To the Lighthouse (Harbrace Modern Classics Series)

by Virginia Woolf

Hardcover, 1955

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

Harcourt, Brace & World (1955), Edition: Reprint

Description

At their holiday home in Cornwall, a distant lighthouse holds a haunting attraction for the members of an Edwardian family as disillusionment, turmoil, and a world on the brink of war plague the family's relationships.

Media reviews

How was it that, this time, everything in the book fell so completely into place? How could I have missed it - above all, the patterns, the artistry - the first time through? How could I have missed the resonance of Mr Ramsay's Tennyson quotation, coming as it does like a prophecy of the first world war? How could I not have grasped that the person painting and the one writing were in effect the same? ("Women can't write, women can't paint..." ) And the way time passes over everything like a cloud, and solid objects flicker and dissolve? And the way Lily's picture of Mrs Ramsay - incomplete, insufficient, doomed to be stuck in an attic - becomes, as she adds the one line that ties it all together at the end, the book we've just read?
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"To the Lighthouse" has not the formal perfection, the cohesiveness, the intense vividness of characterization that belong to "Mrs. Dalloway." It has particles of failure in it. It is inferior to "Mrs. Dalloway" in the degree to which its aims are achieved; it is superior in the magnitude of the aims themselves. For in its portrayal of life that is less orderly, more complex and so much doomed to frustration, it strikes a more important note, and it gives us an interlude of vision that must stand at the head of all Virginia Woolf's work.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ChocolateMuse
Time is less important than its moments. This novel is a kind of impressionism in words – the passing shadow, the flickering of light, evoking a change in thought or feeling. A memory or mood arises and transforms everything like (or because of) a cloud sweeping over the sun. Physical things are as transient as a wave on the beach. Intense moments suddenly distil and become the past. Woolf is writing about such moments as these, while large-scale events – death and war, marriage and ageing – happen in the background. It’s like entering a painting by Monet (or maybe by Lily Briscoe?) and experiencing that captured moment – not only its light and colour, but all its manifold complicated associations of thought and emotion and memory and desire and rejection and longing. And the cloud shadows sweep over it all, and the waves fall onto the shore. Time passes. The book itself has the quality of a vivid memory. Reading it is like meeting a memory, and thinking about it afterwards is a kind of memory of a memory, only more brightly coloured.

“Think of a kitchen table when you’re not there” – Mr Ramsay’s studies in ‘subject and object and the nature of reality’ are all through the book itself, especially in Time Passes, the section where we watch the slow decay of an empty house, from the slow swinging of a shawl as it comes loose, to the eventual invasion of thistles and toads coming through the floor – and in parentheses as swift asides, we learn of drastic events in the world and of the characters who no longer inhabit the house. This section is beautifully written. The book is worth reading for that alone. We can feel and experience the gradual draining away of meaning as the house lies empty for longer and longer. Its very stillness is a character of force.

(Mr Ramsey is so worried about whether or not his work will last – and yet his whole work is about the nature of reality itself, and the more we think of it the more everything starts to unravel).

There are thousands of voices and impressions here, as in life: voice upon voice weaving in and out, until one loses grip on the individual parts and suddenly, for a moment, one sees a greater whole… and then it’s gone and we’re back to the individual parts again. All those fragments have been swirling around – impressions, thoughts, the loving and repelling of people – and then right at the end there’s a brief, tiny moment of clarity. The painting is complete. And for what?
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
This classic Virginia Woolf novel is such a "mood piece." Comprised of three major sections, To the Lighthouse is predominantly a portrait of the Ramsey family and its influential, beautiful matriarch. Most of the "action" (and I use that term loosely) takes place at a summer home off the coast of Scotland. Part 1 is a "day in the life" of Mrs. Ramsey, whose house is chock-a-block with visitors. She is a constant presence, caring for the youngest of her eight children, keeping a watchful eye on her moody husband, meddling a bit in young romance, and ensuring both timely, well-prepared meals and the general happiness of her guests. The tempo is slow, the imagery evocative, the overall feeling ethereal.

