A stirring, straightforward work written near the end of her luminous career, Virginia Woolf's The Years is a portrait of the Pargiters, a staid London family presided over by Colonel Abel Pargiter. In some ways, "portrait" is not an entirely appropriate word, because Woolf's subject in this novel (and an abiding concern in all of her works) is fluidity and flux: the movement of the seasons and years, the experience of maturing and growing old, and the pain of change, passing, and loss. Although it spans a fifty year period, it is not an epic novel in the sense that Mann's Buddenbrooks or Tolstoy's War and Peace are epic. The fifty years under consideration in The Years are not continuously narrated; instead, the novel deals with only certain years-1880, 1891, 1908, 1911, 1914, 1917 and "The Present Day"-punctuated with large gaps of time in between. At each new juncture, the reader is left to surmise what has happened in the intervening time with little assistance from a controlling narrative presence. Although The Years is written in the third person, the novel's narratorial "eye" roves among the point of view of different characters fluidly, and recounts the events of the past through memory and dialogue rather than through a third-person summation. Leaping over years and even decades-as the novel does-infuses it with a sense of time's rapid, relentless movement, as the reader watches characters age significantly with the turn of a few pages.
The subject matter of The Years is also decidedly not epic, but it is what gives the novel its remarkable power. Although it does discuss what might be termed monumental events in the lives of its characters, such as the death of Mrs. Pargiter in the first chapter, the novel leaves out many events that might seem particularly noteworthy, such as the birth of a child, a courtship, or a wedding. These traditional milestones are often consigned to the blank, unnarrated stretches of time that pass between the chapters. Woolf instead focuses our attention on smaller, less self-evidently significant moments of experience: a girl writing a letter to her brother, a college student sipping a glass of port and studying ancient Greek, the goodnights exchanged after a dinner party. These tiny moments exist in a tension against the sweep of seasons, years, and lives passing in the background, and this ever-present tension is what makes the novel ultimately so disquieting and so moving. Not only does the book's structure keep us constantly aware of the time's march, but also many of the smaller details-the sound of cars moving in the streets, the sight of a hearth fire dying, a gust of wind and rain-subtly keep an atmosphere of change, flow, and passing defining the experience of the characters. The things that lend a sense of fixity to life, such as rank, employment, or marriage, or those things that pass for it, such as a painting, a text, or a sentimentalized object, are touchstones for Woolf as well. The discord between the desire for stasis and the inevitability of change in many ways defines the novel, and is everywhere evidenced in the very environment in which the characters live and breathe.