To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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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.

Reviewed on January 29, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I need to reread this one. I read it in 2001 and I didn’t understand (or remember) a word. My only memory of it is of someone painting on a beach and a similar scene was in Jacob’s Room. I found Lighthouse far more difficult than any other Woolf book I’ve read.

  • Yours is the second discussion I’ve read of this book this morning. It sounds like Woolf did a good job at drawing her characters out and making them real. I haven’t read anything by Woolf yet, but this is one that I bought on a whim one day because it sounded good. I imagine I’ll be like you after I read, not sure what it all means. 🙂

  • I read the book a very long time ago and have been wanting to reread it because I did enjoy it. I know what you mean about the suddeness of Mrs. Ramsey’s death. It sounds to me like you understood quite a lot of the book. I like that it inspired you to paint in the quiet. A Room of One’s Own is very different not least because it’s nonfiction. I look forward to what you think of it!

  • I re-read this book about 2 years ago and enjoyed it more than the initial reading. One thing that didn’t register until I read Mrs. Dalloway was how unique each voice and thought are in To The Lighthouse. In reading Mrs. Dalloway it bothered me that all the voices all sounded similar.

    On my summary page of Lighthouse, I posted a quote by Walter Pater that I thought Woolf captured perfectly in the book: “Experience, already reduced to a swarm of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.”

  • You know, I kind of wondered if To The Lighthouse was really about Lily. Consider the last line: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” The last line of Mrs. Dalloway (which I can’t quote since I’ve returned the book to the library), something like, “And there she was,” kind of summed up Mrs. Dalloway. Lily is introduced in such a subtle way, and her character is built up gradually; I seem to remember she’s small in stature, and she’s homely, so, unlike Mrs. Ramsay, she’s easy to overlook. At a certain point, tension begins to build. First, Mrs. Ramsay’s daughters don’t want to be like her, then there’s Lilly’s internal struggle to let go of her adulation of Mrs. Ramsay after Mrs. R. begins to pressure her toward marriage. Lily had a vision, which is represented very modestly in her painting, and she has the last word. Is the book “about” the importance of seeing through one’s vision?

  • I totally agree about section two – I loved the passage of time. She really, for me, capture the feeling of time, it’s filled with things that happne, but most of it is just wind and dust, and people cleaning. It gave me the feeling of the significance/insignificance of people in a world full of things, you know?

    I’m sorry this wasn’t your favorite though – I actually like this book (and liked it it first time I read it) better than Mrs Dalloway, and love, particularly, Lily. And, I think there’s something admirable in the incompleteness of everything – that every resolution you know will be gone tomorrow and have to be remade from scratch. That’s how life is, you know? I love that she could be honest with me about that, without just saying ‘life is worthless, throw yourself out a window’. IT sort of points out the irony in the LAST book that the only person who DOES throw themself out a window is this person who feels like he DOES have a purpose and a guiding principle…

  • You even disliked Lily???? 😉 Just kidding.

    I think you get at two of the really important “points” of the novel, if it has such things: that, as Jason says, every place a person reaches will be gone (or changed) tomorrow, that life is made up of all the little moments in all the little days. And at the same time, that time passes in great swathes, that the person we think of as most important, as the glue that holds everything together, can be swept away unexpectedly, in an instant.

    Thanks for reading along, Rebecca! Your posts are always so thoughtful. I love Lily’s thoughts while painting, also. 🙂

  • I wasn’t a fan at all, but can see how people who love poetic writing can enjoy it.

    I’m amazed that you think this book has a plot – I would be astounded if you claim that! LOL! It is just a couple of scenes, in which we observe lots of nice images, but there is no way it could be described as having a plot.

  • Amanda, it’s interesting because I found it much easier to read but the overall point of it completely escapes me. So I could read it but I couldn’t make much sense of it!

    Literary Feline, I think Woolf is simply amazing at capturing characters through their thoughts!

    Stefanie, reading others’ thoughts tells me I didn’t get it! But I am glad I read it, although I won’t be revisiting it.

    Chrees, I like that quote. Yes, each character seemed horribly isolated in this book. I think that is why Mrs. Dalloway is more of a favorite for me: there seemed more connection between people. Even if their thoughts are all alike 🙂

    Julia, I think that’s why this book confused me: I spent the first 200 pages thinking it was about Mrs. Ramsey! I actually think it’s about a lot of people and how they interact. Maybe about how Lily’s vision is impacted by those around her? Like those sailing to the lighthouse and Mrs. Ramsey (even though she is dead) and that man who always criticized her. Our visions and self-perceptions are constantly changing based on what other people are doing and saying to us.

