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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.

[194] Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

dalloway“It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? . . . So That to know her, or anyone , one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.” [152-3]

Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing style requires utmost concentration, as her scenes not only shift swiftly and imperceptibly between past and present, primarily through Clarissa’s, Septimus’s, and Peter’s memories, she also combines interior with omniscient descriptions of characters and scene. Often unbeknownst to her readers, she leaps from one character’s thoughts to the mind’s eye of another or a physical locale. As abruptly as she changes the perspective, Woolf handles such transition between the interior and the exterior very smoothly that, upon meticulous perusal of the text, with the constant announcement of time, one can discern a structure of the novel (instead of random tangents of thoughts) and perceive the pace of the characters’ lives. Most noticeable of this device is Big Ben’s striking noon that takes place at the novel’s exact midpoint.

Mrs. Dalloway covers one day from early morning to evening in one woman’s wife. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife, walks through her London neighborhood to prepare for the party that she will host that evening. When she returns from the florist in the morning, an old suitor and friend, whom she had influenced like nobody had ever done, pays her an unexpected visit at the house. Peter Walsh’s arrival allows us to be privy to Clarissa’s meandering thoughts, which focus on that summer thirty years ago when she chose to marry Richard Dalloway, who never shares her desire to truly and fully communicate. Much of Clarissa’s thoughts remain private, as she is inclined toward introspection that gives her a profound capacity for emotion. As the wife of someone in public office, Clarissa keeps up the public relations to high society. But privately she is aware that she has, in rejecting Peter and choosing Richard, she has sacrificed passion for the security and tranquility of an upper-class life. At the same time, in the midst of her chores, in her private contemplation of the fear of death, Clarissa strives to establish the channel for communication and throws parties in an attempt to draw people together.

In all this there was a great deal of [Richard] Dalloway, of course; a great deal of the public-spirited, British Empire, tariff-reform, governing-class spirit, which had grown on her, as it tends to do. With twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes—one of the tragedies of married life. With a mind of her own, she must always be quoting Richard—as if one couldn’t know to a tittle what Richard thought by reading the Morning Post of a morning! [76-77]

Much of Clarissa’s personality is seen through Peter Walsh, whose most consistent character trait is ambivalence. Middle-aged, fearful of having wasted his life, and highly skeptical of the society, he can never commit to an identity, nor can he decide what he feels. His unhealed hurt renders him very critical of people, the Dalloways in particular. He detests Clarissa’s bourgeois lifestyle, though he blames Richard for making her into the kind of woman she is—sterile and conventional. In his thoughts he often reflects upon Richard and his actions with such negative connotation, and indeed, Richard struggles out of his stiffness but fails to even express his love in words:

Bearing his flowers like a weapon, Richard Dalloway approached her; intent he passed her; still there was time for a spark between them—she laughed at the sighte of him . . . But he would tell Clarissa that he loved her, in so many words. He had, once upon a time, been jealous of Peter Walsh; jealous of him and Clarissa . . . He was holding out flowers—roses, red and white roses. (But he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words) [116-118]

Peter’s often fidgeting with a pocket-knife indicates his indecisiveness toward the English tradition that older citizens like Aunt Helena and Lady Bruton champion. He doesn’t know whether he abhors the English tradition or he just accepts the English civilization as a norm, as the failure of the British empire began to show in 1923. His attitude toward death is also drastically different from that of Clarissa, who has come to term with her mortality, despite her dread of aging.

Woven into Clarissa’s day of preparation and reflection is the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock. Hallucinations reel him as he sits on a bench at Regent’s Park raving about seeing his friend Evans, who perished in war. Although he is mad, the former poet shows many traits that he could be Clarissa’s double. Indeed Woolf saw Septimus Warren Smith as an essential counterpoint to Clarissa Dalloway. He regards human as evil after the war and resorts to his internal world. Skeptical of his surrounding, Septimus fears that people in the world have no capacity for honesty or kindness. It seems to me that Woolf intended for Clarissa to speak the sane truth and Septimus the insane truth, and Septimus’s detachment enables him to judge people more harshly and indiscriminately than Clarissa is capable of. He also offers a contrast between the conscious struggle of a working class veteran and the blind opulence of the upper class.

