Recommended Reading: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

To the LighthouseAttempting to write a review of To The Lighthouse makes me feel rather like Lily Briscoe about to take up her brushes:

Where to begin?–that was the question, at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still, the risk must be run; the mark made. (157)

It’s been about ten years since I read To The Lighthouse, and I’m glad it’s found me again just now. I’m a devotee of Mrs. Dalloway to such an extent that I know the page numbers of certain passages in my copy (I’ve taught it three times at least), and there’s a family joke that the correct answer to any question is probably Mrs. Dalloway.  I want that kind of familiarity with To the Lighthouse.

I read Persuasion while I was reading To the Lighthouse, and what struck me as I read was the startling interiority of Persuasion, and the way it almost leads up to Woolf’s style “Stream of consciousness” doesn’t do Woolf’s writing justice because she creates and chooses such fascinating characters whose consciousnesses to follow. Woolf in this novel is primarily concerned with women’s perceptions, making visible the unseen and silent struggles of women’s everyday interactions.

The first section of the novel often floats in the currents of Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts. If Mrs. Dalloway is the perfect hostess, Mrs. Ramsay is, outwardly, the model of the Victorian “angel in the house” (an ideal Woolf satirized in an essay) — she’s a wife, mother, mistress of servants, and anticipator of others’ needs. But Woolf shows us the turmoil under her deferential demeanor. Here’s Mrs. Ramsay after her husband dismisses the notion of a trip to the lighthouse the following day, ruining their six-year-old son’s hopes:

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said. (32)

So she doesn’t say anything, and seethes.

Though she is a doting mother, kind and sensitive to the needs of her eight (!) children of varying ages, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes the need for her own time. My friend Katie wrote a funny (and spot-on) post recently about how difficult it is to find portrayals of life with small children in fiction. I think this passage, though, captures what it’s like for parents, especially at-home parents, to sit down at the end of a long day:

No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out–a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress–children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of–to think; well, not ever to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. (62)

“The range of experience seemed limitless” — that’s a good way to describe this book. The novel is broken in three sections: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” — but it’s difficult to convey the plot. A family and visitors gather at the family summer home before the First World War. After that last summer, some people drift away, some die (including a major character, in one sentence at the end of a paragraph), and the war happens. Ten years later, a few of the guests and a few of the family gather again at the house. I haven’t made it sound like much, but somehow, the novel is about art and life, men and women, children and parents, love and death, and above all, change. It’s brilliant and beautiful and never, ever sentimental.

Lily, as the artist, solitary and devoted to her work, seems to stand in for the author at times. In this passage, which I’ll leave you with, her description of life itself could describe To the Lighthouse:

And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach. (47)

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17 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

  1. I have not read anything by Virginia Woolf, partly because I hear so many people say they don’t like her. But, because I have come to trust your opinion on books, I feel much better about trying one of hers.

    Thanks for the link to your friend’s post! I completely agree that fiction involving young children or parenting young children is severely lacking. Either it’s not addressed at all, or the children in the book are always conveniently being taken care of by other people all the time.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Naomi! I love, love, love, Virginia Woolf. I think the key with her fiction is to float a little and learn to recognize the cues that the perspective has jumped into someone else’s head. And if you do read Mrs Dalloway first, let me know, because I have a bunch of tricks for reading it the first time.

  2. I read To The Lighthouse last year and loved it so much that I read it again, right after I’d finished. Woolf puts you right into the heads of all the characters. At first the “streams-of-consciousness” style took some getting used to but after you’ve surrendered to it, it was like being in a stream, flowing right along with the book. It’s one of my favourites!

    I read Mrs. Dalloway this year and didn’t like it as much, but I know I missed alot the first time round. To The Lighthouse really had a one-character focus whereas Mrs. D. went out in all different directions. I really liked Septimus though and could completely relate to him. Is that scary, or what? 😉

  3. What an amazing book To the Lighthouse is. I love it for being so respectful of the Victorian and Edwardian model of a woman as mother and wife while showing, while intimating coming changes. I love it for the bold departure from Mrs. Ramsay’s path that Lily takes by thinking independently as a painter. I love it for its language, insights, and sensitivity. I love it for recognizing Mrs. Ramsay as an artist herself, painting a common experience of the dinner party’s unity on the canvas of memory. No wonder I reread it every year, as one of my top three favorite books. Thank you for bringing Virginia Woolf’s work to more eyes. If I may, I’d like to recommend The Things That Matter, a book that looks at life in seven stages, each based on a novel, and three of those novels are by Virginia Woolf; it makes for a good incentive to read more of Virginia Woolf’s work.

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