by Alix Hawley
Why read To the Lighthouse? What is it? A novel? A painting with words? A fairy tale? A feminist manifesto? An autobiography? A declaration of war? An “elegy,” as Virginia Woolf put it? If so, for what?
In a way, this book is without a plot. What story there is can be summarized quickly: Mr. Ramsay, a philosopher, and his wife, a famous beauty, both in middle age, are staying with their eight children and various guests at their summer holiday home in the Hebrides, islands off Scotland. Conflicts arise and fall in Part One, especially between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, but also within individual characters’ minds. We see the shifting flow of thought and relationships from various points of view. The day culminates in a dinner in which union is triumphantly achieved, at least for a moment. In Part Two, things fall apart; time ravages the house, and we learn in passing that Mrs. Ramsay has shockingly died. Moreover, a daughter, Prue, has died in childbirth, and a son, Andrew, has been killed in First World War. Blackness and chaos lift at last as the housekeepers get to work on the dilapidated house and discuss the family’s coming return. Part Three is a revisiting of Part One; now Mr. Ramsay is back at the holiday house with some of the remaining children and original guests, including the artist Lily Briscoe. Mrs. Ramsay’s absence is enormous, as is the question of how to find union again, and the living characters struggle with both. In the end, a tenuous connection is made once more between the characters, and between past and present.
To the Lighthouse, then, is no racing page-turner. The important events tend to happen in the background: Mrs. Ramsay’s death is the most obvious case. But the book carries readers onward with its rhythm and patterns. Of Woolf’s books, it is probably the most accessible, and at the same time, the most innovative. It looks back, but is unlike anything before it. It is all of the genres listed above. Like a painting, it asks us to look closely at the author’s technique to see how it has been made. Like a fairy tale, it manages to transform the everyday into something magical and extraordinary. Like a feminist manifesto, it exposes and challenges traditional gender roles. Like an autobiography, it recalls the intensity of childhood feelings. Like a declaration of war, it promises to fight the wrongs of the past. Like an elegy, it mourns the dead and lays them to rest so life can move on. The book’s major achievement is the way it manages to make something new and permanent out of passing moments and feelings. As Woolf’s artist character Lily Briscoe thinks of her painting, it must be like “a butterfly’s wing,” but “clamped together with bolts of iron.” To the Lighthouse does this in two ways: through its structure and its conflicts.
The story’s structure is a reaction to Woolf’s Victorian past. By the time she published To the Lighthouse in 1927, she had famously said, “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” This change, she said, was a response to the exhibition of Post-Impressionist painters like Cezanne and Gauguin, whose deliberate abandonment of realistic representation caused outrage. Lily Briscoe in the book causes similar consternation in struggling to create her own vision, painting Mrs. Ramsay and her son as a purple shadow. Woolf too wanted to show that ways of seeing had changed as the Victorian and Edwardian eras came to an end, and her book’s fresh shape reflects this. Many Victorian novels came in three parts, as does To the Lighthouse. But Woolf argued that many writers of the previous era could create a house, but not the people who lived here. As a rebuttal, her construction is concerned with a house, and it itself built in the shape of a house—“two blocks joined by a corridor,” as she planned Parts One and Three to connect via the brief Part Two—but it is a modernist house, where the corridor is only briefly lit, and where we cannot see exactly what is happening, only feel the impressions light sweeping past in the dark, like the lighthouse beam. When we reach Part Three, we cannot turn back. Though it is a block parallel to Part One, the changes here are obvious, the break is great. The book tells us that though we may recall the past, “[l]ife has changed completely.”
Life does not conform to literary conventions, Woolf seems to say, so how can a writer portray it in a novel? Her answer is to do away with convention altogether, or to turn it to new ends. In the book, Woolf similarly bends the events of her own life. She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882, a Victorian girl in a fairly conventional upper-middle class Victorian home. Like many modernist writers, she frequently argued with her past, using it as material while trying to shape something new of it, as does Lily Briscoe, trying to paint the dead Mrs. Ramsay in Part Three. The Ramsays were modelled on Woolf’s family: her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a literary critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; her mother, Julia Jackson Duckworth Stephen, was a famous beauty with artistic and literary family connections. Between them, they had eight children, with whom they spent happy summers at St. Ives in Cornwall, the model for the Ramsays’ holiday house. However, Julia died suddenly when Woolf was 13—“the greatest disaster that could happen”— followed by Woolf’s half-sister Stella, shortly after marriage, in 1897. Her father died in 1904 of cancer, and her brother Thoby was struck down by typhoid fever in 1906. Death had an enormous impact on Woolf’s mental health and her writing. The First World War only exacerbated its power, and made her seek new forms more urgently, as neat plots seemed of no use after such destruction. At the same time, she wrote the book to lay the ghosts of her parents to rest, and with them, the Victorian past. Attempts to find order in the face of shocking chaos come into her work frequently, as we see with the characters seeking connection and memorable moments throughout To the Lighthouse. Like her Bloomsbury Group friends, a loose gathering of artists and writers in London, she saw the purpose of art as a search for true, even wordless, communication, which could produce a permanence lacking in life. Trying “to make of the moment something permanent,” as Lily and Mrs. Ramsay do, is all one can do.
