Virginia Woolf, ‘To the Lighthouse’ Review

After years of neglecting creating a platform to share my views on literature I’ve finally decided to start. This is the first of (hopefully) a number of posts where I will review what I have recently been reading. Having read Orlando and Mrs Dalloway in the last year, I was interested in delving a bit further into Woolf’s oeuvre – To the Lighthouse, perhaps Woolf’s magnum opus, felt like a good start.

To the Lighthouse centres around two summer breaks to the Ramsay’s holiday home on the Isle of Skye. Each visit – one before, one after the Great War – explores the mutating relations, aspirations and emotions of the Ramsay family and their array of middle-class, often eccentric, guests. Sandwiched in between these two chapters is another section that details the gradual deterioration of the summer house in the intra-war period. A fusion of forms, the novel is at once autobiographical – relaying Woolf’s memories of her childhood in St Ives – but also elegiac. There is also an often latent concern with topical issues of the day, particularly the post-war legacy in Britain and Western imperialism.

The novel is not plot-driven: in reality, not much happens in the way of action. As elsewhere in Woolf’s fiction, weight is given to specific moments or memories that somewhat eclipse the wider happenings of the narrative. When reading the novel one of the most impressive feats is Woolf’s ability to capture the arbitrary nature of consciousness in words: thought patterns develop in way that tests the reader’s desire for coherence and rationale, but ultimately reflect the whimsical nature of the human mind. The syntax is often testing as a result: ‘He is petty, selfish, vain; egotistical; he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs Ramsay to death; but he has what you (she addressed Mr Bankes) have not; a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles; he loves dogs and his children’. Although the perspective remains always that of the third-person omniscient narrator, subtle changes in diction and tone give the illusion of an ever changing point of view; the scene at the dinner-table being the best example of this in practice.

Much like Mrs Dalloway, temporality plays an important role in To the Lighthouse. Mr Ramsay is gripped by the anxiety that he will be lost to posterity – that he has never been able to scale to the heights of intellectual acclaim. This sense of missed opportunity is mirrored in the planned trips to the lighthouse that are repeatedly curtailed because of poor weather. For much of the novel, then, the lighthouse symbolises what is unreachable and insurmountable. The distortion of time is also significant, multiple pages are sometimes used to describe what is effectively a number of seconds, whereas, the chapter ‘Time Passes’ takes ten pages to account for ten years: it is the intensity of a moment that has a determining influence on time.

Although visibly a novel about a holiday-break to an island Scotland, the Great War seeps into the narrative. The damp-infested, decaying house mirrors Europe’s spiritual decline in the aftermath of war. Andrew Ramsay, the eldest son, dies fighting in France. His death reflects a generation of loss. Allusions to ‘no-man’s land’ and ‘poppies’, coupled with descriptions of the sea that account for submarines sighted on the harbour, ensure that the language, paraphernalia and emblem associated with war are always present. Again, as in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf is interested in the legacy of conflict.

At the heart of everything is Lily Briscoe. Shunned by Charles Tansley and Mrs Ramsay for painting, she rejects their prejudice and searches to find a unique form of expression. She mimics Woolf in her desire to disturb gender roles, revolutionise artistic styles and resist patriarchal authority. Allied with the elderly Mr Bankes, their relationship is perhaps the purest amongst the contingent of guests and family. Lily’s belief that her painting will likely end up in the attic is poignant – echoing in a sense Mr Ramsay’s agitation about the future. Yet, for Lily art is predominantly a private affair, and she takes refuge in the slow but therapeutic process of painting, often becoming sidetracked and philosophising on what is around her.

Favourite quote: ‘What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come’.