At their second home on the Isle of Skye, the Ramsay family surrounds itself with friends and colleagues. They contend with World War I, family deaths, and hardships both spoken and unspoken. All the while, the lighthouse looms in the distance. Six-year-old James asks his father to take him there, but many years will pass before the voyage begins.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reviewed January 28, 2014
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.
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.
The grumpy Mr Ramsey, an academic genius, spends all his time pacing the garden poking hedges while internally angsting about not being a ‘Z’. The rest of the time, he’s a pitiful attention-seeker. His grand wife is in awe of him, yet consumed by her own vanity (when she’s not staring at mundane things and thinking how they are like other things). Lily, a young family friend, takes ten years to decide where to paint a line on her canvas and so is doomed to a single life. Everybody else is equally nuts. For the first half of the book we float from the daydreams of one oddball to another while a book is read to a child, the father wanders about annoying people, people look out to sea, a girl loses a ring, then they all have dinner.
Reading Woolf is a particular experience. You have to go with the flow. Once you get used to it, it’s an immersive, dreamlike ride. Addictive. It’s one of those books you want to keep on your shelf because you *know* you will revisit it. Her skill is such that it ought to be compulsory reading for writers. I hope I’m able to somehow learn from it. To use Mr Ramsey’s alphabet metaphor of accomplishment, Woolf is probably an ‘X’ or ‘Y’.
There were times, however, when I wished the thought patterns, voice and vocabulary were more distinctive between the characters. The six year old boy’s thoughts were as eloquent and sophisticated as his parents. It also took me a while to realize it was Mrs Ramsey who had gone upstairs to check on the children after dinner, and not Lily.
The short chapters of the central second part of the book are so exquisite they read like a series of sublime poems.
The writing of Virginia Woolf is not to everyone’s taste, but everyone ought to have a taste of it, and give it time to develop on the palate.
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.
I should very much like to see Lily Briscoe's painting.