Part 2 is a short section called "Time Passes," in which the next ten years unfold in factual narrative. And yet this section, which unveiled a number of significant Ramsey family events, had a surprisingly emotional impact. This was followed by Part 3, with the Ramsey family once again at their holiday home, picking up the pieces of a life gone somewhat awry. The youngest children, now teenagers, accompany their father on a visit to a lighthouse near the island. They are filled with teenage resentment, pent up over years of somewhat tyrannical paternal rule. Their emotions ebb and flow like the waves lapping at the side of their boat.

And what happens, exactly? Not much. And yet, somehow, I was entranced by this family's life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach (p. 47) This is a book best read, and re-read, and savored to glean new details and insights each time.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
As I've grown older, I've realized that Woolf is a pleasure best left for later in life, after the sheer novelty of experience has been burnished (or worn, depending on who you are and what's happened to you) into a soft, many-sided glow. Novels like Woolf's aren't the arduous, look-at-me fantod-inducing flummoxifiers that Faulkner (a favorite of mine, don't leave me messages about my philistinism!) shoved at us; they start, they don't commence; they flow with you or without you, they don't drag you along, barely above the frothing surface of the torrent of words*burp*Joyce*burp*; they move without undue fanfare from person to person, from place to place, and they never demand (or care, if we're honest) whether you're there or not.

I guess it comes across that I'm a fanboy. Well, I am, so what?

This is the novel Woolf considered her finest, though I don't agree with that assessment, being a partisan of Mrs Dalloway for that title. I think she felt it was her finest because she was so much in it; it was a means of exorcising the ghosts of growing up in the Stephen household. It's set in the same place that the Stephens spent their summers, and most of the events are identical to events in Virginia's young life. I am glad that the book succeeded, artistically and psychologically and materially; but I don't find in it the sheer, rapturous joy that I find in Mrs Dalloway.

But it's not for everyone. Leave it alone until you're at a point in life where your own memories are soft and rounded; while they're sharp and painful, Woolf won't be likely to find room in your head to spread her soft cotton blanket of story.
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LibraryThing member AlisonY
This novel has quite simply surpassed just about everything I’ve ever read in terms of truly capturing human relationships. Mostly split between two periods, the novel firstly takes us through a pre-WWI snapshot of the Ramsay family and friends at their holiday home on the Isle of Skye, at a period when Mr. Ramsay’s light is shining brightly as a philosopher, and the eight children are still in the clutches of childhood. Whilst Mr. Ramsay dominates the household with his moods and vain emotional neediness, Mrs. Ramsay is the quiet strength that pulls the family together, relentlessly working to smooth out the creases of everyone's lives. She sees herself as unimportant compared to the significance of her husband and his work, yet as the book develops we see so clearly how she impacts the lives of the people in the house far beyond the human reach of Mr. Ramsay.

The third person narrative is split between the perspective of some of the family and house guests, and the plot of the book is essentially the observation of the human condition. Each of the viewpoints layer vivid observations of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in particular, which combine superbly to depict how different people can have such disparate opinions of a person. For me this was one of two standout achievements of the novel - in most books the same side of a character are depicted through different narrators, but this novel so successfully depicted how beauty is so very much in the eye of the beholder.

The second way in which the book blew me away was through very thing I thought I’d abhor - Woolf’s stream of consciousness style. It took a while to get used to, but I found it resonated with me most unexpectedly, especially in the first part of the novel. I really connected with Mrs. Ramsay’s ‘internal chatter’ as a wife, mother and woman. I’m sure it’s not necessarily a good thing that many of Woolf’s autobiographical thoughts spoke to me, but I just “got" where she was coming from with many of these musings. For example, I too have looked at my young children absorbed in the happy straightforwardness of their childhood and wondered how ‘real’ life will turn out for them (yes, alas I am one of life’s worriers).

