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  • Virginia Woolf, Time, and the Real
  • Jane Duran

Critical appraisal of the work of Virginia Woolf has tended to focus on feminist concerns, or on issues revolving around the actual facts of her upbringing and the extent to which she might have been thought to be a victim of abuse. Although some commentators have noted that Woolf's high modernist style lends itself to a number of readings with respect to sense of self, the passage of time, and a sort of phenomenological reflection, philosophical concerns have, in general, not played a large role in Woolf scholarship to date.

In this article I shall argue that some of Woolf's best known work—especially To the Lighthouse—exemplifies a concern for time, reality and a sense of interior life-as-lived that is overtly philosophical in its construction, and even somewhat didactic. Furthermore, I will claim, it is part and parcel of modernism as it is ordinarily conceived to address these issues in some fashion, even if, in many cases, they are not addressed as thoroughly as they are in Woolf's work. Even if we can be certain that a great deal of Woolf's mental disturbance, or mental illness, was the result of childhood abuse, or even inherited tendencies, it still does not detract from the power with which she was able to use depictions of inner turmoil to give us a sense of the fleeting and transitory nature of the real. Indeed, such a sense is one of the hallmarks of Woolf's work and is acknowledged by most of her critics, even if it is not termed a philosophical concern. I will analyze constructs of time and the chronological through a view of To the Lighthouse.


A number of philosophers have offered conceptions of time; these efforts range from those of antiquity to the more technical articulations [End Page 300] of the twentieth century. One of the most haunting evocations of the power of time is in the work of one whose thought is seldom cited in this regard, Simone de Beauvoir. In Old Age, she offers a phenomenological account of the passage of time that reflects an emphasis on the internally-felt disparity between the past and the present that is a frequently-remarked upon aspect of old age.1 There is a paucity of experience-of-the-present among the very elderly, and a reliance upon the past. Concomitantly, there is a foreshortening of the future. As Beauvoir writes: "How far does memory allow us to retrieve our lives? The images . . . are far from possessing the richness of their original object. An image is the seeing of an absent object by means of an organic and affective analogue" (p. 147). Despite the fact that these images may lack the richness of the original, the somewhat paradoxical effect of being older is that these images predominate.

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf plays with time in a way that allows for a development of the internally-sensed structure of time on the parts of the various characters. Although many have remarked upon the well-known middle section, "Time Passes," this aspect of the felt sensation of time as an internal phenomenon, and one on which her characters seem to draw at regular intervals, is a somewhat little remarked feature of the rest of the book. It is present from the outset: James's first thoughts about the trip to the lighthouse highlight time in a sort of reversal of the way that Beauvoir has indicated for the elderly; James's conception of the passing of time is altered in another sense, since he is only six. He has projected himself forward so intently to the trip to the lighthouse that everything else has seemed somewhat unreal. As Woolf writes, "he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed . . . ."2

Although the differences between the felt constructions of time between, for example, childhood and old age might seem to partake of the commonplace, Beauvoir is among those philosophers who have used the notion of the truncation of time and the foreshortening of the future among the elderly to make philosophical commentary. By the same token...


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pp. 300-308
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