To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
First published 1927
2/∞ English authors (2013 Book Challenge)
Just another masterpiece from Virginia Woolf.
The Ramsays with their eight children and some friends are staying at their cottage while awaiting a trip to the Lighthouse (capital L). Little James is especially eager to go, but his father quenches any hope of going by stating that it will rain the next day. James feels like he wants to stab his father, but Mrs. Ramsay saves the situation by gently calming her son and providing hope. That is just one of the differences between the husband and wife and their relationship with the children.They are looking in the same direction but seeing different things.And yet they are in love.
“Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called “being in love” flooded them. They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love.”
Then there is Lily Briscoe who just wants to paint, but Charles Tansley tells her women cannot write, women cannot paint; and Mrs. Ramsay just wants Lily to marry. Whom? Perhaps even William Bankes, who is older and very scientific. But each has his own woes and pleasures, and various thoughts occupy all of them.
Time passes, that is what time does. The family, or what remains of it, returns to the cottage to find it much changed. But time has left some things untouched. Lily goes back to the painting which she started ten years ago, and James goes to the Lighthouse…with his father.
Similar to Mrs. Dalloway, the prose of this novel is a stream of words always moving forward, forward, forward. Mrs. Woolf rarely stops for the Reader to catch up. Many times I got lost in the stream or drowned in confusion, but I always managed to resurface.Some dialogue also gets lost in narration, blends in, so a Reader unfamiliar with Woolf’s style may find this confusing.
On the topic of her style, Virginia Woolf lets us into everyone’s mind, which is something I cherish about her narrative. Even when other characters describe another as “odious” or shallow, Woolf lets the Reader a glimpse of their thoughts — and every character is
“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…”much more complex than others describe him or her. It gives all characters a realistic rendering. No person is as simple as he seems.
One character I favoured most. Lily Briscoe. With her “Chinese eyes” and apparently unattractive manner (according to Mrs. Ramsay), Lily Briscoe was most beautiful to me. I guess it is because of certain strong relations that I felt for her. Lily paints, but she is insecure about her work. Constantly she thinks her painting will be hung in the bathroom, or thrown under the sofa and that paralyzes her because, like Mr. Ramsay, she wants to be remembered through her art.I love the scene with Lily and William Bankes and the painting, where she says that she shared something intimate with Mr. Bankes by allowing him to look at her work.♥
“Does the progress of civilisation depend upon great men? Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs? Is the lot of the average human being, however, he asked himself, the criterion by which we judge the measure of civilisation? Possibly not. Possibly the greatest good requires the existence of a slave class. The liftman in the Tube is an eternal necessity.”
“Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the tress standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.”
Whilst reading this novel I felt and saw Virginia in her chair, writing, thinking, writing. And a strange feeling overwhelmed me — I cannot give name to it, but it was like a connection through time, something one should feel when reading any book, but I felt particularly strongly when reading To the Lighthouse.
“Here sitting one the world, she thought, for she could not shake herself free from the sense that everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time, as a traveler, even though he is half asleep, knows, looking out of the train window, that he must look now, for he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again.”
So what is the Lighthouse? That place some eagerly wish to reach at the beginning of the novel, and some reluctantly accept? That place, which after time and time remains the same, and those alive still yearn to reach? That place now not-so-little James still has to get to? I think it is a future full of hope.