There is a short middle section to the book which I won’t comment on as it would spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, and then the third part of the book observes a snapshot of some of the group’s life on another day in the island some years later, post WWI. Again, this just brilliantly captures human nature, especially how a seemingly innocuous exchange with a child can stay with them for life, and how people often struggle to be the person they want to be. Perhaps, even more poignantly, how we often struggle to show people our truly good side even though it’s there deep within us, and how many of us need a certain person to make us truly shine. In this section of the book the children are now grown up, and Woolf applies her lightness of touch to demonstrate how life’s people and happenings shape our characters.

Although fairly short, this novel took me quite a while to read as I found I had to have near silence to absorb myself in it. Normally I quite happily read away whilst my husband has the TV blaring at full blast, but Woolf’s prose was so profoundly beautiful I needed to take in every word.

If any of us are afraid of Virginia Woolf, it’s perhaps because she captures life with an alarming honesty. An absolute definite 5 star read for me.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
This one has been too long waiting, like the children for their trip to the lighthouse. And, like the children, when they finally got to go, I approached it with mixed feelings and a little reluctance. It's one thing to love, love, love a difficult work you've known for 40 years and read multiple times with increasing understanding and appreciation. It's another to take on a new one, by a relatively unfamiliar (to me) author, and find an affinity. Virginia Woolf has lingered in the background of my literary experience, a bit of an intimidating presence, but no one ever forced me to reach out and take her hand. I'm quite glad that I have now done so, but I wasn't wrong to be trepidatious. Some scholar has probably counted the number of point-of-view shifts in this book; they come, usually, just as the reader is settling into one character's mind, and starting to feel comfortable there. The book is mainly about impressions, perceptions, images, and imaginings. There is virtually no plot. A few major life events are given parenthetical nods ("you need to know this happens, but you don't need to see it happen"). The setting is compelling--an island in the Hebrides, a shabby house, lawns, gardens and vistas of the open sea. The people are quite ordinary, with a few oddities among them, just like the people you know. The whole is a sum of the parts...a rather unexpected, but absolutely correct sum. This is a novel I am sure to return to, as there is simply too much to take in in a single reading.

Reviewed January 28, 2014
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LibraryThing member DLSmithies
I've read this and Mrs Dalloway, and I've fallen in love with Woolf and her distinctive style - the way her narrative flits between characters like a fly on the wall that can see inside people's minds is so absorbing. I especially liked the dinner scene for that reason. There was also lots of musing about time, sort of Proust-lite (very lite!), and also lots of division, mainly between male and female perspectives but I think it was a general motif - which called to mind E M Forster, all of whose novels seem to be about some sort of irreconcilable diametric opposite. And Woolf's prose is just gorgeous - I love the rhythm and the interruptions and repetitions. Thumbs up from me!… (more)
LibraryThing member kvanuska
A book should always be permitted a good soak in one’s intellectual juices before being reviewed. That’s one of my personal “Review Rules.” Too often I feel overwhelmed upon finishing a book or swept away by an ending or the prospect of parting from a close friend, and that leaves me gushing about a book rather than looking at it critically and really assessing its value as an addition to the world’s literature library.

