To the Lighthouse

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To the Lighthouse
Woolf, Virginia (1927) John Mepham, Kingston University Domain: Literature. Genre: Novel. Country: England, Britain, Europe. To the Lighthouse was published in 1927 when Virginia Woolf was 45 years old. This novel, which consolidated her reputation as a major modernist writer, also proved more popular and commercially successful than her earlier works. It was the third in the series of innovative, modernist novels, after Jacob’s Room (1922) and Mrs Dalloway (1925). It was immediately recognised as a major achievement, in which she developed her experimental techniques to new levels of subtlety and effectiveness. Ever since publication it has been her most universally acclaimed work and is now probably her most popular and widely read novel. There is a great deal of information about the writing of To the Lighthouse in Woolf’s diary for 1926-27 and in her later autobiographical writings. Of all her novels, To the Lighthouse is the most closely and clearly drawn from Woolf’s own life. The Ramsay parents in the novel are fictionalised versions of her own parents and the family holiday setting is drawn closely from that of her own annual holidays in St Ives in Cornwall. Her starting point was an image of her father, sitting in a boat reading; later, images of her mother came to dominate the first part of the novel. However, the novel does not aim at factual accuracy. Many details, from the size of the family to the setting, have been changed. Another main character in the novel, Lily Briscoe, an unmarried young painter, is wholly made up, though aspects both of Woolf and of the painter Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, can be seen in her. Moreover, the novel does not aim, in the familiar manner of autobiographical fictions of childhood, at an account of the author’s remembered life as a child. Woolf aims not only to write about her parents as she remembers them, but also to invent what she imagines it was like to be them. Of course, it is a far greater challenge to imagine what your parents were like, in their own inner experience, than it is to recapture childhood scenes in the conventional manner. The narration in To the Lighthouse renders, in Woolf’s subtle and wonderfully inventive version of stream of consciousness prose, her parents’ imagined streams of inner mental life. Woolf accomplishes the difficult trick of recomposing her own childhood in such a way that it is her parents who occupy the centre stage, while her own childhood self is marginalized, or in fact made almost invisible, seen only in some aspects of the Ramsay children. It may be, as Woolf herself later suggested in her šA Sketch of the PastŠ, that in trying to imagine what it was like to be her mother, she was attempting something that other people achieve through psychoanalysis. She aimed at resolving and making safe her own obsessions and


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negative feelings towards her parents. Through writing, her ambivalence was carefully tamed, disarmed of its hurtful violence, and contained within a generally good humoured, elegiac and celebratory portrayal. In 1939 she wrote about her mother that: it is perfectly true that she obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty-four. Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary rush. [] When it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest. The shape of the novel is, as Woolf herself explained, that of two blocks with a corridor between them, perhaps two caves connected by a tunnel. The novel is in three parts. The first and longest part, šThe WindowŠ, takes place in a few hours of a single day in September, some time before the Great War. The Ramsay family and some friends are on holiday on a Scottish island. Their son James wants to go on a trip to the lighthouse but his father warns him that the weather will be bad. Mrs Ramsay sits with James at the open window, and knits a stocking. Lily Briscoe begins to paint a picture and others go for a walk to the beach. Later they all have dinner together, and then disperse. Part II, šTime PassesŠ, is the shortest of the three parts. Ten years pass. The family holiday house, now unoccupied, gradually deteriorates, until at last it is rescued by cleaning women who come to prepare it for the returning family. Major human events during the ten years are mentioned only in passing, within parentheses (Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, and there is a war). The main focus of the narrative is elsewhere, on the passing of inhuman time, the time of seasons, weather and natural processes. In the final part of the novel, šThe LighthouseŠ, the surviving members of the family and friends return to the house and again the narration covers the events of only a few hours in one day. Mr Ramsay and two of his children, Cam and James, now teenagers, sail to the lighthouse while on the island Lily Briscoe finishes her painting. The novel recounts a host of apparently trivial incidents. It has no story in the conventional sense of the term. What unites all the incidents is not a story but the continual activity of the characters’ minds. This activity, the making and unmaking of meanings, of weaving experience into networks of interconnected thoughts, is never ending. There is no final, stable conclusion to be arrived at and life continues to throw up new incidents, changes and shocks. Children grow up, books are written, there is a war, people die, and time passes. The first critical reactions to To the Lighthouse were with few exceptions very positive. The emphasis in critical comment was an analysis of the novel’s unfamiliar technique. Woolf’s 1925 essay šModern FictionŠ provided some hints as to what she was aiming at. She had suggested that fiction should, like impressionism, attempt to capture the ordinary life of Monday or Tuesday and to register the myriad atoms or impressions of experience as they fall upon the mind. Moreover, she wanted to capture in writing the shaping activities of the mind as it attempts to


