To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Wolff

The British Library describes Wolff as ‘one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century.  Judged on To the Lighthouse, it isn’t a description I would deny. Innovative she certainly was, but having read the novel – recommended to me as one of her best, and typical of her style, I found her writing depressing. There is very little plot. Nothing much happens and, though plunged into the thoughts and emotions of the characters – and there’s no denying Wolff does that well, my foremost feeling on leaving them was So what?

lighthouse

‘Never mind, the rent was precisely twopence halfpenny; the children loved it; it did her husband good to be three thousand, or if she must be accurate, three hundred miles from his libraries and his lectures …..’

The story centres on the Ramsay family, a middle-aged couple with eight children, the youngest, James, only six years old. They spend their time between London and a house in the Hebrides where, at the start of the novel they are hosting several friends and acquaintances. Mr Ramsay is an academic.

In Part 1, The Window, James wants to visit a nearby lighthouse. His mother is agreeable but his father decides the weather won’t be suitable. This introduces tension between husband and wife and we get a peek into Mrs Ramsay’s mind for her thoughts on their relationship. Another of her unspoken objectives is to match Lily Briscoe, a struggling artist (painter) to the botanist William Bankes. By the end of the novel, James and his father do actually reach the lighthouse, but that is only after ten years of war and social change have wrought a world very different from the one in which we began.

‘It came over [Lily] too now – the emotion, the vibration, of love. How inconspicuous she felt herself by Paul’s side.’

The narrative of To the Lighthouse makes use of ‘stream of consciousness’, a term coined by the philosopher William James, brother of the novelist Henry James, to describe the flow of thoughts in the minds of a character. Virginia Wolff exploits the technique by giving an inner voice to several, most prominently Mrs Ramsay herself and to Lily, who is one of the family’s guests.

Lily is beset with doubts about her talent, doubts not assuaged by the remarks of the atheist Charles Tansley, who maintains that women can’t write, paint or do much else of value. Tansley is apparently a pupil of Ramsay though one can’t help wondering why he was invited to the house at all. The tension between Mr and Mrs Ramsay temporarily resolved, she reaches out to him in her thoughts and finally acknowledges the love she is unable to express in words.

‘Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing room ….’

The middle section of the novel, entitled Time Passes, condenses ten years into a few short chapters, during which several of the characters die. The house is empty and falling into decay. No one visits except the elderly housekeeper Mrs McNab.

‘Can’t paint, can’t write, [Lily] murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs.’

Part 3, To the Lighthouse, reintroduces Lily and three of the surviving Ramsays, Mr Ramsay, James and Cam(illa). It continues in the same vein as Part 1, switching the ‘internal monologue’ from character to character. We get a glimpse of the feelings of James and Cam. Lily reminisces about the past, her relationships and her art, and watches the boat taking Ramsay, James and Cam toward the lighthouse. Maybe she even gets to finish her painting.

Judged by both Random House and Time magazine as among the best novels of the last century, To the Lighthouse had some nice literary touches. There were times, as I read, when I thought for example – What beautiful language! How like real life! However, as a novel  it disappointed me. Introspection is OK but I prefer my fiction with more action and a more intriguing story line.

*****

 

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8 thoughts on “To the Lighthouse

  1. Nan Johnson

    Twice I’ve tried to read To the Lighthouse; first as an assignment in college, where the only impression it left was on my forehead as I nodded off to sleep trying to read it in the library. The second time was years later for book club, yet still I found nothing compelling about it. Your review makes me feel less dumbfounded every time I see it on a list of classics.

  2. Great review. I’ve had a similar response to many of the classics, Wuthering Heights and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man come to mind, and I’ve attempted to read writing by Virginia Woolf but have never found the blurbs encouraging enough. Although, I really enjoyed Dracula. Some people find it’s overwritten but I think the story is incredible and is deserving of its “classic” rating.

    1. I always think that if there’s no ‘story’ then, no matter how good the narrative, the dialogue and the style etc, there is something seriously wrong with the book. ‘Professional’ reviewers and critics often don’t seem to get that.
      For what it’s worth, I think Wuthering Heights is a great story but ponderous to read. So is Dracula, very readable if a little bit [sorry!] heavy. Both are products of their time. I haven’t read ‘Portrait’.

      1. Agreed. Sometimes, regarding the classics, I think professional reviewers and critics can be more concerned with how/what the book makes the reader think and what the author was trying to do rather than if the story was successful as a whole, although this isn’t always the case of course.

        Like you say, Wuthering Heights is a good story, but I found reading it painful. I’ve found myself let down with the classics a couple times. The hype can make you expect a lot but then you find a lot of them aren’t as enjoyable as people are making them out to be — as you were with To the Lighthouse. But maybe it’s the hype that’s to blame…

  3. My first book from Woolf was Mrs. Dalloway. And I wanted to love Mrs. Dalloway because I had thought it would be my kind of thinking and it was just too messy book for me to get. Then after a year, this year, I thought Woolf deserves another chance so I picked this book. I liked some sentences a lot but I remember thinking so what, is this all. I recently read Waves so only that made me love Woolf’s writing.

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