Although To the Lighthouse is told in a similar stream-of-consciousness manner as was Mrs. Dalloway (reviewed two weeks ago), it struck me as different, and I’m not sure why. Was there more plot? Maybe. Was it the setting (the Hebrides versus London)? Maybe. I do know that as I read, I was less emotionally drawn in to the characters, and I found myself disliking all of them (yes, all of them). As I read the thoughts of each character, I found it to be incredibly realistic. I was in awe, once again of Woolf’s ability to capture the mental process of such a variety of fictional people. The fact that I didn’t like any of the people once I could listen in on their thoughts was telling: I suspect most of us wouldn’t get along very well if we could read each others’ thoughts!
Although I’m glad I read To the Lighthouse, I can’t say I’ll ever revisit it. I am looking forward to reading others’ posts today, though, because as with the other Woolf novel I read, I think I missed a lot! This post is a rambling collection of my thoughts about the book, and if you’ve also read the novel, I’d love to hear your thoughts too. What did I miss?
Because I read this book as a part of the Woolf in Winter read-along (hosted at Emily’s blog today), this post and the comments may include spoilers as a part of the discussion of the book.
When I suggest To the Lighthouse has a plot, I feel a bit taken aback because I struggle to specify what that plot would be. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa was preparing for a party. That seemed clear to me from the beginning.
In To the Lighthouse, on the other hand, it’s not as easy to pin down, despite the fact that it seems more things are happening: James wants to go to the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsey is busy sewing and preparing things, Minta and Paul get engaged, James and Cam and Mr. Ramsey go to the lighthouse, Lily paints a picture (actually, two pictures). But despite the action, none of those things seem to be the key to the “plot” of the novel. How does it all tie together?
As I read the first part of the novel, I thought it was about Mrs. Ramsey. Although I didn’t particularly like her character, her thoughts seemed to drive the “action” of the novel for the most part. Her thoughts were the majority, it seemed. Yet, suddenly, she was dead (just like that) and the novel was only half way through. I was startled and felt a lump in my throat at the thought. Oh no! That couldn’t be! She was the tie.
And so maybe she was still the one who tied them together. Of course James and Cam don’t have a good relationship with their volatile father, but it is the memory of a tradition of visiting the lighthouse that drives the action here, and that is reminiscent of their mother. The last section seems to focus often on Lily’s thoughts, and Lily’s thoughts are of her pleasant memories of Mrs. Ramsey, a woman she did, but didn’t, like because Mrs. Ramsey caused her to feel guilty. Lily did, but didn’t, wish she was married, and Mrs. Ramsey’s preoccupation of marriage is something that Lily does, but doesn’t, remember with fondness. Lily’s confused about what she wants.
It was unclear to me if Lily was happy in the end. I think she kept going in circles, and the painting was just one example. Although the book ended with her satisfied, I suspect she’ll find the painting the next day and decide it’s horrible and go through similar thoughts again.
So what does “to the lighthouse” mean? I also don’t know the answer to that, but maybe it means coming to a place of satisfaction. For Mrs. Ramsey, it was not ever telling her husband that she loved him (and yet, he knew). The next day, she’d probably be frustrated with him again until she got her way again. Lily’s satisfaction was being satisfied being herself: a single woman who painted pictures (even if they’d end up in attics). For James, it was getting a compliment from his father. The next day he’d be just as frustrated again.
My favorite part was section two, where time passed so rapidly. It was heartbreaking to suddenly be removed from the house after having been so intimately in the characters thoughts (which were about the books, the wallpaper, the window, and so forth). I also loved the language in that section.
I also enjoyed the last section, as Lily painted. As she painted, I found myself wanting to paint as well. This is quite amusing to me: I am not artistic in that way and I cannot capture things by drawing or painting them. (Give me a computer and I could create something, if need be, though.) Yet, there was something so relaxing about reading Lily’s thoughts as she painted. It seemed so tranquil, like the sea James was on. This was a contrast to the stormy sea and child-filled house of section one.
Conveniently, this week, in the evenings, before I relaxed into Virginia Woolf, I have been painting in my home (continuing the project I started at Christmas time). Instead of listening to an audiobook or music, I just painted in silence and let my thoughts run. It was very relaxing! I think it’s a lesson in the need for personal meditation: not reading, not listening to music, not talking. Just thinking. Virginia Woolf reminded me of that.
As I said above, I’m not sure I understood the book, but I’m glad I’ve experienced the modern novel and I look forward to trying more in the future. I’m planning on reading A Room of One’s Own (on my own) in two weeks and I’ll rejoin Woolf in Winter in a month with The Waves.