty pages. Woolf chooses to portray the effects of time on objects like the house and its contents rather than on human development and emotion. “Time Passes” validates Lily’s and the Ramsays’ fears that time will bring about their demise, as well as the widespread fear among the characters that time will erase the legacy of their work. Here, everything from the garden to the prized Waverley novels slowly sinks into oblivion.
Because the focus shifts from psychology in “The Window” to chronology in “Time Passes,” human beings become secondary concerns in the latter section of the novel. This effect replicates the anxieties that plague the characters. Mr. Ramsay’s fear that there is little hope for human immortality is confirmed as Woolf presents the death of the novel’s heroine in an unadorned aside. This choice is remarkable on two levels. First, thematically, it skillfully asserts that human life is, in the natural scheme of things, incidental. As Mr. Ramsay notes in “The Window,” a stone will outlive even Shakespeare. Second, the offhand mention of Mrs. Ramsay’s death challenges established literary tradition by refusing to indulge in conventional sentiment. The emotionally hyperbolic Victorian deathbed scene is absent for Mrs. Ramsay, and Woolf uses an extreme economy of words to report the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.
In this section, the darkened tone that begins to register toward the end of “The Window” comes to the fore both literally and figuratively. Mrs. Ramsay’s death constitutes the death of womanhood and the dismantling of domesticated power in the novel. With the deaths of Prue and Andrew, the world’s best potential and best hope seem dashed. Prue’s death in childbirth strikes out at beauty and continuity, while Andrew’s demise brings out the impact of war and the stunting of masculine potential so important to the novel’s historical context. In a way, the novel miniaturizes a vast historical moment for Europe as a whole. “Time Passes” brings to the Ramsays destruction as vast as that inflicted on Europe by World War I. When the Ramsays return to their summer home shaken, depleted, and unsure, they represent the postwar state of an entire continent.