I’m breaking all the rules with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. A cold eye and heart would strip this book of its power. And if you want that kind of assessment, there’s an excellent one by Julia Briggs in the introduction to the Everyman’s Edition of this novel. To the Lighthouse is a book that’s meant to be felt, not simply read. The rhythm of its narrative needs to wash over and pull you down into it. Once submerged, what might have begun as a “difficult read” becomes second nature. I became so lost in each character. One moment I despised them and found dinner interminable, the next I was loving Charles for feeling so angry at their small talk, and so lonely all at the same time. I’ve soooo been there are dinner parties – not getting the drifts, but wanting to be there in the middle anyway. There were pieces of myself that I was finding in Lily and Mrs. Ramsey and Charles and James and Mr. Ramsey, in all of the characters, and I knew them all as much, or as little, as I know myself. The “Time Passes” section is so brilliant in structure and how it carries us through the difficult times, like the boat that in the end brings us to the lighthouse. I can’t wait to re-read this book – because I must. I know that I will find something completely different to love about it next time.
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LibraryThing member dczapka
What can be said about To the Lighthouse that hasn't already been said far more eloquently than I ever could hope to? While perhaps not Virginia Woolf's highest achievement -- I have a soft spot for Mrs. Dalloway myself -- it is like that earlier work a landmark in the history of high modernism and the history of the novel itself.

From the very first page, Woolf immerses the reader in her radical style and approach: long, flowing, Proustian sentences that weave themselves around small events and snippets of dialogue. Never content to let the words speak for themselves, Woolf explores in great detail the mindsets of her characters, giving a level of interiority that is at once illuminating and almost overwhelming. Whether it is James's shocking anger, Lily Briscoe's consistent lack of confidence, or the unsettledness lying beneath Mrs. Ramsay's calm, collected exterior, each character is given more depth in his or her small portion of this slim volume than many authors can give to a single character of their own.

As if an intensely stream-of-consciousness novel didn't already imply this, Woolf's pacing is masterful and her use of time is, to be ever so slightly redundant, radical. "The Window" and "The Lighthouse," each of which take place over a single day, bookend the short interlude "Time Passes," which in 20 pages spans over 10 years and, in a simple and understated way, gestures towards the futility of human life in the face of the unending march of time. Yet the remainder of the novel puts so much emphasis on the everyday, the commonplace, that we never believe that Woolf finds any of these acts useless in the grand scheme. Rather, she manages to find the beauty and the significance in the smallest of acts, and draws them out with skill and pathos.

I could go on at further length, but the fact of the matter is that, like with Mrs. Dalloway, there is nothing that can be told about To the Lighthouse that cannot be more clearly understood by simply reading it. It is intense, it is engrossing, and it is intimidating -- but it is also worth every minute.
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LibraryThing member Hera
This novel exasperated me. Rather than be stuck at home doing housewifely things, I'd have rowed the boat myself. End. Of. Book.
LibraryThing member TheBookJunky
This was an unrelenting richness that I could enjoy only in small segments before feeling overwhelmed.
I should very much like to see Lily Briscoe's painting.
LibraryThing member andreablythe
On its most simplest level, To the Lighthouse deals with the kind of meandering hours spent at a summer house on an island and the desire to make an excursion to the lightouse. The story meanders in an out of the concerns and dreams and hopes of the people there, pivoting aroung the central focus of Mrs. Ramsay, who holds everything together. One of my favorite moments is the dinner scene, in which Woolf graceful shifts from one character's point of view to the next, revieling the tapestry of human emotion (in one instance, three character simultaneously think themselves unique in how alone they feel). It's a beautiful book and I can see why it's on the Modern Library's list of 100 Best Books.… (more)
LibraryThing member jnwelch
In To the Lighthouse, set on the Isle of Skye around the time of the first World War, 6 year old James Ramsay wants to go to the lighthouse, and has his mother's support, but his father says the weather will be bad and precludes their going. Family friend Lily Briscoe, unwed in her 30s, wants to paint, but doubts her ability, and is told by visiting Charles Tansley that women can't paint. These are two of the principal conflicts in this low key short novel. Will James overcome his domineering father and some day get to the lighthouse? Will Lily overcome her doubts and be fulfilled in her impulses to paint? Will the other characters, like Tansley, step out of the shadows of the overweening Ramseys and successfully lead their own lives?

