“That was the country he liked best, over there; those sandhills dwindling away into darkness. One could walk all day without meeting a soul. There was not a house scarcely, not a single village for miles on end. One could worry things out alone. There were little sandy beaches where no one had been since the beginning of time. The seals sat up and looked at you.” p 64.
I began reading To the Lighthouse about a month ago, with the expectation that it would be a difficult read. Written in Woolf’s characteristic stream-of-consciousness style, with no real plot and a lot of introspection, it sounded like a nightmare. But I was inevitably drawn to it, for the challenge, for its praise, and for my fascination with Virginia Woolf’s prose.
I’m 19 years old. The wonderful Margaret Atwood also read To the Lighthouse for the first time when she was 19, for an English course on the “The Twentieth Century Novel”. To put it lightly, her first impression was somewhat similar to my own:
“Why go to the lighthouse at all, and why make such a fuss about going or not going? What was the book about? Why was everyone so stuck on Mrs Ramsay, who went around in floppy old hats and fooled around in her garden, and indulged her husband with spoonfuls of tactful acquiescence…Why would anyone put up with Mr Ramsay, that Tennyson-quoting tyrant, eccentric disappointed genius though he might be?…And what about Lily Briscoe, who wanted to be an artist and made much of this desire, but who didn’t seem to be able to paint very well, or not to her own satisfaction? In Woolfland, things were so tenuous. They were so elusive. They were so inconclusive. They were so deeply unfathomable.” – Margaret Atwood 2002.
So it’s easy to see why some people begin to read To the Lighthouse, and put it down in baffled disinterest. A WTF attitude, if you will. To be honest, I read the first 40 or so pages of the book then didn’t touch it for weeks. A change came with my visit to the UK, my birthplace. It took a few weeks of time by the sea, amid hedges and rugged coastline, and fields of wildflowers, and suddenly I was in a headspace to tackle this violently vivid world Woolf had conjured. A very impractical and expensive way to get in to a novel, but I digress.
The main challenge of reading To the Lighthouse is that it reduces plot to a minor thing, a wandering subtext to an omnipresent introspection. This internal monologue meanders, and can jump between the perspectives of several characters in a single page, making the narration difficult to follow. There is close to no dialogue, and action is near absent. And yet somehow the excessive description (with which the overflowing Woolf often resorts to listing), the cascading stream of thought, and the constant ebbs and flows in narration, become a world in which you bask.
One feels the frailty of life, above all else, is presented in this novel. Woolf’s mind must have been a constant storm of knowing this, knowing above all the frailty of life, and trying to capture it in words. She presents the struggle in Lily Briscoe. Her obsession with creative perfection, especially as a woman, is potent. Through Lily is expressed a constant frustration with the societal limitations of women, and Mr Ramsay’s claims that they “can’t paint, can’t write.” (p 152) This reflects Woolf’s era and her own challenges as a woman in the arts. They share a need to capture life, to immortalise it in art, but are also restricted by the time in which they live. Meanwhile Mr Ramsey’s obsession with his work, and need for constant validation in this field, is something he is consumed with. It is important that the journey to the Lighthouse is put off for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Only when everything has changed, and much has been lost, do the Ramsey’s make it to the Lighthouse. Life and death dwarf the prejudices and obsessions that frame our lives, but in daily life are dwarfed themselves.
And even if the themes and psychological undertones go completely over your head, the writing in this book is extraordinary enough to keep you turning the pages. It baffles me how any human being can so perfectly capture in words the depths of human experience. They are a constant hum in this novel. The chatter of thought, of the sea, of love and hurt and the wind through leaves stain every page with a multitude of colours.
The result is oddly enveloping. To the Lighthouse is a landscape painting. The clarity and preciseness of its images are captured in a prose that is as elegant and sure as an experienced hand on a new paintbrush. If you can suffer through the disconcerting first few chapters, and accept that it is not a book to get through and follow plot point by plot point, but a painting to bask in and consider in its entirety, then there is a beauty to be found in the pathless pages.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse, Vintage, London, 2004.
- “What she called ‘being in love’ flooded them. They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love. The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them…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.” p 43.
- “It was getting late. The light in the garden told her that; and the whitening of the flowers and something grey in the leaves conspired together to rouse in her a feeling of anxiety.” p 56.
- “And there he would lie all day long on the lawn brooding presumably over his poetry, till he reminded one of a cat watching birds, and then he clapped his paws together when he had found the word.” p 89-90.
- “She read and turned the page, swinging herself, zigzagging this way and that, from one line to another as from one branch to another, from one red and white flower to another.” p 111.
- “It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself.” p 59.
- “The words…sounded as if they were flowers floating on water out there, cut off from them all, as if no one had said them, but they had come into existence of themselves:
And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be
Are full of trees and changing leaves.” p 102.