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.