Mrs. Ramsay is beautiful, charming and headstrong, with an obsessive desire to see others married. She is an avid admirer of her even more headstrong husband, who is accomplished and valued in his philosophical field. She is patient and benevolent, he is rude, quick-tempered and all about himself. Both fill the rooms they are in and leave barely enough air for others. Only the successful poet Mr. Carmichael avoids their effect and simply eats and drinks at their expense. The others are torn between admiration and resisting the influence.

Part of the genius of the book lies in Woolf's giving us the interior perspectives of all the characters. We get to know Lily's passions and longings, Charles' frustrations, James' enmity toward and similarities to his father, as well as the views of peripheral characters like James' sister Cam, who is pulled toward both her brother and her father. The other part of the book's genius is the gorgeous writing.

"Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms, the arrow-like stillness of fine weather, held their court without interference. Listening (had there been anyone there to listen) from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the winds and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason, and mounted one on top of another, and lunged and plunged in the darkness or the daylight (for night and day, month and year ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and and wanton lust aimlessly by itself."

Gorgeous, and also quite dense in the reading. I ended up with respect, not love, for this one. It made me think of Proust, with beautiful writing and not much happening. In the midst of such talented writing, it seemed sacrilegious to long for a shot to ring out, but long I did. Four stars.
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LibraryThing member hilllady
Fifteen years since I've read this book. For that long I've diligently moved it from household to household, unpacking it with all my other books on its proper shelf and packing it up again, and I've thought of it fondly, a book of my youth, worthy of respect. But, as the years passed, that regard came to contain a measure of trepidation: to take it up again would be such a commitment, such a weight, because it's Woolf, and not only do her sentences twist and take unexpected turns that force the reader's concentration merely to establish subject, object, verb, but the weight of them, collectively as sharp and true as any surgeon's scalpel, cutting to the reader's heart—well, it's hard to volunteer for that every day, when so many more comforting books are calling. But yesterday I picked it up, who knows why? I've been on a diet of Alice Munro and Sherman Alexie, lately, and some echo there maybe made me think of Mrs. Ramsay. And now I'm in. How amazing, the surge of emotion this story provokes across such a span of time, from its very first sentence, or, more specifically, from the brutal transition from that second paragraph—"To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled..."—to the third: "But," said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, "it won't be fine." And what other writer can use the phrase "odious little man" with such wicked compassion?… (more)
LibraryThing member kambrogi
Woolf takes us through the complex stream of a middle-aged woman’s consciousness during one day, as she enjoys her vacation at a summer home with her eight children, philosophy-professor husband, and a diverse selection of guests, young and old, mostly single and lonely. The only event of note is a proposed trip to the Lighthouse, which is discussed, cancelled and eventually concluded. Along the way, we receive a compelling portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, and of those who revolve in her orbit, with the point of view handed off constantly between characters to the people and their world with prismatic clarity and equal complexity. The book takes an unusual turn about halfway through. It moves forward ten years to conclude with another day and a backward-looking reexamination of characters, played out once again through their thoughts, but without Mrs. Ramsey. Typical of Woolf, it is deep, thoughtful and psychological in nature, and all the world is contained in a very small periphery of action.… (more)
LibraryThing member lucysmom
I think this is my favorite book ever. Woolf writes like an Impressionist paints, capturing a moment in time with words.
LibraryThing member caanderson
What a treat to read a masterpiece. I love the way Virginia Woolf writes weaving the story through the thoughts of each character. The silence of her characters held by unspoken rules and expectations they live their lives on the edge of what’s expected of them and what they want to question.
LibraryThing member lissabeth21
I feel like I need cliff notes and a college level lecture on this one. There was just so much going on in this...every sentence heavy with meaning and infused with hidden feeling. The inner lives of Edwardians who perhaps grew up in the Victorian era...so repressed and filled with the expectations of society, struggling not to be themselves, but to even find themselves in the first place.… (more)
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Virginia Woolf takes a seemingly insignificant disagreement about tomorrow's weather and turns it into an analysis of human character and relationships. Woolf shifts perspective often, revealing each character's thoughts and feelings through a stream of consciousness technique. The Ramseys and a few guests are at a summer home near the sea, and Woolf uses the sea's movement as a metaphor to describe the thoughts, emotions, and interpersonal relations of the characters. The book is divided into three sections. By the end of the first section, Woolf has given the reader a pretty good idea of how some of the characters influence the others. The middle section provides a bridge to the latter section, where Woolf explores the effects of the absence of characters from the first section on the remaining characters.

