Sunday, June 24, 2007

Random observations on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

  • This novel is set just before and after WWI at the Ramsay’s summer home on an island west of Scotland. Across the bay stands a lighthouse. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their family of eight children host a number of guests, the most significant (to the book) of whom is Lily Briscoe, an unmarried artist.

  • In her notes for the novel, Virginia Woolf expressed her narrative structure by drawing an "H" shape above which she wrote, “Two blocks joined by a corridor.” That’s basically what it is—two longish sections joined by a shorter, expositional, middle one. There’s no plot to speak of, but essential highlights include (from the first section) the tableau of Mrs. Ramsay sitting in a front window reading to her youngest son, James; his wish to go to the lighthouse; Mr. Ramsay’s need of Mrs. Ramsay's comfort and sympathy; Charles Tansley’s insistence that women cannot paint or write; and Lily Briscoe’s attempt to capture and re-present her artistic vision of the Ramsay’s home, of Mrs. Ramsay herself, there in the window. The first section ends with Mrs. Ramsay’s triumphant, unforgettable dinner party—a crafted moment in which she “resolved everything into simplicity.” (This ability to create beautiful moments is Mrs. Ramsey’s art, like painting or writing, and is, in her mind, the only hope of an enduring legacy.)

    The middle section, the “corridor” entitled “Time Passes,” is a brief account of the ten years between two visits to the island. During that time, war breaks out across Europe, Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly one night, Andrew Ramsay, her oldest son, is killed in battle, and his sister Prue dies from complications in childbirth. The family no longer vacations at its summerhouse, which languishes and crumbles in their absence: weeds take over the garden and spiders nest in the house. It’s some of the book’s most beautiful (elegiac) and devastating writing.

    The third and final section of the book focuses on Mr. Ramsay’s return to the summer home, his trip to the lighthouse with James and daughter Cam, and Lily Briscoe’s completion of her painting.

  • This book is written very much in the tradition of modernists like James Joyce, “where the plot is secondary to philosophical introspection, and the prose can be winding and hard to follow” (thanks for saying it, Wikipedia). For this reason alone, I would say To the Lighthouse is not for everyone. If you need plot and drama to hold your interest, leave Virginia Woolf to those who appreciate beautiful sentences, poetic images, and abstract truth-seeking for its own sake. I’ll be the first to admit that reading this book sometimes felt like a homework assignment.

  • The novel is narrated in third person, but not through an omniscient voice. Instead it shifts constantly from the perspective of one character to another. Every word of it is subjective, every detail is seen through the eyes of one or another member of the Ramsay household. Toward the end of the novel, Lily reflects that in order to understand Mrs. Ramsay in a complete way, she would need fifty pairs of eyes—that the Truth rests in an accumulation of many different, even opposing, viewpoints. Woolf’s narrative technique mirrors Lily’s idea. The author’s representation of the Ramsays and their world depends upon the accumulated private perceptions of her characters.

  • Lily Briscoe is what one critic calls a “silhouette” of Virginia Woolf herself. As an artist, she represents the author’s struggle to express her vision—the difficulty of that task and the self-doubt that accompanies it. Whenever the art of painting is mentioned, it’s always alongside that of writing, as in Charles Tansley’s awful, obsessed-over mantra that women “can't paint, can't write” and in the idea of art as a permanent legacy: “Nothing stays, all changes; but not words, not paint.” In the end, Lily determines that completing the painting, regardless of what happens to it (it may be hung in an attic, stuffed under a couch), is the most important thing. She finishes it in the exact moment that Woolf ends the book, and her project mirrors Woolf’s in the way it synthesizes different perspectives to arrive at a more balanced and complete portrait of that world.

  • The beautiful Mrs. Ramsey—good, kind, intelligent, sensitive Mrs. Ramsay—is a portrait of the author’s own mother, and Mr. Ramsay, perhaps to a lesser extent, is her father. Woolf considered the book a success when she received this response to it from her sister Vanessa:

    "Anyhow it seems to me in the first part of the book you have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do. It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up & on equal terms & it seems to me the most astonishing feat of creation to have been able to see her in such a way -- You have given father too I think as clearly, but perhaps, I may be wrong, that isnt quite so difficult. There is more to catch hold of. Still it seems to me to be the only thing about him which ever gave a true idea. So you see as far as portrait painting goes you seem to me to be a supreme artist & it is so shattering to find oneself face to face with those two again that I can hardly consider anything else. In fact for the last two days I have hardly been able to attend to daily life."
  • The publisher’s notes describe this book as “giving language to the silent space that separates people and the space they transgress to reach each other”—and it's an accurate description. To the Lighthouse is about how we so often only know the outline of a person, not the whole in all its complex detail. It’s about people in the act of observing other people, wondering what goes on inside their heads, trying to understand the discrepancy between what they are doing and saying and what they are actually thinking and feeling. There’s a wonderful scene in the first section—in fact the only scene where we see Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay alone together—in which he observes her in a moment of introspection. He sees a remoteness, a sadness in her, feels hurt “that she should look so distant, and he could not reach her.” Too, he seems to want to protect her from that sadness. She lets him draw her out of it, as a gift to him. Their conversation meanders over topics both trifling and significant. Each of them can sense what the other wants, yet both are fully aware of the chasm between them. They make small gestures to bridge it, saying what they know will please the other, knowing they are only making gestures, not building bridges, and the distance remains. It’s a sweet-sad moment between two people who love and are frustrated by each other, and I think it's an accurate portrayal of married life.

And that’s about all I’ve got in the way of random observations.