The end of the novel tracks back to and makes sense of the lines I have quoted at the beginning of this review. That is, Clarissa’s reflection of people. To know someone beyond the surface, one has to seek out the people and places that completed that person. What does this mean? It means one has to be experiencing the social and physical environment in which the people inhabit. The structure of Mrs. Dalloway supports this “theory” of Clarissa, since most of the novel concerns people’s thoughts instead of the surface actions. The open-air omnibus, for example, symbolizes the ease with which friends could once share their deepest thoughts. The automobile with the blind drawn, in which Septimus and his wife sit, symbolizes the repression that have confined many British people. It becomes very clear toward the end that death, which most characters have dreaded throughout the book, is a communication, means of preserving one’s soul. That is when Clarissa and Septimus converge.

She felt somehow very like him [Septimus]—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. [186]

197 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Mrs. Dalloway vs. The Hours

hoursWith Mrs. Dalloway being so slow of a reading (small does of it is probably conducive to a more plausible understanding of details), I picked up The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which I read years ago. Like the original work which has inspired Cunningham to write the modern-day treatise, The Hours also mirrors Mrs. Dalloway‘s stream-of-consciousness narrative style (a style pioneered by Woolf and James Joyce) in which the flowing thoughts and perceptions of protagonists are depicted as they would occur in real life, unfiltered, flitting from one thing to another, and often rather unpredictable. stream of consciousness, of which Virginia Woolf is the master, is so prominent in this work.

Cunningham’s novel also employs the same time device in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway — the action of the novel takes place within the space of one day. In Mrs. Dalloway it is one day in the life of the central character Clarissa Dalloway. In Cunningham’s book it is one day in the life of each of the three central characters; Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf herself. Through this prism, Cunningham attempts, as did Woolf, to show the beauty and profundity of every day. Even the most ordinary, if not mundane. It also demonstrates in every person’s life and conversely how a person’s whole life can be examined through the prism of one single day.

The reason I pick up The Hours is for a change of pace and social climate of the reading. Whereas Clarissa Dalloway had not recognized her sentimentality for Sally Seton during her young womanhood is homosexuality, The Hours concerns three generations of questionably lesbian or bisexual women. To some extent the novel examines the freedom with which successive generations have been able to express their sexuality freely, to the public, even to themselves. It’s obvious that for Virginia and Laura to assert their sexuality freely during their time. The assertion of homosexuality would result in extremely dire consequences in a society in which homosexuality is illegal or denied. The undercurrent of anguish that plagues these women in The Hours is starkly different from that of Mrs. Dalloway, which is warfare, the British superiority, and fear of death. Maybe the role of homosexuality is a way of demonstrating how these three women feel distant from society.

Back to reading Mrs. Dalloway. (I back-track half of what I have read since I began yesterday.)

Woolf and Semi-Colons

dallowayIf you think Toni Morrison is difficult to read, try Virginia Woolf. They are challenging in different ways. Toni Morrison speaks in metaphors that diversifies the main plot into layers of allusions and meanings, creating a prose so poetic and lush that you will read on for pages until you realize the story has been lost. Virginia Woolf delights in the stream of consciousness. The narration follows at least twenty characters in a way that Woolf blurs the direct and indirect speech. An example from my current reading, Mrs. Dalloway:

Anyhow they were inseparable, and Elizabeth, her own daughter, went to Communion; and how she dressed, how she treated people who came to lunch she did not care a bit, it being her experience that the religious ecstasy made people callous (so did causes); dulled their feelings, for Miss Kilman would do anything for the Russians, starved herself for the Austrians, but in private inflicted positive torture, so insensitive was she, dressed in a green macintosh coat. Year in year out she wore that coat; she perspired; she was never in the room five minutes without making you feel her superiority, your inferiority; how poor she was; how rich you were; how she lived in a slum without a cushion or a bed or a rug or whatever it might be, all her soul rusted with that grievance sticking in it, her dismissal from school during the War—poor embittered unfortunate creature! For it was not her one hated but the idea of her, which undoubtedly had gathered in to itself a great deal that was not Miss Kilman had become one of those spectres with which one battles in the night; one of those spectres who stand astride us and suck half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants; for no doubt with another throw of the dice, had the black been uppermost and not the white, she would have loved Miss Kilman! But not in this world. No.” [12]

Every scene tracks the momentary thoughts of the character, as if the camera is panning slowly across the scene in a film. The semi-colons galore slow down the reading, forcing you to re-read, to examine closer, and to discern the many independent clauses buried in her long sentences. At times reading can become suffocating. The above paragraph encompasses just one thought, and in times, I cannot help asking, when is this paragraph going to end, so I can have another sip of my coffee? I have thoughts that some of the most minute, mundane details aren’t even important, if not irrelevant to the main storyline. It’s no more than a demonstration of her unique style. More to come later.