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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]

Reading Notes: To the Lighthouse

The dreary and wet weather truly taps into the mood of reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The waves of storms that lash California, with rain pouring down to the roofs with such monstrous intensity, is curiously in sync with the rhythm that moves as waves of the sea move, as the novel takes place on an island.

No, she said, she did not want a pear. Indeed she had been keeping guard over the dish of fruit (without realising it) jealously, hoping that nobody would touch it. Her eyes had been going in and out among the curves and shadows of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland graves, then over the horny ridge of the shell, putting a yellow against purple, a curved shape against a round shape, without knowing why she did it, or why, every time she did it, she felt more and more serene; until, oh, what a pity that they should do it—a hand reached out, took a pear, and spoilt the whole thing. In sympathy she looked at Rose. She looked at Rose sitting between Jasper and Prue. How odd that one’s child should do that! [108]

The focus of the entire novel is interior—character’s interior, nothing detached, and is very subjective. I find the writing of this book (so far), in comparison to, say, Mrs. Dalloway, much more accessible and less dense, despite its stream of conscious style all the same. The bowl of fruit represents this little enclave of happiness that Mrs. Ramsay has felt, as her dinner party has triumphed.

I’m reading To the Lighthouse as an effort to be in spirit the Woolf in Winter event hosted by What We Have Heare is a Failure to Communicate, which is currently reading Mrs. Dalloway.