What does one send To The Lighthouse?


Often considered Virginia Woolf’s most autobiographical novel and definitely her most successful, ‘To The Lighthouse’ was published by 1927 and is set on the Isle of Skye. It is said to be based (whether loosely or not depends on which interpretations you believe are stronger) on her earlier life and her own family holidays to St Ives in Cornwall.

The novel starts with Mrs Ramsay telling her son James that he can go to the lighthouse the next day, but her husband Mr Ramsay quickly puts this suggestion down. From the outset, this exchange presents the theme of relationships as significant. The Ramsays are joined by a number of friends and colleagues and the section ends with a big dinner party with all of them there.
Ten years pass by and the circumstances of the Ramsays and their friends change substantially and the focus moves away from Mrs Ramsay and more towards the young painter Lily Briscoe who comments on events ten years on and finally Mr Ramsey’s trip to the famed lighthouse.
More of a philosophical or psychological exploration than anything else, I found the actual story was rather lack-lustre and in some parts non-existent as the philosophical side tends to dominant throughout. When I think about this, I am largely thinking about the main ‘character’ Mrs Ramsay who is killed off half way through the book with no explanation at all:
“Mrs Ramsey having died rather suddenly the night before”.

Having said this, if I turn to admire the novel for what it is, a philosophical exploration, I cannot help but admire what Woolf achieves with her ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative style. The novel is made up almost entirely from observations and thoughts about characters and life in general from the perspectives of other characters such as Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe- all without the presence of a detached narrator to carry the story along.
The thought processes fluidly segue into each other, allowing for some sense of continuity to the flimsy plot and makes the process seem very realistic. Woolf writes these thought processes in such detail, even including interruptions to thoughts, that it makes it seem, in my opinion, very life-like.

For example:

“He had friends in all circles… Mrs Ramsay had to break off here to tell the maid something about keeping food hot. That is why he preferred dining alone.”

This stream of consciousness style is something that is strongly associated with modernist writing and works of Woolf have come to define the period. To The Lighthouse was so successful at the time because it broke away from the traditional style of writing that had come before and was even different to other approaches to the ‘stream of consciousness’ style! It has since become the comment of much literary criticism because of this unique style and the links between the novel and Woolf’s own life.

I would certainly recommend reading this novel, though don’t expect a gripping plot or an easy read. As you will finish reading it disappointed. And also probably confused.

Until next time!

Photo taken from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Smeatons_tower_-_Plymouth_Hoe.jpg Author: Herbythyme Date: 25/03/10


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