Lauren Groff: One August I was left alone for a few weeks in an old camp in Cooperstown. My parents wanted to fix the place up, though it would prove so decrepit that they’d soon tear it down to prevent the house from detaching from the hill and taking one slow somersault into the lake. Inside, there was a slight and constant noise that came from either the vermin eating the wood or from the phantoms I felt at night as clammy presences beside my bed.
I had just returned from a year in France; I was about to start college. None of my friends were around. I was confused, silent all day, between worlds, and I was angry because I didn’t know why I was so confused. I would read into the night to stave off the terror, and wake as soon as the sun hit the water and lifted wraiths of fog. I’d go for a run. The rest of the day I’d read on the dock, letting the sun sear my body, flipping over so the water licking through the slats would cool me off.
At some point, I picked up an old library copy of To The Lighthouse someone had bought for 25 cents. I began to read and didn’t stop until the sun had blistered my back. A mysterious rightness, a beautiful submerged truth had invaded me, one that has ever since seemed slightly beyond my grasp. This is, I think, Virginia Woolf’s intention. Her project in To The Lighthouse is to capture the fleeting nature of happiness and transfer it directly to the reader. It’s a sort of literary possession, a ghosting.
In the first part of the novel, “The Window,” Woolf makes beautiful use of the free indirect discourse in a way that is intensely, often erotically, intimate. There is great drama here—not of plot, but of promise, of thought, of looking. It’s a quite ordinary, happy day: Lily Briscoe paints, James waits to sail out to the lighthouse, Minta loses her brooch on the beach. But minute shifts within each person gather and layer, and, in layering, build. Mrs. Ramsay is the warm heart of this book; this grand Victorian mother of eight observes everyone in her orbit and every other character observes her, her great elegance, her kindness. Her daughters, even while being reprimanded by her, notice something in their mother that is like the “essence of beauty;” they “honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy, like a Queen’s raising from the mud to wash a beggar’s dirty foot.”
The dreamy, shifting first part of the book couldn’t prepare me for the second part, the famously stunning “Time Passes” chapter. There are 10 numbered sections here, moving outward from human time, closing up the house for the night, to the house’s own vision of time as the sleepers settle in, with airs creeping in and exploring the letters in the wastepaper basket, brushing the yellow roses on the wallpaper, hovering above the sleeping faces of the humans. And then time expands even further, to envelop autumn time, with its wild and destructive winds, the “drench of hail,” the sea that “tosses itself and breaks itself.” Human time is only marked in terms of restless sleepers, until the terrible bracketed kicker, the most moving death in literature, marked only as an afterthought, a parenthetical:
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
God! The bracket is a whisper, a step back into human time. Mr. Ramsay’s arms are themselves brackets for the absence of Mrs. Ramsay, who has unexpectedly left the story for good.