Monday, January 10, 2011

Required Work: To the Lighthouse

I made it! I have survived my first novel by Virginia Woolf, and while it wasn’t necessarily my particular cup of tea, I can appreciate the quality of the writing and what (I think) she was trying to do. Definitely a must read for anyone who likes stream of conscious novels and is okay with not a lot of action taking place. It is also fairly short (compared with a lot of the novels on this list), with my version clocking in at 209 pages. However, for me it was 209 pages of mental exercise. If the stream of conscious did not get me, then the constant point of view shifting between characters often did.


As already mentioned in the introduction, this novel involves a heavy amount of stream of conscious from almost every character, no matter how small their part is. The first part, “The Window,” features mostly the thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay as she relates to her children, husband, and the community around their summer vacation home. However, it touches on everyone else, and also features a good amount of narrative on the thoughts of Lily Briscoe. Part two, “Time Passes,” is the shortest of the three parts as it is sort of a summary of the ten years that pass between part one and part three. For Woolf, this section made the novel to be much like a capital “H,” and part two is the corridor that joins the two larger parts. Part three brings the reader back to the vacation home and includes the actual trip to the lighthouse. As (spoiler alert!) Mrs. Ramsay is now dead (her death is discussed in Part two), most of the thoughts explored are split between Lily Briscoe as she spends the majority of it at the house attempting to finish a painting, and the three family members who have ventured out on the boat in an attempt to visit the lighthouse. The boat trip involves Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam(illa) as they are accompanied by the Macalisters. There is actually not much exploration of the thoughts going on inside the head of Mr. Ramsay. But the majority of what James and Cam are thinking involves their father and his tyranny and harsh manner of dealing with his children.

While things are happening while the characters are having these thoughts, they are not the primary focus of the novel. This causes To the Lighthouse to be classified as a modernist work, much like something that would come from Marcel Proust or James Joyce. The main focus is philosophical introspection (the existence of God, the goodness of man, the transience of man, etc.) and the prose proves to be winding and hard to follow. Much like there is little action, there is also little dialogue as the focus stays on what the characters are thinking instead of what they actually say.


The novel brings up the power of childhood emotions and how they are brought out by the adults the children interact with (mostly their mother and father). Another theme for the adults is the impermanence of adult relationships. The impermanence of these relationships is often caused by other prominent themes like loss (death), subjectivity, and the problem of perception. Of course, these three things also play a hand in the children’s emotions. For example, the fact that Mrs. Ramsay seems to dote on James, her youngest son, only adds to his problem with his father, who is clearly a harsh and stern man. Because his mother’s action differ so greatly from his father’s, it makes it that much easier for him to not him. Another example of the themes of subjectivity and the problem of perception come through Lily Briscoe. In both parts one and three, Lily seems to have a love/hate relationship with Mrs. Ramsay going on in her mind. On the one hand, she always comes to the vacation home with the Ramsay’s because she loves being with the children, but there are certain aspects of Mrs. Ramsay that she severely dislikes. It seemed to me anyway that Lily viewed Mrs. Ramsay as someone who always had to be in control, the center of attention, and things had to go her way. But we later learn that Mrs. Ramsay is a beautiful woman, while Lily Briscoe is on the road to becoming a homely old maid (and by part three, she officially is one). By the end, Lily experiences intense sadness when she attempts to come to terms with the fact that Mrs. Ramsay is dead and will no longer come to the vacation home. She even calls out the dead woman’s name in two different instances while she is painting in the house. It almost looks like Lily is experiencing survivor’s guilt as Mrs. Ramsay, the devoted wife and mother, is dead, while Lily, the single and childless painter, is allowed to live on.


Woolf began writing the book as a way to understand the unresolved issues concerning her parents, and there are similarities between the plot and her own life. She often visited the real St. Ives with her parents and considered it some of the happiest time of her life. Then her mother died when she was 13, and her father plunged into gloom and self-pity (much like Mr. Ramsay, who plunged into a sort of depression because his wife was no longer around to praise him through his own doubts about his career and writing). And while Lily Briscoe is a painter, so was Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell.

The family rented the Talland House on St. Ives in 1882, and they used it as a retreat during the summer for ten years. To the Lighthouse actually takes place on Hebridean Island, and the house the Ramsay’s stay in is an imitation of Talland House.

In the novel, the Ramsay’s return to the house after World War I (in which Andrew, one of the Ramsay sons, is killed), while by that time Woolf’s family had given the house up. But Woolf did visit the house again much later with her sister.

So there we have it…not bad right? But you know what will be bad? Next week’s post on some of the poetry and prose of John Donne (if I finish it in time). I am no good at understanding or exploring poetry, but I have to give it a try as there are a number of poets that are required on the reading list. I have to figure out how I am going to format it and everything, as I cannot post about poetry the same way I have done some of these novels. Anyway, it will be an interesting experience at least.

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