To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse is written in very much the same style as Mrs. Dalloway, the only other Virginia Woolf novel I’ve read. In both, the action is sparse, as the books are really more about the inner lives of the characters as they reflect on themselves and the people they know.

I found both books rewarding in some respects—mostly because I find it interesting to try to better understand the psychology of people and their interactions, which is very much what Woolf focuses on—though also sometimes a slog to get through due to my not being fully in tune with the writing style (which is an ornate style, heavy on metaphors and long descriptive passages). Perhaps because I was more used to the style the second time around, I feel like I was modestly better able to stay focused reading To the Lighthouse than Mrs. Dalloway, but overall I’d assess the books at about the same level.

To the Lighthouse is divided into three sections: The Window, which is by far the longest; Time Passes, which is a short interlude, a transition from the narrative of the first section to that of the third; and The Lighthouse.

The events of The Window take place just before World War I. The setting is a summer home on a Scottish island. The Ramsay family (a father, mother, and eight kids) has been joined on holiday by a handful of friends. I don’t think the ages of all the kids are provided (some of them have little role in the story), but I believe the youngest, James, is 6, and I’m guessing the oldest is late teens or early adulthood. Mr. Ramsay is a philosophy professor, and the guests seem to be mostly fellow academics, graduate students, artists, writers, poets, etc.

Though many characters receive significant attention in the book, if there is a central character it would have to be Mrs. Ramsay, the 50ish matriarch of the family.

My sense is that most or all of the other characters feel somehow more connected to her—admire her, are attracted to her, are intrigued by her, rely on her, love her, feel protected by her, idolize her, have fondness or affection for her—than to anyone else, at least anyone else in this group. She’s the hub and the others are spokes; she’s the sun whose gravitational force keeps them all in place.

Not that she’s presented as some sort of perfect being. She’s said to be still quite beautiful for her age, but that’s like saying someone in their 50s is a very good golfer for their age—that’s fine, but it’s not exactly Jack Nicklaus in his prime. She’s tolerably intelligent I suppose, but doesn’t stand out in that regard (especially in this intellectual crowd of academics and poets and such). She mostly carries herself with confidence, but she has her regrets and moments of self-doubt. She’s a nice person who generally gets along well with people, but there are occasional superficial conflicts, or moments when she is disappointed in someone or someone is disappointed in her, or when someone develops some low-level resentment of her.

But mostly she has certain people skills and certain intangibles that draw people to her, as if they sense that she can give them something—something different for each of them—that they need. (In my struggles to try to figure out how to word what I’m trying to say, I suddenly have The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme running through my head—“Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?…—though then again, Mary was notorious for throwing unsuccessful parties, which is the antithesis of Mrs. Ramsay.)

Mr. Ramsay is a published academic, an independent and confident person—to a degree. Underneath it all he has certain doubts about the lastingness of his work, and ambivalence about how smart he really is, how much he’ll ever really come to understand the areas in which he is working or the world as a whole. And while things aren’t perfectly smooth between husband and wife—there are moments of awkwardness where they don’t even know quite what to say to each other—she understands and accepts his weaknesses, his foibles, and in her way provides the kind of emotional support he most needs. He may be a highly respected intellectual, successful in his career, an experienced man of the world, etc., but it’s evident that he is dependent on her, on their relationship, in certain crucial respects.

We don’t see a great deal of her interaction with her children, but the one that we see her with the most is little James. Whereas Mr. Ramsay has little ability to do and say what would make James feel happy, comforted, and safe (by way of illustration, a significant part of this section of the book—The Window—has to do with James really looking forward to an excursion in a boat to a nearby lighthouse the next day, which the realist Mr. Ramsay—with an almost Asperger’s-level lack of awareness of the emotional effect his words have on his son—shoots down by frankly stating that the weather will almost certainly preclude that, which makes James feel hurt and angry, feel an emotional separation from his own father, and even feel rudimentary homicidal impulses toward him), Mrs. Ramsay—in classic mom fashion—always seems to know just how to hold and speak to James to provide the kind of loving support he craves.

There are other characters who maybe have a crush on her, and some who accept her matchmaking guidance in steering them toward a possible mate for marriage. The budding painter Lily Briscoe, who is trying to establish some confidence as an artist—a task made more difficult when some of the other guests either fail to understand what she’s trying to create or cruelly dismiss the very notion that women can be artists of any importance—clearly loves and idolizes Mrs. Ramsay.

In fact, Lily is attempting a painting of a quintessential mother-and-child moment between Mrs. Ramsay and James. That’s a relationship that stands out to others present as well, including the botanist William Bankes, of whom, in one of the passages from To the Lighthouse that I most enjoyed, Woolf says, “The sight of her reading a fairy tale to her boy had upon him precisely the same effect as the solution of a scientific problem, so that he rested in contemplation of it, and felt, as he felt when he had proved something absolute about the digestive system of plants, that barbarity was tamed, the reign of chaos subdued.”

The second section of the book—Time Passes—marks an abrupt change from the first. The third section is about another holiday at the summer home ten years later, with Time Passes functioning as an explanation of what happens in that intervening decade.

It’s far from simply a conventional recitation of relevant events, however. About 95% of the section instead consists of long, long, descriptive passages of the physical deterioration of the summer home, which has fallen into disuse. The effects of wind and rain beating on the house year after year, the gradual incursion of more and more insects and rats, the very slow rotting of wood, the sincere but wholly inadequate efforts of an elderly caretaker woman to arrest the process, etc., etc. are meticulously, poetically described in ways that somehow evoke the deterioration of a human body, of relationships, of life. There’s a real sadness and inevitability to it all.

