Some Thoughts on To the Lighthouse

To the LighthouseI finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. When I was about fifty pages in, I was extremely close to giving up. Woolf writes the first part of the book in limited third person. But the perspective is constantly shifting, and she provides almost no concessions to the reader. So at the beginning, I was reading along seeing things from Mrs Ramsay’s perspective and suddenly… What? When did William Bankes show up?! And I realized that without warning, Woolf had changed perspective to Lily Briscoe.

But after a while, I was able to just flow with it. A big part of it is just getting used to it. The language is quite beautiful—much of it as exact as poetry. So there is always that to appreciate. But about halfway through the first section, many of the characters come to life. Despite myself, because I knew I was doomed to disappointment, I became very interested in the Bankes and Briscoe characters and their relationship. That kept me reading most of all. But my predicted disappointment was not disappointed. Bankes is not in the rest of the novel and hardly mentioned.

The second section of the book is totally different. It is written in third person omniscient. It is very short and Woolf seems to delight in killing off her characters. In particular, Mrs Ramsay dies, even though she was the main character in the first part of the novel. And this sets up the final section of the novel that goes back to shifting perspectives, but in a much more rigid way. In it, Mrs Ramsay is arguably still the main character, since the memory of her hangs over everyone and everything.

It all goes back to Andrew Ramsay’s explanation to Lily of what his father’s philosophical work was about, “Think of a kitchen table then when you’re not there.” So Mrs Ramsay is the kitchen table: we are with her in the first section and we are not in the last section. What’s interesting about this is that the effect of Mrs Ramsay is only implicit in the remaining members of the Ramsay home. It is only Lily Briscoe for whom Mrs Ramsay is explicit. In fact, Lily seems almost obsessed with her.

The novel ends with the Ramsays finally making their long delayed trip to the lighthouse and Lily finally finishes that painting that has been eluding her since the beginning of the novel. And that’s it. Basically, To the Lighthouse is a novel featuring two days separated by a decade. And it is about how that first day affects the second and all the people experiencing it. As to what it means, that is harder to say.

Woolf seems a bit uncertain about it too. On the one hand, long after her death, we see that Mrs Ramsay still has an enormous impact on life. On the other, Lily’s epiphany is that the purpose of her art is the ephemeral feelings of accomplishment at rendering her vision. I suppose that’s about right. Life is both about now and then. In as much as the novel has an opinion on the future—on hope—it is negative.

Throughout the novel, I was sad. This doesn’t seem to come as the result of anything specific. There is just an overwhelming feeling of dread from beginning to end. It’s like beneath the words, Woolf is whispering to the reader, “Soon you will die and all you will have to show for it is the fun you had along the way. And you aren’t having much fun, are you?” To the Lighthouse is distinctly not fun. But I see why it is considered a great novel. It is edifying. And maybe it will help me to have more fun in my future presents.

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