Tuesday, 19 June 2012

To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)

Title: To The Lighthouse
Author: Virginia Woolf
First Published: 1927
This Edition Published: 1999
Published By:Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Source: Own copy
Genre: Classics
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I picked up To The Lighthouse because of a single quote that I read on another blog.
"How life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach"
I thought it was quite simply one of the most moving passages I had read in a long time and I just had to read the whole book. I was however in for a bit of a surprise as I had never read anything by Woolf before nor any other modernist writer and therefore was completely new to the whole 'stream-of-consciousness' style of writing. I will see if I can successfully summarise things up for you.

To The Lighthouse is unique in that there is minimal plot, very little action and the crux of the novel is in the themes and philosophical aspects of the characters. The novel has little dialogue and instead of a main narrator it has a stream of consciousness type effect so the plot is revealed by the minds of the various characters and you learn how people perceive each other, whether those perceptions are accurate or not. This perspective shifts constantly, sometimes one sentence after another and the majority of the book explores the characters' feelings, tensions and interactions. Major plot points are mentioned almost as a side note in parenthesis. A unique approach I haven't seen before.
"And as sometimes happens when a cloud falls on a green hillside and gravity descends and there among all the surrounding hills is gloom and sorrow, and it seems as if the hill themselves must ponder the fate of the clouded, the darkened, either in pity or maliciously rejoicing in her dismay"
Warning *Spoilers* in the next paragraph although to be honest I read some spoilers after finishing the first part because I was worried I was missing things and I'm actually glad I read up a bit on the book before I read it.

There are three parts to the novel. The first 'The Window' focuses on Mr and Mrs Ramsay at their summer house with their children and a group of guests over for a dinner party. This part of the novel explores the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of these characters. The name of the novel is also extracted from this section as their son wants to take a trip to the lighthouse but is unable to do so. The second section, 'Time Passes', jumps a number of years and reveals the deaths of Mrs Ramsay and two of her children and the passing of the first world war. It's a very profound section which highlights the emptiness of the house. The last section, 'The Lighthouse', jumps again as Mr Ramsay, the remaining children and guests return once again to the house. This time focusing on Mr Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, the girl with the asian eyes.

Some of the prose is strikingly beautiful and many of the passages make for profound quotes. Her husband described this book as "a psychological poem" and I think that is a perfect description.
"Would they never come, she asked, for she could not sustain this enormous weight of sorrow, support these heavy draperies of grief"
"Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one."
I think the second section Time Passes captured me the most. With the house in a sorry state of disrepair  and Mrs. McNab the housekeeper exploring the house which has fallen into decay from years of abandonment. The inter-connectivity between sections is incredible too when you pick up on it and it is highlighted in the second section with the description of her shawl, so lovingly cared for in the first section now cast aside.
"Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro."
I also enjoyed how Lily's analysis of her own painting is a reflection on how many of us view our own work and how we are our own worst critics. Lily is constantly fearful that her work lacks any worth. I imagine it's a true representation of how Woolf felt about her own writing and the struggles she had beginning any particular piece.

The novel heavily explores the relationship between men and women both from the relationship of Mr and Mrs Ramsay, the interactions between the unmarried couples at dinner and also with Mr Ramsay's need to extract support and sympathy from Lily Briscoe in the final part of the novel.
"while the women, judging from her own experience, would all the time be feeling, This is not what we want; there is nothing more tedious, puerile and inhumane than love; yet it is also beautiful and necessary."
"For at any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution."
All of this is presented within the most simple structure of family routine and a dinner which is why I was so impressed by it.

This of course is not a book to read curled up in bed late at night (not unless you are looking for something to put you to sleep) nor on the beach in the height of summer. Due to its complex and dense prose it is a book that can make you feel exhausted. But it is a great book for a long winters weekend; a challenge worth the reward.
"A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance."

Read It