To the Lighthouse is a novelistic exploration of individual consciousness and of relationships in the interwar period in Britain. Woolf uses a stream of consciousness technique to tell us what characters are thinking and feeling. The narrator promiscuously jumps from one head to another, so much so that a reader can lose track of whose POV is being expressed. It’s easy to see why such head-hopping is verboten for writers today.
Another odd format is run-on paragraphs. Today we start a paragraph whenever a new character is speaking or thinking, and certainly whenever the POV changes. Woolf runs it all together, including direct quotations, which are rare and marked only with apostrophes, not quotation marks. All this makes TTL a more difficult reading experience than it needs to be, but that could be just my edition, which is from the 1980’s.
In any case, Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique is more convincing and compelling than Joyce’s. Joyce rambled on in unending but articulate and precise sentences, which is not how people think, but Woolf’s characters think in small, impressionistic, disjointed nonsequiturs, along with a few coherent discourses. So I could relate to her characters as I never could to Joyce’s.
The sentences are lovely, often long and writhing like a vine up a post but probably that would count as too much description in today’s literature. Few people have the patience or the short term memory to parse half-page sentences. And lovely as they are, more than a few of them would qualify, by today’s standards, as “purple prose,” unnecessarily over the top.
“The spring without a leaf to toss, bare and bright like a virgin fierce in her chastity, scornful in her purity, was laid out on the fields wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.” (p. 123)
Thematically, the depths are deep and for me, that’s the main attraction. In the opening section of three, constituting about half the book, Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful and wealthy woman in her fifties is at a country house in a Scottish Isle with her eight children, husband, and a half-dozen others, friends and servants. They variously talk and walk, remember and hope and regret, and have a lavish dinner party for which they all “dress,” and they wonder if the weather will clear enough for them to take a boat out to the lighthouse.
During the opening section, Mrs Ramsay holds the POV most of the time and wonders how it is possible that she feels simultaneously so close to everyone and alienated from them, especially her husband. She feels she knows nothing about him and he, nothing about her, even after thirty years of marriage and eight children. And yet she knows exactly what he is thinking; and she assumes he knows what she is thinking, but she is still pained by that feeling of alienation that she can hardly express, even to herself. This is a compelling paradox, one that any thoughtful person has confronted. No matter how close you get to someone, you always feel alone. Even when you’re not alone, you’re alone. Woolf conveys this idea in a gut-punching way that is nothing short of magical.
“How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch and taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air of over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives which were people. “ (p. 51)
Woolf’s favorite word in this novel is “suddenly,” which is odd because nothing much really happens in this story. There isn’t even much dialog. It’s almost entirely the disjointed thoughts and feelings of several characters. ‘Suddenly’ conveys that characters’ minds are not under their control. Mrs Ramsay is thinking about her child, when ‘suddenly’ she understands she is utterly alone, or suddenly she is struck with a brilliant plan, or suddenly she is overcome with fatigue, and so on. It’s as if she were a cork bobbing on the sea of her own feelings and ideas. Maybe that’s how Woolf’s brain worked and maybe that’s how she experienced inner life. She was, after all, a disturbed soul who eventually committed suicide. It’s interesting to see how she paints a picture of interiority so uncontrolled and self-interrupting. Maybe it’s just a literary technique to keep the pace going rather than an autobiographical tic. But several passages describe feelings of depression so vividly that a reader who knows something about Woolf’s biography is devastated with sympathy.
A strong oedipal theme is played out, directly tracking Freud’s then-recently published book on childhood sexuality, and we know Woolf read Freud assiduously. While it might have been a daring and innovative idea at the time, it hasn’t aged well and now this theme seems to stand out as a strangely foreign insert into in the novel, although her separate, allegorical sex scene is one of the most graphic in all of literature.
“The strain became acute. For in one moment if there was no breeze, and his father would slap the covers of his book together and say: ‘What’s happening now? What are we dawdling about here for, eh?’ as, once before he had brought his blade down among them on the terrace and she had gone stiff all over and if there had been an axe handy, a knife, or anything with a sharp point he would have seized it and struck his father through the heart.” (p. 172).
Another deep theme is a meditation on the nature of time. How does time seem to be full of feelings and experiences and yet the next day, even the next minute, it’s as if those experiences never happened? In the second section of the book, some years have passed, the war is either on or over, nearly everybody’s dead, and the house is deserted and derelict. The narrator describes the rotting wood, moss-covered floors, peeling wallpaper, and an old cleaning woman who remembers the good old days. How could those loud, colorful dinner parties full of laughter and conversation have ever happened here, and where are they now? Woolf considers that paradox numerous times and seems to decide that while memories of events are frozen snapshots, experience as lived is a process through time, and those two are incompatible.
“If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion, …Mrs. McNab, Mrs Bast stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard; fetched up from oblivion all the Wavery novels and a tea-set one morning… It might well be, said Mrs McNab, wantoning on with her memories; they had friends in eastern countries; gentlemen staying there, ladies in evening dress; she had seen them once through the dining-room door all sitting at dinner. Twenty she dared say in all the jewllery and she asked to stay help wash up, might be till after midnight. “(p. 130)
One of my favorite themes in the novel is Woolf’s description of the writing process, presented by analogy to the process of painting. The secondary main character, a young woman named Lily, who obviously represents Woolf herself, attempts to actualize her imagination in paint, much as Woolf was trying to do with words in writing this novel. The result is a marvelous commentary on the process of writing.
“What was the problem, then? …Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly again before her easel. It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on. “ (p. 178).
Finally, perhaps the deepest theme involves the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ We all have asked it, as do Lily and Mrs Ramsay repeatedly. Various answers are tried and found wanting. The central meaning is love, relationships, or maybe it is fulfilling social roles, like marriage, or maybe it is children. Maybe it is academic or literary fame? Maybe it is something men know and women don’t. My guess is that the question is finally answered by Lily the artist at the end of the novel. The meaning of life is process of expression of oneself into the world as best one can.
“There it was – her picture. Yes, with all its green and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? She asked herself taking up her brush again… I have had my vision.” (p 191-2).
These deep themes, embedded in some enchanted writing, is what makes this novel, and all of Woolf’s novels, so compelling that I don’t even care if plot has been abandoned.
Woolf, Virginia (1927/1983). To the Lighthouse. London: Panther. (192 pp.)