    Jason Gignac, I really LOVED section 2, even though I hadn’t loved the first section. Interesting points about Lily. I am not sure I loved her. I’d probably have to reread it to “get” her more.

    Emily, yeah, even Lily didn’t grab me. EVERYONE was so whiny in their thoughts. I think that’s how we all are, realisticly, i just didn’t like reading it! Thanks for putting those two thoughts so succinctly! It helps put my own thoughts in perspective.

    Kailana, I’m glad to know there are a group of others reading along. It helped. Come back and talk when you’ve read it! Always up for more discussion.

    Jackie, I think we have different definitions of plot. Certainly, this is not a plot-driven story. I just meant that someTHING happened. They wanted to go to the lighthouse, they didn’t, time passed, they went to the lighthouse. That would be “action” in my book, albeit subtle. Lily’s story is influenced by those events, so I’d say it all ties together nicely!

    Mrs. Dalloway followed a few people around during one day so I’d say it has less of a plot. But I liked it more! I guess it goes to show that there is a book and writing style for everyone!

  • Hmm, perhaps we could re-read the book together sometime (though of course not anytime soon). I do feel that I must go back to it someday and really try to get a good grasp of the story (I think I focused mostly on the style).

    About, your suspicion that “most of us wouldn’t get along very well if we could read each others’ thoughts”, I guess I’d have to agree with you. I think it’s not because we’re easy to get offended nor because we’re naturally offensive, but because (as Woolf’s writing shows) our thoughts naturally flow like crazy. It doesn’t matter if we’re a naturally kind or naturally evil person, our thoughts will contain a plethora of all sorts of things, much of which we don’t actually mean. That’s why mind reading is never meant to be. We humans need to rely on the security of having to speak first before being heard, so that we can also use our God-given wisdom to filter first what’s on our minds before we let it out on our tongue.

    Hmm… you just made me ramble. That means your post is quite thought provoking 🙂 Thanks!

  • Aww man Emily beat me to the punch – even Lilly?!1?;) Coming to a place of satisfaction makes sense to me for the symbol of the lighthouse, maybe also reaching a goal, or significant point in life?
    .-= Jodie´s last blog ..Cover Issues: ‘The Mariposa Club’ =-.

  • I agree with you that To the Lighthouse isn’t plot-driven, Rebecca, but I also think that it has a very obvious plot just expressed in a different manner. It’s not a 19th century novel or a trashy supermarket read kind of plot, though, so I don’t know if those are the sort of things the “this book has no plot” people were expecting. 😀 In any event, I’ve really enjoyed both of the Woolf novels we’ve read so far, despite (like you) not finding a whole lot of agreeable characters in this one. Lili is kind of growing on me after the fact, though….
    .-= Richard´s last post on blog ..El olvido que seremos =-.

  • Mark David, I’m not sure I’m ever going to feel like rereading it, although I know I should. It just didn’t capture me enough to get me excited by that prospect!

    Jodie, I’m surprised everyone thinks I was supposed to like Lily. I thought she was just as annoying as the others in her mind.

    Richard, ha ha! no, I don’t think the people who wanted a plot were looking for a trashy supermarket kind of plot. I wasn’t even necessarily looking for a 19th century novel. I enjoyed it for what it was, as much as I could at least. I need to read more modernism so I can put it in context.

  • Finally getting round to all the posts, after two weeks, ha. 🙂

    Anyway, I love how you tried to define the meaning of the phrase, to the lighthouse. It signifies so many things: hope and disappointment (in James); goodwill and philanthropy (to Mrs R), etc.

    Time passes was also my favourite part, and I agree, so heartbreaking.

    The aura of peace that Lily was giving off signified, to me, Woolf’s finally coming to terms with her own grief of losing her mother.

    I’m sorry you didn’t like this as much as Mrs D. I was the opposite: loved this passionately, whereas I felt a little disconnect with Mrs D.

    So glad to know that you’re joining in The Waves. See you then! Let us know how you get on with A Room of One’s Own as well. 🙂
    .-= claire´s last post on blog ..Moby-Dick Update =-.

  • I enjoyed reading your thoughts and impressions and am so very much enjoying these discussions. I seems to me that Woolf presents an experience, not just a story. I don’t find myself bringing any expectations and just wallowing in what my reactions are versus any ‘seeking’ or ‘getting’. Perhaps that is why I am struggling with explaining anything.
    .-= Care´s last post on blog ..To the Lighthouse =-.

  • Claire not sure I’m going to make it for the Waves after all! But someday I’ll get more Woolf in. And maybe someday I will revisit this one. The more I think about it, the more I want to…

    Care, I like Woolf’s approach and I don’t mind the lack of a “story”! Some times “explaining” things aren’t really necessary!

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