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The Definition Of The Concepts Of Time English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2166 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Transcending Temporality: Escaping the Shackles of Linear Time. The concept of time is one which eludes the standard dictionary definition that etymologists so simply thrust upon the more concrete words that compose the English language. Perhaps time defies the ability to be defined as a result of its ubiquitous nature – humans find time to be so ordinary that it seems senseless to seek out a method with which to describe it. Perhaps it evades an explanation because society is so fixated on its passage rather than its existence. Or perhaps it cannot be defined because it is merely a figment of the human imagination – a method of mental measurement to maintain sanity. Over the course of literature’s development, many have strived to craft a novel that serves as an accurate portrayal of the human experience of time. As the modernist literary movement began, this concern shifted towards the forefront, and one author emerged who artfully fashioned a novel that moved beyond the simplicity of plot and instead delved into the depths of the human subconscious. Through her creation of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf produces an avant-garde illustration of the way in which humans undergo the passage of time in order to criticize society’s fascination and fixation with the future.

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Throughout her novel, Woolf collapses the steady progression of linear time and instead utilizes an interplay between the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of time to more accurately demonstrate the way in which humans truly experience time’s progression. In the late 1980s, a historian by the name of Dominick LaCapra revolutionized the way in which scholars view time. Essentially, The LaCaprian theory of time theorizes time to be a multidimensional phenomenon composed of a structure consisting of both a horizontal and a vertical plane. This horizontal plane is representative of what LaCapra calls diachronic time, or the passing and progression of both commonplace and significant events, while the vertical plane, which represents synchronic time, concerns itself with the passing of time when one fixates upon the minute details of any given event (LaCapra 138). Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse, transcends the simplicity and monotony of diachronic time and interpolates passages that are written from a synchronic perspective, thus increasing the complexity of her work and allowing her to break free from the constraints caused by a plot based solely on linear time. If Woolf were to write exclusively in the diachronic plane, her depiction of everyday life would not be nearly as profound as synchronic descriptions allow it to be (Gemmill 2). Her synchronic passages give her the ability to convey the details of seemingly simple events that hold deeper symbolic significance. However, it is Woolf’s ability to seamlessly transition between diachronic and synchronic descriptions that causes her portrayal of time to be so truthful to the human experience – in any given period, one event may seem to fly by quickly while one may notice every minute detail of another. This interchange is facilitated through a use of stream of consciousness narration.

By utilizing a stream of consciousness format of narration, Woolf facilitates the ability to slow down the apparent progression of time in order to synchronically highlight the significance of certain moments or memories. As the modernist literary movement reached its peak, a narrative technique known as stream of consciousness became increasingly popular. Stream of consciousness narration allows for insight into the thoughts of a character, presenting them to the reader in the exact method in which an individual would process them. For example, the vivid image painted by Woolf as James is “sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother [speaks]” (Woolf 12) demonstrates James’ processing of all that is occurring around him, offering insight into his thoughts. While James’ actions in this moment seem unremarkable, stream of consciousness narration helps to focus on an infinitesimal moment in time and elaborate upon it, a technique which Woolf calls upon often. In essence, Woolf utilizes stream of consciousness narration to enhance the impact of synchronic moments by further lengthening the description of each portion of a moment, much in the way that a specific moment in the human experience can be drawn out by the mind. As Albert Einstein once said, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours-that’s relativity.” Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness allows her audience to experience the progression of time in the same manner as her characters-as they fixate on a moment, so does the audience. The significance of this effect and of Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness lies in her choice of when to employ it-she delves into the synchronic dimension of seemingly insignificant moments, focusing on the colors and auras (Stewart 3) of everyday living. Through this method, Woolf captures an authentic recreation of the human experience, henceforth increasing the validity of her criticism of it.

In stark contrast with her ability to extend a nanosecond on the synchronic plane, Woolf’s use of brackets creates a harsh and unexpected severity and hastiness throughout the second portion of the novel that serves to illuminate society’s desensitization to the significance of the moment. Throughout part two of the novel, “Time Passes”, “the harsh typographical appearance of the parenthetical marks [used by Woolf] themselves” (Gemmill 3) emphasizes the abrupt nature of Woolf’s return to a diachronic description of a linear progression of events. Woolf’s return to a dry, dull portrayal of events within these brackets signals a choice to return to linear time as she states that “[Prue Ramsay died that summer…]” ( Woolf 132) and “[… Mr. Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle…]” (Woolf 127) highlights a key syntactical pattern. It is evident that the events depicted within Woolf’s brackets reflect simplicity within both their syntax and diction, causing them to be portrayed as commonplace even in cases when they are rather tragic. Each set of parentheses contains one or more brief, telegraphic sentences written with simplistic diction and a blatant lack of detail, understating the significance of the event contained within and signaling a shift to a more omniscient perspective (Sang 3). A shift from the personable, relatable stream of consciousness style to this newfound omniscience stems from Woolf’s desire to highlight how desensitized society has become to events such as death. To focus upon the synchronic dimension of time is to be personal, dramatic, to embody the carpe diem ideals of seizing each moment. Hence, Woolf’s regression to diachronic depictions signals a step away from this ideal, and mirrors modern society’s lack of concern with the significance of the moment. While it may be argued that Woolf’s use of juxtaposition in terms of color is the most essential tool in the conveyance of her views regarding society (McCarthy 1), it is this ability to delve into and then fall away from a synchronic examination of time that truly buttresses her disdain for humanity’s choices. By using a wholly diachronic approach towards the description of death, Woolf downplays its significance to suggest that an individual’s priorities are better placed in a concern with life rather than its impending end.

