To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

This review contains spoilers.

There were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

As an author, Virginia Woolf changed the way many people thought about fiction. The literary atmosphere of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was characterised by the realism of the Victorian novel: fiction involved grand narratives with lots of characters, strong plotlines and clear morals. However, the beginning of the twentieth century brought with it the violence and senseless loss of life of the First World War, and suddenly life was not so certain. Reality was changing, and people were looking for new ways of understanding their feelings in the face of an often frightening and unstable world. Virginia Woolf – along with other authors such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce – strove to create a new way of describing the world that paid attention to internal as well as external realities. Woolf was one of the pioneers of modernism, a movement that widened the scope of literature and of art in general. Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse is one of her strongest pieces of writing, and manages, through style and theme, to describe the uncertainties – both individual and communal – of life.

To the Lighthouse – set in and around a family summer home where numerous characters temporarily stay – is divided into three parts. The first part – “The Window” – focuses on Mrs Ramsay sitting with her youngest son, James, in a window, while outside Lily Briscoe, a spinster with “Chinese eyes”, attempts to paint them. This part explores the minds of the different characters present in the house on a day that culminates in a dinner party. Nothing major happens during the day, or at the party. “The Window” is instead made up of the preoccupations of the characters – their insecurities, reflections, memories, expectations, and opinions of the people around them. Woolf presents the internal worlds of a number of different people in an effort to describe the subjective nature of reality when seen from so many perspectives. Finally, at dinner, all the characters are brought together in one room:

All those scattered about, in attics, in bedrooms, on little perches of their own, reading, writing, putting the last smooth to their hair, or fastening dresses, must leave all that, and the little odds and ends on their washing-tables and dressing-tables, and the novels on the bed-tables, and the diaries which were so private, and assemble in the dining-room for dinner.

And while each person remains caught in their own head, with their own individual thoughts and sensitivities, they are also suddenly connected. Drawn in by the subtleties of conversation, a kind of unity is created around the table. For Woolf, subjective and separate moments are important:

She felt rather inclined just for a moment to stand still after all that chatter, and pick out one particular thing; the thing that mattered; to detach it; separate it off; clean it of all the emotions and odds and ends of things, and so hold it before her.

But what is also important is the way these moments come together to make a whole. When this happens people are able to understand their connections to others, and to grasp a deeper truth about the nature of reality:

If she could only put them together, she felt, write them out in some sentence, then she would have got at the truth of things.

In the second part – “Time Passes” – the interior consciousness of characters disappears. The world is described through the seasons, and through nature’s indifference to individuals, as the house becomes abandoned and overgrown. The only human character featured in this section is the housekeeper, who gives bits of information here and there about what has happened to the family – the deaths of Mrs Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew, for example.

The final part of the novel – “The Lighthouse” – sees a number of characters from the first part return to the summer house. All of these characters are aware in some way of Mrs Ramsay’s absence (her death having occurred in the intervening years), and all of them experience this lack in different ways. Mr Ramsay is sullen and angry, determined to take his children – who are now grown – on a trip to the lighthouse. Lily Briscoe, still unsuccessful as an artist, is contemplative, standing in the garden in much the same way she did in the first part of the novel trying to paint a picture. All of the characters reflect on their last visit to the house, as well as their feelings about Mrs Ramsay. Their different reactions and reflections – although sometimes seemingly small and trivial – create characters that are complex and very unique.

Woolf’s modernist style is characterised by a lack of familiar narrative structure, a multitude of different characters and perspectives, and a concentration on the ‘ordinary’ aspects of life. Reading Woolf is in a way like reading poetry in an endless stream: it demands your full attention, forces you to think about each phrase or be lost altogether. It is not a simple, half-attentive reading of facts and happenings, because nothing really happens. To the Lighthouse presents a new way of looking at reality that is much more in tune with how individuals experience the world. While it shows life to be much more uncertain and changing than nineteenth century realism would have had readers believe, Woolf’s novel is a much more truthful reading of the world, and in this sense it is liberating, for both artists and readers alike.

Other novels by Virginia Woolf include Mrs Dalloway and The Waves. Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, was published in 1941, the year of her death.

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