Woolf’s style is part of her structural innovation. Her sentences are poetic and fluid, and the text is full of juxtapositions and sudden shifts; for instance, Mrs. Ramsay loves her husband one minute, is filled with irritation for him the next, and then admires him again. Like other modernists, Woolf is concerned with representing the way the mind works, in all its changing impressions and rhythms. In her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction,” she writes:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old, the moment of importance came not here but there. . . . Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display . . ..
If we recognize that Woolf is interested in inner states rather than external events, the simplicity of the plot ceases to matter, and the book takes on new depth. Moreover, if we recognize the quick shifts in points of view—in the first two pages, we move between the minds of Mrs. Ramsay, James, and Mr. Ramsay—we see that Woolf is trying to link multiple perspectives. Many of the characters are lonely or isolated in some way; Lily Briscoe and Charles Tansley are the clearest examples among the guests, but Mr. Ramsay is also alone and fighting to be understood. Woolf’s movements in point of view blend these individual characters’ minds into a kind of community, creating the moments of connection they are all seeking in their attempts to fight chaos.
The fight against disunity is just one of the book’s conflicts. The past versus the present, older versus younger generations, the married versus the single, art versus science—all are “opposite forces” that must find “that razor edge of balance,” as Lily thinks of it. Perhaps the major opposition is between male and female. Woolf is well known as an early feminist who felt that because of her sex, she had been unfairly denied a formal education, though she read widely on her own. As she planned the book, she imagined her father at the centre of it, hoping to come to terms with his effect on her. Leslie Stephen fell into despair after Julia’s death, demanding care and attention from his daughters and stepdaughter. Woolf later wrote that if he had lived longer, “His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books—inconceivable.” The character of Mr. Ramsay is fatally “sterile,” always claiming sympathy from the women and girls. His answer to the book’s major question, “What is the meaning of life?,” is an uncompromising search for the truth, even to the point of hurting his children.Woolf also wanted to represent her mother; the book was published on the thirty-second anniversary of her death, and Woolf had been looking at Victorian photographs of her before she began to write. Like Julia Stephen, Mrs. Ramsay’s female answer to life, in contrast to her husband’s, is to unite everyone, especially in marriage. The book’s male characters make various disparaging remarks about women; Charles Tansley, for instance, appears in Lily’s mind saying, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write.” Though Woolf implicates men as oppressive figures, she also represents the benefits and failings of all traditionally gendered approaches to life. Mr. Ramsay is stark, but brave in his pursuit of understanding, and Mrs. Ramsay is loving, but short-sighted and controlling. Lily Briscoe’s solution to life’s question, in an apparent echo of Woolf’s own view, is a combination of both male and female ideas, or an androgynous one. She learns not to shut herself and her ideas away, in spite of male criticism, and shares her painting, her personal “vision” of truth, with others, including Mr. Ramsay. Her art, like the book, is a unifying force, a source of order and permanence. When Lily lays down her brush and says, in the end, “I have had my vision,” we notice the verb tense. The vision is already finished. But it has existed, and that is enough.
- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3 (27 June 1925). Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. 34. ↵
- Woolf, To the Lighthouse. Project Gutenburg E-text 119. ↵
- Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” 1923. The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1967. 320. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft. Transcribed and edited by Susan Dick. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1982. 48. ↵
- Woolf, To the Lighthouse. Project Gutenberg e-text 121. ↵
- Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. Ed. Joanne Schulkind. 2nd ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. 40. ↵
- Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. Ed. Joanne Schulkind. 2nd ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1985. 81. See also The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. 208. ↵
- Woolf, To the Lighthouse. Project Gutenberg e-text 112. ↵
- Woolf, ”Modern Fiction.” The Common Reader: First Series. 1925. London: Hogarth, 1975. 154. ↵
- Woolf, To the Lighthouse. Project Gutenberg e-text 134. ↵
- See her essays “A Room of One’s Own” and “Professions for Women,” for example. ↵
- Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. 208. ↵
- Woolf, To the Lighthouse. Project Gutenberg e-text 26. ↵
- Ibid. 112. ↵
- Ibid. 2. ↵
- Ibid. 34 and 137. ↵
- Ibid. 145. ↵