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[255] To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

“For sometimes quite close to the shore, the Lighthouse looked this morning in the haze an enormous distance away.” [182]
“No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the bay.” [186]

To the Lighthouse is set in the Ramsays’ summer home on the Isle of Skyle in Scotland. Even though the novel centers on the Ramsay family and their visits over ten years (between 1910 and 1920), the plot is secondary to philosophical introspection. The interior life of the characters is where readers experience everything, for the dialogues are sparse and the prose is written as thoughts and observations. In the perpetually changing sea beneath the unpredictable sky, standing at its treacherous, illusory distance away, the Lighthouse signals on away. It is the destination that 6-year-old James Ramsay covets, despite his father’s discouraging remarks that the weather will never cooperate.

With a houseful of guests at the Ramsays’, Virginia Woolf creates a sense of the world that not only depends on upon the private perceptions of her characters but is also nothing more than the accumulation of those perceptions. A young painter who begins a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay bristles at the outspoken comments by a politician who suggests that women can neither paint nor write. While Mr. Ramsay frets about his incompetence as a philosopher, a young couple whom the Ramsays will to marry returns from a walk on the beach. The Ramsays also envision Lily, the painter, to marry one William Bankes, but she strives to remain single. Throughout the day the sense of destinations and promises to private self reverberates throughout the house. As the novel’s pace picks up in the middle interlude, Time Passes, in which events fast-forward within its realm of time, the Ramsays no longer summer there until ten years later–when they return in lesser of a pack.

It was some such feeling of completeness perhaps which, ten years ago, standing almost where she stood now, had made her say that she must be in love with the place. Love had a thousand shapes. There might be lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in fate, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays. [192]

Mrs. Ramsay, who contemplates what she does in life is negligible to her husband, resolves everything to simplicity and brings everyone together at a dinner party. In righting the interpersonal struggles she triumphs, owing to her belief that one shall always makes precious and memorable whatever time she has on earth. But, as the novel has repeatedly suggests, through the interminable rise and fall of heavenly bodies and the unbreakable rhythm of tides, personal will is no rival to time. What is in store that might prove to be unbearable is news broken by time itself. The strokes of light that radiates off the Lighthouse testify to the truth that destinations seemed most palpable and surest can be unobtainable. Woolf has shown that, in the light of loss and subjectivity, everything in life—love, desire, fame, and artistry, is at once inaccessible, and that nothing is only ever one thing, like the Lighthouse. The truth perches on accumulation of different, shifting, and even opposing point of views.

He wanted something—wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things—she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. . . Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she could not say it. . . . And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. [123-4]

To the Lighthouse certainly challenges readers to be mindful of the context in which a character makes a reflection. It’s a collective stream of conscious that works its way forward and backward around freely throughout the entire novel. The absence of an omnipresent narrator means that the novel unfolds in shifting perspectives of each character’s stream of consciousness.

209 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


21 Responses

  1. I just snagged this one from the library today. I suspect I’ll be late to Woolf in Winter again, but it’s ok since this is just the push I needed to read her stuff.

    • Andi, I hope you’ll enjoy reading this one, which is a bit difficult but more accessible than Mrs. Dalloway. You should have plenty of time reading it because they won’t discuss this book until a week from today, on Jan 29. 🙂

  2. Matt, I tried this one a few weeks ago, but I just was having too much difficulty with the narrative. I’m going to read a few other things and then come back to it. I know so many people I respect love Virginia Woolf that I would really like to read something of hers in its entirety. It’s just that I hate stream of consciousness!

    • Steph, I had similar problem with Mrs. Dalloway, especially when the narrative shifts to the public official who was afflicted by schizophrenia. I find this novel more accessible probably because it’s not as dense. It’s helpful for me to re-read the passages and take it slow. I do have to warn you that time frame can shift backward and forward all in one paragraph! 🙂

  3. I read this when I was in college, and barely remember it, but remember liking it at the time. Ha–I’ll have to re-read it, and see if I like it again 🙂

  4. I’ve been having such a hard time with this one and it made me think of you (because you read in a cafe in the morning and it’s quiet and you can get reading done). I haven’t had my usual reading schedule so I’ve been trying to sneak it in at random times, during my lunch breaks or 15 minute breaks and it hasn’t been working.

    I hope I can make the deadline but I really enjoyed reaidng your thoughts on it (:

    • I did make lots of progress reading it in the cafe. I re-read many passages and read very slowly. It’s fun reading between the different stream of consciousness from characters. I think a long stretch of reading time would be better to approach this book. 🙂

  5. I’m going to read this next, I think. Maybe I’ll start it tomorrow. I really like your new addition of [buy/borrow]. That’s perfect!

    • Happy reading. 🙂 By popular demand for a rating system that gives a more complete picture of the book, I have introduced the additional scale.

  6. Wonderful, perceptive review. Very helpful, and makes the work seem appealing and approachable. Many thanks.

    • Thanks Greg. So far this is my favorite Woolf. Although the underlying theme could be very subtle, I enjoy reading through her fluidity of reflection.

  7. Thank you for reading a book that I’m sure would boggle my mind 😀

  8. I had trouble getting interested in this book until I took it to the pool. Somehow that let me get into it, and then I loved it.

    • I had difficulty to get into it at the beginning, so many different reflections (all stream of consciousness) compete for my attention. But I really fell in love with the rhythm of the book. 🙂

  9. Matt.. I didn’t read this until after I had finished the book. I didn’t think that Mrs R was particularly negligible towards Mr R; just that the constraints of what a woman can or cannot do was so clearly delineated that she couldn’t very well just be at a liberty to act upon all her emotions. Anyway, loved your thoughts as always. Have you been reading Orlando? You’ll probably love it!

  10. […] reviews: Medieval Bookworm | A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook | Rebecca Reads | Book […]

  11. This is one of my favourite reads and cemented Virginia Woolf as one of my favourite writers. It was the first book that I allowed myself to truly just wallow in its greatness. I pored over every page, reread when necessary and paid such close attention to the details of Woolf’s prose that it turned out to be one of the most rewarding reading experiences I ever had.

    (in fact, my first tattoo will be one inspired by this book!)

  12. “But as the novel has repeatedly suggests,” is a slight typo you have at about the middle of the fifth paragraph. (Including quotes as paragraphs) Just thought you might want to know that!
    Anyhow, I have yet to read this book though it is sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me to get around to it, one of the many books I’ve bought in bulk interest. Having never heard of it or the plot before, it now seems very intriguing to me. It certainly looks like it is going to become one of the books that I read sooner rather than later.

  13. […] Maugham 9. Maurice, E.M. Forster 10. The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley 11. Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of […]

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