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form experience into intelligible patterns. Critical comment focussed upon Woolf’s very distinctive and subtle stream of consciousness style, on the absence of an authoritative external narrator and on her rendering of the complexity of each moment of experience. Here is a typical passage: The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window), that the men were happily talking; this sound which had lasted now half and hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, šHow’s that? How’s that?Š of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, šI am guarding you Œ I am your support,Š but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow Œ this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror. This one single sentence captures through a brilliantly layered structure of subordinate clauses the complexity of a single moment. One sound ceases, so Mrs Ramsay becomes aware of another, and reacts with a momentary fear. But enfolded within this one apparently trivial incident are many other memories, rhythms, thoughts and images. The complexity of the characters’ streams of thoughts is particularly rich at those moments when their minds tunnel back through memory to connect the present moment to past experiences. As time passes, layers of meaning build up like silt at the bottom of a pond. Characters’ minds tunnel back into the past and, as Woolf puts it, images rise up off the floor of their minds. Memory remakes or recomposes the incidents of a life, reconnecting them in new patterns. The writing itself recomposes them still further, into a highly shaped, carefully composed structure of patterned interconnections of scenes and images. Temporally distant incidents are held together in close proximity, in a way which might seem to cancel out or overcome their temporal, so fleeting, impermanent nature. There are particularly rich examples of remembering as a complex activity of meaning making in Part III of the novel, as James and Lily Briscoe in particular find themselves remembering Mrs Ramsay. Because of its preoccupation with the flow of consciousness and with the remaking of past time, Woolf’s work has been compared with that of Marcel Proust, which she read with great admiration. It has also been compared with the work of Dorothy Richardson and Katherine Mansfield (who she regarded as her only serious rival).


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In To the Lighthouse Woolf depicts two contrasting kinds of time, the linear and regular plodding of clock or objective time, and the reiterative, non-linear time of human experience. Her depiction of subjective time, layered, complex and shot through with desire was, critics have observed, not unlike that of the philosopher Henri Bergson, though there is no evidence of any direct influence. It is in the šTime PassesŠ section of the novel that Woolf’s interest in the contrasting forms of temporality is most evident. The narrative style of this part is very unusual and is quite unlike that of Parts I and III described above. It has always been among the most debated aspects of the novel. While some readers have admired its lyrical beauty, others have felt uncomfortable with its effort to narrate from what Woolf called an šeyelessŠ point of view. It is as if she is thinking of the philosophical problem, said to be the problem with which Mr Ramsay grapples in the novel, of how to think of the world when there is no one there. This is translated into an artistic problem, of how to narrate the passage of time when there is no one there to witness it. Natural time is inhuman. It is destructive and violent and has no concern for human purposes. Woolf’s solution to this problem is to invent a poetic style that, strangely, relies heavily upon the devices of personification and animism. The shadows of the trees šmade obeisance on the wallŠ, šloveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroomŠ, šlight bent to its own image in adoration on the bedroom wallŠ and šin the heat of the summer the wind sent its spies about the house againŠ. It has been questioned whether these devices are successful. It is as if Woolf wishes to fill the emptiness of inhuman nature with primitive animistic entities and malign agencies. Her solution can seem oddly childlike, personification and animism being, as Freud pointed out, typical of infantile thought. The problem illustrates, perhaps, the difficulty of avoiding images of human agency even when they are least appropriate. The first period of critical comment on To the Lighthouse culminated with Erich Auerbach’s book Mimesis in 1946. Auerbach examines šthe representation of reality in Western literatureŠ from Homer onwards. In the final chapter he selects To the Lighthouse to stand as the exemplary novel of the modernist period. Not only does he provide a fine, painstaking analysis of Woolf’s use of multipersonal narrative points of view and of her display of what he calls šomnitemporalityŠ (the coextence within experience of different time frames), he also argues that To the Lighthouse can be seen as a response to the specific character of modern life. The book is seen, along with works by Proust and Joyce, as articulating the key themes of modernity. This work, and also the publication, beginning in the 1970s, of Woolf’s letters, diaries and autobiographical writings, opened up discussion of the novel to a broad range of approaches, so that criticism was enabled to move away from the narrow judgement that it represented merely ša sophisticated aestheticismŠ, set in a very narrow world of upper class privilege and appealing only to a narrow audience, as had been argued by F. R.Leavis in 1942. All of Woolf’s novels, usually in a quiet, non-explicit manner, depict very specific moments in English cultural and social life and are packed with specific reference and authorial comment about them. To the Lighthouse is no exception to this and since the 1980s this aspect of the novel has been much studied. The novel shows English life at a time of historical rupture, of very