It’s a fascinating contrast in the perception of time. The first section of the book covers about one day. It’s so compressed that it conveys a sense of “This is the way life is,” which I’m sure is especially how it feels to the children. I think the younger you are the less of an awareness and an expectation of change you have. Your parents feel like they were always grown-ups; people, places, things, you yourself, aren’t becoming but simply are.

Then the second section of the book tears us away from this sense of timelessness. Whereas the first section spends 122 pages covering one day, the second section spends 20 pages covering ten years.

The second section is all about the passage of time, all about change, with the emphasis on changes for the worse. Interspersed amongst the 95% that depicts the summer home gradually falling apart, the other 5% gives terse updates about the people, often set off in brackets. It’s almost all death and negative stuff. World War I and a worldwide influenza pandemic had occurred in those intervening years, so not exactly happy times.

So it’s, say, three or four pages of long, languorous sentences about doors banging in the wind, paint fading, the house creaking as it settles, the roof developing leaks, whatever, followed by two brief sentences in brackets stating how so-and-so died.

Finally we come to the third section—The Lighthouse. More folks have joined the elderly caretaker in cleaning and fixing up the house, and it has been restored to some semblance of its former glory. But much of that is illusion, based on patchwork repairs. While it has been saved from utter destruction, really it is well short of what it once was.

And as the Ramsays and their guests gather, we understand that that is true of them as well: they are well short of what they once were. This holiday will not and cannot recapture the past.

For all the honest description of its imperfections, that holiday in the first section still had a somehow idyllic aura to it. When the children—and for that matter the adults—think back on the most cherished moments of their past, I suspect summer days like that will feature prominently.

In contrast, there’s a grimness about the holiday described in the third section, a sense that those present are struggling through some darkness.

While the other deaths, pain, and assorted tragic events described in the Time Passes section have surely had their effects and left their scars, what immediately becomes apparent is the massive hole in these people’s lives that is constituted by the absence of Mrs. Ramsay. For she is one of those who died.

As apparent as her importance was when she was present, her absence makes it even more obvious. The hub is gone, the sun is gone, the survivors are floundering.

Death and grieving are different for different people. Some find that the attempts to console them, the “I know how you feel”s, the other clichés, the expressions of empathy that may or may not be sincere, are insufferable and only make things worse. Others derive comfort from such things.

Mr. Ramsay, who received—and greatly needed—the support and reassurance provided by his wife, finds that her death has only increased that need. He craves people, especially women, consoling him, sympathizing with him, acknowledging his loss, pitying him, expressing their concern for him.

In one of the most striking scenes of the book, Mr. Ramsay and the artist Lily Briscoe encounter each other on the beach, and Lily immediately senses this need in him. And though she wants to give him what he is implicitly begging for—as she genuinely cares for him, plus she shares his pain in that she is one of the people who has been most hurt by the death of Mrs. Ramsay—she cannot find the words, and the awkward moment passes, to the dissatisfaction of both of them.

Mrs. Ramsay always knew what to say to bolster a person’s spirits or to give them whatever else they needed; now we see what it’s like for people who don’t have that trait, and who no longer have her to cover up for their lacking it.

James, now 16, his sister Cam, one year older, Mr. Ramsay, and a couple of other locals do finally take that trip to the lighthouse. But it no longer represents some sort of treat or thrill, as again we see what happens to people who lack certain relationship and communication skills, when there is no Mrs. Ramsay to subtly build bridges and smooth things over.

It appears that over the years James’s resentment and emotional distance from his father has, if anything, only grown, and that Cam has some of that too, albeit probably not as much. James feels like his father gives him no praise or emotional support, and he is quick to take whatever his father does say to him in the most negative way. Mr. Ramsay seems too lost in his own pain to be aware of the fact that this whole time in the boat the sulking James and Cam are making eyes at each other and affirming an unspoken pact to not soften and implicitly forgive their father for his beastliness by being affectionate and cooperative with him, and you just know that if Mrs. Ramsay were there in the boat with them the whole atmosphere would be different.

My experience of Mrs. Dolliver, and I would say to a somewhat greater extent with To the Lighthouse, is that while reading them was at times a chore, and I didn’t feel very in tune with the style, didn’t think I was getting more than a modest amount out of them, I feel better about them in retrospect. I’m pleasantly surprised how much they made me think, how much of them I remembered after finishing them, how much I had to say about them when I sat down to write these essays on them—again I think this is a bit more true of To the Lighthouse.

I don’t want to overstate that; I still haven’t gotten anywhere near as much from reading Woolf as is possible, or as many readers get from doing so. I wouldn’t place her among my favorite novelists, and I don’t know whether I’ll read more by her in the future.

But I see my experience with these books as support both for my willingness to sometimes read books that are “classics” or are supposed to be “good for you” even when I have low expectations of enjoying them or getting much out of them, and for my having the self-discipline each time I complete a book to spend some time reflecting on what I read and forcing myself to articulate those thoughts as best I can in these essays.

Being open-minded about books that don’t immediately strike me as my cup of tea and giving them a fair chance, and then writing about them after I’ve read them, sometimes turns out to be beneficial for me, even if only to a modest degree, and I think To the Lighthouse is an example of that.


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