As Woolf’s characters struggle with the understanding of life’s ephemerality, many of them grasp for some sense of permanence as they preoccupy themselves with the future and whether or not they will be remembered, paralleling that which Woolf believes is currently occurring in society. Mr. Ramsay fears that his work will be easily forgotten as a result of mortality and the brevity of human life, so he seeks out some sort of permanence in the intellectual sphere which he hopes will cause his memory to stand the test of time. His attempts to make a lasting philosophical contribution demonstrate Woolf’s views regarding the human need for individuality and competitive success. Essentially, the alacrity of Mr. Ramsay’s frantic attempts at rising above the rest of society allows insight into Woolf’s distaste with the need in today’s society to focus on future personal accomplishment rather than happiness in the present. When Mrs. Ramsay dies, causing Mr. Ramsay to “[lose] touch with the order of the physical world” (Doyle 9), his attempts become scarcer, and his feelings of worthlessness reflect Woolf’s view that humans base their sense of self-worth upon their permanence. This fixation with that which will come in the future is also visible in the character of Lily Briscoe. Lily dreads the fact that one day her paintings will be thrown into the attic and never again seen by the rest of society, leading to a fear of life’s ephemerality reminiscent of Mr. Ramsay’s. Whereas Ramsay searches for permanence in the intellectual world, Lily turns to her artwork for comfort. Her paintings act as methods of synchronically capturing events in diachronic time, exhibiting the dichotomy between the two dimensions of time and leading to insight as to Woolf’s intent. Lily’s paintings being forgotten parallels society forgetting the significance of that which has occurred and is occurring as a result of a preoccupation with the future and that which is to come. The colors included within Lily’s paintings are ones which often are associated with cheerfulness or happiness (Stewart 2), symbolically indicating that Woolf believes humanity is forgetting the joy that is connected with living life. In addition, Woolf includes many aspects of her life into the novel, and it is often argued that Lily may be a representation of Woolf herself, signaling that Woolf has undergone an inner struggle similar to this one (Brivic 9). Woolf’s personal connection to this issue may serve as an explanation as to why she wishes for her knowledge to take on a didactic tone regarding a carpe diem mentality.

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Finally, during the denouement of the novel, Lily Briscoe comes to terms with the fact that her life is ephemeral and that time will progress after she is gone, further demonstrating Woolf’s views regarding society’s obsession with permanence. Lily’s ability to finally fulfill her artistic vision comes only after letting go of her need for permanence as she “[lays] down [her] brush in extreme fatigue” (Woolf 209) in the last line of the novel. This final portion of the novel is written in an extremely synchronic manner as Woolf painstakingly drags out every last moment of the plot, capturing the significance of each and every detail and underscoring the significance an instant of time can have. This is done in order to mirror the human experience of self-actualization as Lily reaches a sense of closure, further validating Woolf’s portrayal of time. Because this closure comes only once Lily has accepted the inevitableness of the ephemerality and transience of a mortal life, it is indisputable that Woolf’s aim is to didactically demonstrate the downfalls of an obsession with the future and a refusal to accept the temporary nature of one’s time on earth. This conclusion to the novel reinforces the significance of this fascination-fundamentally, Woolf posits that without recognizing the aspects of life that are truly important, humanity will not be able to reach the same self-actualization that Lily is able to accomplish. Woolf essentially wishes to persuade her audience that “embracing the synchronic dimension of time” (Gemmill 5) and leading a life focused on the present rather than the future is the most meaningful manner in which to spend a lifetime.

By meticulously illustrating the human experience of relativity and the progression of time through the approach of a two-dimensional interplay, Virginia Woolf is able to point out a key fault in modern society. Her emphasis on society’s fixation with the future and straying from a carpe diem lifestyle illuminates a potentially dangerous characteristic of that which humanity is becoming. Essentially, To the Lighthouse reveals that society’s path towards living without being able to appreciate the significance and importance of each and every moment in time is one which will ultimately lead to its downfall if not reversed.


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