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significant social and cultural change. The difference between the Ramsay parents and their children (and Lily Briscoe who is also a representative of the younger generation) is the difference between the Victorian and more modern forms of civilisation. The question of civilisation (what it is and what are the likely forms of its progress) was much debated by Woolf’s contemporaries. In To the Lighthouse the men, who are all professional intellectuals, are anxious about their contribution to civilisation. One great question that the men tend to worry about is the extent to which marriage and family life are necessarily in conflict with men’s ambition to contribute to the advance of civilisation. How can great men devote themselves to their work given the demands and distractions of family life? This question, which the text gently mocks, is taken to be a symptom of these men’s inflated sense of self-importance. Men and women, young and old, are caught up in an anxious debate about Victorian hierarchical society. Education, work, health-care and marriage are among the institutions of Victorian society that are questioned. Even Mrs Ramsay, otherwise rather conservative in her views, feels strongly about the need for social reform. The novel was written in 1926, at the time of the General Strike, a traumatic event in English political life that strongly suggested that reform had been inadequate. The questioning of marriage and more generally of the oppressiveness of conventional gender norms and expectations, was one of the most significant cultural-political aspects of the early decades of the twentieth century. The debate about marriage is at the centre of the novel. It presents a portrait of a Victorian upper-middle class marriage. The patriarchal attitudes and the self-sacrifice and subordination of women on which it was built are critically displayed. The younger women laugh at it or furiously reject it. Lily is relieved to escape it and she resents Mrs Ramsay’s šsimple certainty that an unmarried woman has missed the best of lifeŠ and her high-handed efforts to manipulate younger women into marriages. More recently, feminists and psychoanalytically minded readers have highlighted the subtlety of Woolf’s depiction of the processes of development of gendered subjectivity. Many incidents in the novel illustrate the hazards and obstacles that stand in the way of the journey to so-called šnormalŠ masculinity and femininity. The gendered subject is always in process and is shown to be unstable, unfinished, with patterns of typical anxieties and dissatisfactions. Examples are Mrs Ramsay’s unwillingness to confront clearly her discomfort when she feels superior to her husband; Lily’s sharp ambivalence about passionate love, both desiring it and yet fearing it and recognising its destructive potential; and Mr Ramsay’s combination of a stereotypically masculine forcefulness, in fact even a bullying patriarchal authority, with an embarrassing infantile dependency and narcissistic anxiety. His disciple Charles Tansley, moreover, manifests both contempt and adoration for Mrs Ramsay, women being simultaneously objects of idealisation and derision. Women, in particular, are harshly caught in gender traps. Mrs Ramsay is the object of the male gaze and her beauty inspires rapture; yet she is also treated by men with condescension because her mind suffers, as men perceive it, from an absence of manly intellectual virtues. In other words, gendered subject positions are occupied only with some difficulty and self-doubt. Both masculinity and femininity, in these culturally specific versions,


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are presented as contradictory and unstable constructs. Psychoanalytic readings comment not only on the depiction of gender in To the Lighthouse, but more generally on Woolf’s subtle rendering of the effects of the unconscious. Psychic lives manifest not the conventional patterns of intelligible motivation and feeling, as in traditional realist fictions, but are shown to be riven by strong disruptive impulses. The characters never settle into undisturbed predictability but suffer a constant lack of composure that derives from intense inner, yet alien, forces. Mrs Ramsay, perceived by her family and friends as a figure of wifely and motherly composure, in her inner life suffers from unaccountable episodes of terror, desire and erotic joy. James and Cam are dutiful children, yet they are thrown into turmoil inwardly by the intensity of their feelings for their father. Mr Bankes, a scientist and perhaps the most composed (repressed) of all, suddenly thinks that his friendship with Mr Ramsay has survived the years šlike the body of a young man laid up in peat for a century, with the red fresh on his lipsŠ. This surprising and suggestive image is disturbing, yet it is left without comment. In general, characters are not presented as achieved but as effortful, attempting to evade messages from the unconscious and striving to recompose themselves as they are shaken by strong yet unacknowledged ideas and images. The novel is a brilliant yet unstated presentation of the presence of the unconscious. Another theme that has excited comment is the role of art, represented in To the Lighthouse both by Lily’s painting and by the various stories and poems enjoyed by the characters. The text proposes that fiction gives to its characters ša wholeness not theirs in lifeŠ. Writing, as Woolf herself proposed, brings the severed parts together. To the Lighthouse both employs and unmasks the mythologizing power of love, memory and fiction. The recreation of remembered people both in loving memory and even more in the highly crafted patterns of a work of literature, produce a pleasurable but non-lifelike wholeness, and help us to evade or deny the uncomfortable muddle and confusion of embodied, as distinct from textual, people. To the Lighthouse has been shown to be open to many different readings. There is no single answer to the questions it raises. What is the significance of Lily’s triumphant conclusion to her painting, a line down the middle? What is the meaning of the lighthouse itself, symbolic, but of what? Readers share with the character James the feeling that šnothing was simply one thingŠ and readers’ minds are, like those of the characters, agitated by shifting interpretations. The novel both depicts and elicits the discomfort of unceasing mental activity. It is now read very widely, not just among students and literary scholars but among a broad popular audience. It remains the most popular of Woolf’s novels and is accessible in numerous editions and translations. John Mepham, Kingston University First published 20 October 2001 Citation: Mepham, John. "To the Lighthouse". The Literary Encyclopedia. 20 October 2001. [, accessed 17 August 2010.]


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This article is copyright to ©The Literary Encyclopedia. For information on making internet links to this page and electronic or print reproduction, please read Linking and Reproducing. All entries, data and software copyright © The Literary Dictionary Company Limited ISSN 1747-678X


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