The novel that established Virginia Woolf as a leading writer of the twentieth century, To the Lighthouse is made up of three powerfully charged visions into the life of one family living in a summer house off the rocky coast of Scotland. As time winds its way through their lives, the Ramsays face, alone and simultaneously, the greatest of human challenges and it greatest triumph--the human capacity for change. A moving portrait in miniature of family life, it also has profoundly universal implications, giving language to the silent space that separates people and the space that they transgress to reach each other.
There are very few exceptional and miraculous novels that have the power to change their readers forever. To the Lighthouse is one of them. (from Goodreads)
I’m taking a class on Virginia Woolf this semester, but I’ve been having the worst time with her books. We’ve read The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway. Or, well, we were supposed to. I’ve only read the first half of each of those books, even though I came close to finishing Jacob’s Room I couldn’t make myself finish, somehow. I think it’s because of all the deaths. I really hate deaths in books, especially when it’s the main character. It depresses me, you know?
But somehow To the Lighthouse was different. It has a death in it, a death of a main character, even, but this time it didn’t bother me. (LOTS of people die in To the Lighthouse, actually, but that didn’t bother me, either.) Maybe because it happened off-screen, or maybe because Virginia Woolf’s writing in this book is so much more…something than her others. More Virginia Woolf-y, if that makes sense. It enchanted me, to be honest, and I wasn’t expecting that after “reading” so many duds.
In her previous books I think she was experimenting with different writing styles and ways to tell a story, but they never really clicked with me like To the Lighthouse‘s writing style did. It’s flowy, ethereal, and sort of…stream of conscious? But at the same time it’s very solidly in the Real World, and in the world of the characters.
I suppose the only way for you to understand what I mean is to read the book yourself, which I don’t think you’d regret. It’s short, anyway, and it goes by VERY quickly. But here’s a snippet from the book to tempt you:
What was she dreaming about, Mrs. Ramsay wondered, seeing her engrossed, as she stood there, with some thought of her own, so that she had to repeat the message twice–ask Mildred if Andrew, Miss Doyle, and Mr. Rayley have come back?–The words seemed to be dropped into a well, where, if the waters were clear, they were also so extraordinarily distorting that, even as they descended, one saw them twisting about to make Heaven knows what pattern on the floor of the child’s mind. What message would Cam give the cook? Mrs. Ramsay wondered. And indeed it was only by waiting patiently, and hearing that there was an old woman in the kitchen with very red cheeks, drinking soup out of a basin, that Mrs. Ramsay at last prompted that parrot-like instinct which had picked up Mildred’s words quite accurately and could now produce them, if one waited, in a colourless singsong. Shifting from foot to foot, Cam repeated the words, “No, they haven’t, and I’ve told Ellen to clear away tea.”
The characters were, to me, almost secondary to the writing, but I felt Mrs. Ramsay’s presence the strongest (if you can describe a character by the aura they put off instead of solid traits). It’s hard to decide where I like or dislike a character in VW’s books because I don’t think they’re meant for that. They’re not there to make you like them, they just sort of are. It’s like you’re looking in through a window and watching what they do while an omniscient voice describes what they’re thinking. You can like or dislike a character’s thoughts, I guess, but Mrs. Ramsay tends to think of domestic things, and about her life and her self. Not really things you could hate.
There’s lots of interesting little tidbits in the second half of the book that I found fascinating because they were a sort of self-insertion by VW. For instance, this one couple who gets married in the first half is in an open marriage by the second– just like VW and her husband had. And I think Lily was a sort of lesbian character? And of course so was VW (or maybe she was just bisexual?). And really the whole thing is supposed to be autobiographical, but those were just two of the things I picked up myself.
I actually did like Lily a lot, beyond her “aura” (that a stupid word, but it’ll have to do), which counters what I said above. She has personality, and actual physical stuff you could pick up if you wanted to. This whole review is going metaphysical, so I’m moving on–
Lily was such an unusual character, though, one who seemed to be more in control of her life than the other women characters in VW’s other books did. I liked especially that she kept painting for YEARS even after Charles whatshisface said women couldn’t paint– or write, for that matter– sort of like she was proving him wrong. Although I have no idea what happened to him, actually, because he’s not really in the second half of the book. I sort of wish he had gotten his comeuppance, though VW doesn’t seem to go for that sort of thing.
Alright, this is getting a bit long and confusing, and I don’t actually want to write an essay on the themes and motifs in To the Lighthouse, I just wanted to say that I LOVED it and I can totally see why people adore Virginia Woolf’s books, now. Yes.
Read: March 10-11, 2010