To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

publication date: 1927
pages: 310
ISBN: 0-15-690738-0

Wow. I was reading this book for forever. And I am still trying to untangle its meaning. To the Lighthouse was a challenge, although it was worth the time. Part of the challenge was Woolf didn’t provide much help concerning the meaning and purpose of the book. Although that could be my failing because I am not acquainted with modernist writing; the only similar author I’d read before this was Joyce.

To the Lighthouse involved the Ramsay family and their beach house on the English countryside. At the beach house were Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, and various guests. The Ramsay children and their father attempt to get to the lighthouse across the bay. Not much of a plot, but it’s safe to say the plot is not the point.

Although I’m comfortable saying that the plot is not the point, I don’t quite know what the point was. Several things jumped out at me, however. First, I think some of Woolf’s purpose was showcasing the English language. She created many intriguing phrases, with unusual word choice, interesting tense, and changing viewpoints. The following passage, which was seemingly a mundane conversation between Mrs. Ramsay and a friend, is a long example:

“Let’s go,” he said, repeating her words, clicking them out, however, with a self-consciousness that made her wince. “Let us go to the circus.” No. He could not say it right. He could not feel it right. But why not? she wondered. What was wrong with him then? She liked him warmly, at the moment. Had they not been taken, she asked, to circuses when they were children? Never, he answered, as if she asked the very thing he wanted; had been longing all these days to say, how they did not go to the circuses. It was a large family, nine brothers and sisters, and his father was a working man.

A second aspect of the book that jumped out at me was Woolf’s focus on her characters’ inner monologues. The external aspects of her characters did not seem important to Woolf. Accordingly, her characters did not do much; they mostly walked, ate, sat, and painted. However, although the characters were not involved in much action, they still created drama as expressed through their inner thoughts. Another long passage illustrated this (this is only one fraction of a very long paragraph):

Only she thought life – and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes – her fifty years. There it was before her – life. Life, she thought – but she did not finish her thought. She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance. There were the eternal problems: suffering, death, the poor. There was always a woman dying of cancer even here. And yet she had said to all these children, You shall go through it all.

I wanted to include these long passages in this review because that is basically what the book is: long passages that don’t really move forward a plot or define a character. It is a bit of a slog. However, Woolf rewards the reader by creating beauty out of the English language and reminding us that so much of the human experience occurs in reflection and introspection.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book:

New York Times
Medieval Bookworm
The Blue Bookcase

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