Describing the plot of a Virginia Woolf novel is self-defeating. I’ll go ahead anyway and perhaps you’ll see what I mean:
“A family on summer vacation thinks about visiting a lighthouse. The mom and kids want to go and the dad doesn’t want to go. Meanwhile, some friends come over for dinner. Fast-forward seven years. A few people are dead. Now the dad decides he wants to go to the lighthouse after all.”
It’s no real wonder that, while incredibly famous in her own right, Woolf never became the “cozy” kind of female British writer that Austen, the Brontës and her predecessors were. She is famous, in fact, because she shook things up a bit. And while To the Lighthouse will probably never spawn a legacy of TV dramas, it is worth reading at least once for its original and sometimes startlingly beautiful use of language as well as innovative narration style. For Woolf is an author of events at the micro level, unfurling things in real-time and flitting from one character’s head to another like an all-knowing, all-seeing moth. The point is not what happens in the story so much as how she tells it.
In the opening scene we are introduced to three immediately distinct characters: Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, and their youngest son James. Mrs. Ramsey announces to James that “if it’s fine tomorrow” they will take a trip to the lighthouse. Six-year-old James feels an extraordinary elation at the news and both his thoughts and sensations are “crystallized and transfixed in the moment.” Not only do we know James’ feelings and sensations, we get a picture of them:
James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling – all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he already had his private code, his secret language…
Whereupon the imposing Mr. Ramsay strides over and sours the mood by flatly announcing, “But it won’t be fine.”
This is a classic example of Woolf’s stream-of-conscious storytelling style that she employs throughout To The Lighthouse. It consists of bits of simple outward, actual events and dialogue acting as bookends to hold together the characters’ interior existence. In this way we get to know the entire troubled yet sympathetic cast of To The Lighthouse, all characters who understandably have problems with each other because, well…no one quite understands (or tries to understand) anyone else. Welcome to life.
First in order of introduction are the Ramsays, an outwardly successful family of ten who may not be quite so content as they first appear – at least not the parents. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (significantly, we never are given their first names) have a difference in education and social roles rather typical of a turn-of-the-century couple, leading predictably to a number of misunderstandings and an understandable degree of self-pity on both sides. Mr. Ramsay is a successful philosopher and scholar paranoid of fading from prominence and memory after he dies. Morever he struggles to be an academic and a family man at the same time (read: sometimes he’s not very nice to his family). To outside observers he has sacrificed “all those glories of isolation and austerity which crowned him in youth to cumber himself definitely with fluttering wings and clucking domesticities.” (Gotta love Woolf’s descriptions). On top of it all, he gives Mrs. Ramsay a rather hard time by pressuring her with his needs to be continually validated, appreciated and loved.
Mrs. Ramsay is an interesting mixed bag of a character. While she is outwardly a staunch defendant of old Victorian values and especially of marriage inwardly she is becoming mildly depressed by existential issues such as death, inequality and sense of purpose in life. She spends much of her time visiting poor people in town, armed with a notebook and pencil for jotting down reflections,
In the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem.
When she is not “elucidating the social problem,” she is becoming drained from continually giving and mediating in all the family affairs – yet she feels it’s worth keeping the peace – to the point she can’t bring herself to tell her husband that his greenhouse pet project is too expensive for the family budget. While certainly sympathetic, Mrs. Ramsay is one of those characters ripe for a book discussion about to what extent one is responsible for one’s own actions and feelings. Her presence continues to linger in the other characters lives’ even after she has physically departed, and it’s safe to say she makes a pretty powerful impression on the reader as well.
Meanwhile, some of the Ramsay daughters and a young neighboring friend, Lily Briscoe, are beginning to resist the old-fashioned ideals that Mrs. Ramsay keeps stuffing down their throats. Lily in particular is in a sensitive situation as she is past thirty and still single. She feels intensely Mrs. Ramsay’s sentiment that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” In spite of this Lily is determined to focus on the thing that makes her happiest: her painting. If there is one character identifiable with the modern reader, it is Lily – but even so that does not mean she is the most dynamic one. There is Charles Tansley, the often-insufferable (and secretly insecure) intellect, and also the much more even-keeled William Bankes, the widower botanist who takes an interest in Lily’s paintings and opinions where most everyone else fails to and manages to win her trust.
As I declared from the beginning, trying to wrangle a plot-line out of To The Lighthouse is more or less futile. Wrangling a theme (or two or three) is a different matter. The novel is fertile ground for topical discussions, but the only one I want to highlight right now is that of male-female relationships, especially when it comes to differences in education and social expectation.
Any generic feminist can quickly latch on to the fact that To The Lighthouse is full of criticism and commentary of traditional Victorian values and gender roles. But to see the novel as that simply, and fail to appreciate the development of the individual characters would be a desecration. Mr. Tansley, obnoxious though he can be, is also lonely and awkward. It’s hard not to blame him for feeling stifled and bored while sitting at the dinner table while Mrs. Ramsay carries on about mundane trifles. Likewise the much more likeable William Bankes would also rather be at home with a book than at social gathering with discordant personalities, however delectable the food may be. Even Mr. Ramsay who is too hard on his wife can be understood for experiencing frustration with her lack of logical thinking and educational refinement.
The end result is that a disparity in background and interests as well as societal pressures are responsible for these differences in how men and women get along – or rather fail to get along, whether they are married to each other not. Indeed, Lily Briscoe’s sentiment is that of all human relationships, “the worst (if it had not been for Mr. Bankes) were between men and women.”
While it’s tempting to blame patriarchal men for the overall problem, Woolf hints that it’s not as simple as that – women like Mrs. Ramsay, after all, can perpetuate such culture. Really, all the characters are in a way the product of their circumstances, even as some of them (such as Lily and the Ramsay children) are beginning to break the mold. The empathetic view that Woolf takes of her characters is rather reminiscent of Middlemarch, that work of genius by George Eliot. Woolf herself was a great admirer, and has said that Middlemarch is “one of the few novels written for grown ups.” Perhaps that explains why being a “grown up” person dealing with existential issues and trying to get along with other grown ups is such a forefront theme in this novel.
While the stream-of-conscious writing style and comma-dense paragraphs may not be quite as accessible as Middlemarch’s simpler narrative, To The Lighthouse is certainly a rich novel in terms of human nature. I will admit there were more than I few times when I wondered, “Are they ever going to reach the damn lighthouse?” For a relatively short book, it demands its pages be read carefully – I had to read the opening chapter several times before things started to click. The abrupt shifts in points of view and leaps forward in chronology can be jarring. But if you stick it out you’ll be rewarding with interesting character development and beautiful language. As for the lighthouse itself – well, there’s this old cliché that comes to mind: “Focus on the journey, not the destination.” Read Woolf word-by-word, paragraph-by-paragraph, and you will arrive at your destination before you know it.