To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse stands as Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece. Published in 1927,  two years after the notable Mrs. Dalloway, her novel is composed in typical Modernist fashion, dealing more with authorial philosophy and self-analysis than narrative.  Following the prose of the genre (as well as her unique style), the author fills the pages with stream-of-consciousness. Once again, the question is, does To the Lighthouse hold up to today’s standard?

pp.401Ð450.inddTo the Lighthouse follows the lives of the Ramsey family and close acquaintances in three passages; before (The Window), during (Time Passes), and after (The Lighthouse) the first World War. Centered on a summer home in the Hebrides, on the Scottish Island of Skye, the novel examines the passage of time through a multitude of their perceptions. By utilizing this approach, Woolf examines the depth and elasticity of opinion through surface level actions, allowing a complex view of simplicity:

“Looking at the far sand hills, William Bankes thought of Ramsay: thought of a road in Westmorland, though of Ramsay striding along a road by himself hung round with that solitude which seemed to be his natural air. But this was suddenly  interrupted, William Bankes remembered (and this must refer to some actual incident), by a hen, straddling her wings out in protection of a covey of little chicks, upon which Ramsay, stopping, pointed his stick and said ‘Pretty-pretty’, an odd illumination in to his heart, Bankes had thought it, which showed his simplicity, his sympathy with humble things; but it seemed to him as if their friendship had ceased, there, on that stretch of road. After that, Ramsay had married. After that, Ramsay had married. After that, what with one thing and another, the pulp had gone out of their friendship. Whose fault it was he could not say, only after a time, repetition had taken the place of newness. It was to repeat that they met. But in this dumb colloquy with the sand dunes he maintained that his affection for Ramsay had in no way diminished but there, like the body of a young man laid up in peat for a century, with the red fresh on his lips, was his friendship, in its acuteness and reality, laid up across the bay among sandhills.”

Unlike her prior publication, Woolf spreads her thesis through many characters, instead of the iconic Clarissa Dalloway. “To the Lighthouse is a book of interrelationships among people, and though they are major and minor characters, the majors ones are not, like Clarissa Dalloway, the alpha and omega of the story, but more truly the means of giving the story harmony and unity, its focal points.” While this is certaingly an admirable undertaking on the part of the author, the follow through is not always complete. In fact, Woolf’s tendency to supplant depth with excess (though surely dependent on personal preference)  reads clumsily and tiresome:

“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 even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and doing, expansive glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being onself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and set 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. And to everybody there was always this sense of unlimited resources, she supposed; one after another, she, Lily, Augustus Carmichael, must feel, our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by. Her horizon seemed to her limitless. There were all the places she had not seen’ the Indian plains; she felt herself pushing aside the thick leather curtain of a church in Rome. This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles) but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity; and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching one to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at-that light, for example. And it would lift up on it some little phrase or other which had been lying in her mind like that-“Children don’t forget, children don’t forget”-which she would repeat and begin adding to it, It will end, it will end, she said. It will come, it will come, when suddenly she added, We are in the hands of the Lord. “

Much like her contemporaries, Woolf is concerned with the transience of spirit in To the Lighthouse.  Throughout the novel, characters struggle with the fear of being forgotten after death, especially Mr. Ramsay, the family patriarch struggling to attain a career worthy of Shakespeare. Though unlike the macabre Under the Volcano, the Modernist masterpiece from fellow Briton Malcolm Lowry, there is a more hopeful strain running through Lighthouse.  We see, in the middle chapter ‘Time Passes’, the Ramsey’s summer home become defunct with dust and wear during the war, only to be brought alive again with the promise of the family’s return. While characters may be blessed with more fortunate circumstances, they are still ill-fated, though with clarity of mind – conscious of the rules of reality rather than a predestined demise:

“He stood stock-still, by the urn, with the geranium flowing over it. How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach ‘Z’ after all? Surely the leader of a forlorn hope may ask himself that, and answer, without treachery to the expedition behind him, ‘One perhaps.’ One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, and till he has no more left to give? And his fame lasts how long? It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how many men wil speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousands years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you took from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the hedge, into the intricacy of the twigs.) Who then could blame the leader of that forlorn party which after all has climbed high enough to see the waste of the years and the perishing of the stars, if before death stiffens his limbs beyond the power of movement he does a little consciously raise his numbed fingers to his brow, and square his shoulders, so that when the search party comes they will find him dead at his post, the fine fingers of a solder? Mr. Ramsay squared his shoulders and stood upright by the urn. ” 

Researching To the Lighthouse is most beneficial for understanding the goals of the novel, sadly. While Woolf has noble aims, her writing is severed by such lofty ambition. The narrative primes readers for an exciting climax in The Window’, a thematically lucid entre acte in ‘Time Passes’, but suddenly loses momentum in ‘The Lighthouse’, filling the final chapter with stoically paced scraps.

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Upon publication, through Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press no less, the novel outsold the author’s previous works. Virginia admitted that it was her most personal novel, mirroring many of the characters and situations from her life, including a self-carnation under the thin veil of Lily Broscoe, an artist struggling to paint the perfect representation of the Ramsay family at their summer home.

While Woolf is not my cup of tea, especially in the Modernist genre, her life and work are intriguing, especially within Bloomsbury group. Throughout her life, the author suffered with mental illness, brought on by the death of her father at an early age, and, as some biographers point out, sexual abuse from her half brothers. At 59, these symptoms climaxed after a less-than-hospitable reception of her biography on Roger Fry and destruction of her home in the Blitz, Woolf would commit suicide by drowning herself in the River Ouse.

If anything, maybe we can learn something from Magaret Atwood:“Why go to the lighthouse at all, and why make such a fuss about going or not going? What was the book about? Why was everyone so stuck on Mrs Ramsay, who went around in floppy old hats and fooled around in her garden, and indulged her husband with spoonfuls of tactful acquiescence, just like my surely boring mother? Why would anyone put up with Mr Ramsay, that Tennyson-quoting tyrant, eccentric disappointed genius though he might be,”  the author said was her opinion of the novel at 19, only to recant and reanalyze at 62, “How was it that, this time, everything in the book fell so completely into place? How could I have missed it – above all, the patterns, the artistry – the first time through?…Some books have to wait until you’re ready for them. So much, in reading, is a matter of luck. And what luck I’d just had! (Or so I muttered to myself, putting on my floppy old hat, going out to fool around in my unfathomable garden…)”

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