Although I've read only a handful of stream of consciousness novels, I'm fascinated by the technique. Done well, it really does mirror the activity in my own head. I'm an introvert, so I tend to spend a lot of time there. I'm not sure that this technique will appeal so much to extroverts. I think stream of consciousness novels may be books by introverts for introverts.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I found it frustrating to read, as little actually occurred in the book, with the content made up almost entirely of the leisurely musings of the English upper-class. On the other, I enjoyed the thoughts on art and I liked seeing the character of Lily grow into a more confident artist. I had some inner laughs at Mr. Ramsay, who in the second half of the novel finds himself in a difficult place without his wife to consistently praise him and his work. I did find the style in which this book was written, the focus on perception without much dialogue or action, difficult to read and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is wary of those writing styles.… (more)
LibraryThing member Chris_V
A beautifully sustained work of imaginative fiction as Virginia Woolf goes back to her own childhood memories to tell a non-linear story of a prosperous family holidaying on the coast. The second section of a house slowly aging is almost a stand-alone work.
LibraryThing member perlle
To the Lighthouse is a book without a plot. There is no action, hardly any dialogue, and it is so full of characters and points-of-view it is very hard to follow. But these strange elements also make the book astonishing. The book is a microscopic view of what “goes on in peoples’ heads.” It illustrates how thoughts often conflict with words and actions. On top of that, Woolf makes a heartbreaking point about relationships and time. So much is wasted; so much is taken for granted and if people cared more and worried less, it might not end up that way.… (more)
LibraryThing member Esquiress
This is another work I am glad to have under my belt. The writing style was fascinating. Having only read some non-fiction and Mrs. Dalloway previously, I felt like I really learned something during my reading.

I'm not sure if it's that I have a lot on my mind at the moment, but I found myself losing track of sentences throughout my reading. Sometimes the sentence structure was very convoluted and difficult to follow, which, I'm pretty sure, was intentional or at least part of the book's stylistic choices. This style kept my brain active throughout the reading, which I count as a good thing.

The text moves in and out of characters' heads, which was cool but also sometimes confusing. I think this is what contributed to the convoluted nature of the sentences I mentioned above.

Overall, this was a positive reading experience. I am glad to have had such an experience.
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LibraryThing member danimak
At times really beautiful with tremendous insight into human psychology, but dense and hard to wade through. I had to go back and re-read passages constantly, and the book sat on my desk for weeks at times because it felt more like studying than reading for enjoyment, and because there is little plot line that makes you want to pick up the book to find out what happens next. Ultimately the exploration into the psyches of the characters resonated with me and was rewarding. It'll be a while, though, before I embark on my next Virginia Woolf novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member PatsyMurray
The language is so beautifully evocative. The careful echoing of the longer first section, which allows the reader to meet and understand the Ramseys and Lily Briscoe in particular, with the concluding section where Lily (the artist) is forced to come to terms with what it all means is balanced by the much briefer middle part. That section is where we learn of the events of the painful period of Mrs. Ramsey's death, World War II and the passage of time. It functions as a sort of intercession for both the reader and Lily, allowing us to gain perspective (almost without realizing it) on how "we perish, each alone." Such a very powerful book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Layabout
A profoundly moving exploration of time and memory and loss. Woolf's remarkable prose, deeply sorrowful and of pristine beauty, remains unsurpassed in English literature. The middle section, Time Passes, is particularly affecting. This novel merits reading again and again.

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