Friday, 29 January 2010

To the Lighthouse

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have
a central line down the middle of the book to
hold the design together. I saw that all
sorts of feelings would accrue to this but I
refused to think them out, and trusted that people
would make it the deposit of their emotions - which they
have done, one thinking it means one thing another another.
I can't manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalized way.

So said Virginia Woolf of her novel To the Lighthouse. "[O]ne thinking it means one thing another another" is the essence of the Woolf in Winter read-alongs, where we read a Woolf novel (or two, or three, or all four) and "make it the deposit of [our] emotions". To say what Woolf means is reductive, I find, and I approach her emotionally; I savour her beautiful prose and I connect to the words, the representative -as opposed to symbolic- images and the tone. I don't read Woolf to understand but to appreciate; her books are not the type that are easy to review and I'm not going to attempt to but give my impressions instead.

Starting in medias res, Mrs Ramsay tells her son, James, that they will go to the lighthouse tomorrow if it is fine; a page later Mr Ramsay says that it will not be fine and by the end of the first volume they do not go to the lighthouse; in the third volume, years later, James and his father and his sister take a boat trip to the lighthouse. A basic premise, the lighthouse itself signifies nothing but is representative of so much emotion and history; the first volume, 'The Window', is a glimpse into one day of the Ramsays' lives and those of their guests; the lighthouse is one single memory (of various people) acting as a cohesive idea holding it all together. With its occasional twenty-seven line sentences containing such resonant images of beauty, "so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again", the stream-of-consciousness 'The Window' volume was by far my favourite and a reminder of why I love Woolf.

To the Lighthouse is an elegy to Woolf's parents and contained in it is such a sense of palpable, heartrending grief and pain. At many points, I found rage in the tone, in the pounding of the waves (the recurrent water imagery of Woolf at play), and the bitterness of the characters. There is a violent potency to the masculinity presented in the novel, a hyper-sexed desire to produce and a fear of barrenness and failure, and the calming, maternal, female influence at its centre; To the Lighthouse is a precursor to Woolf's feminist polemic, A Room of One's Own and in it I see a man who is lost without the strength of his wife and the feminist Lily Briscoe who rails against Tansley's accusation that as a woman she cannot write or paint, both lost without Mrs Ramsay and one finding her way.

I read "The Fisherman and his Wife" by the Brothers Grimm, the story Mrs Ramsay read to James, in an attempt to find some illumination; I wonder if the tale of a bullying, greedy wife who railroads her husband was arbitrarily chosen or is another of Woolf's representations ... can it be reduced to the age-old phrase that behind every great man there is an equally great woman?

Structurally I found the first volume the strongest and I preferred its style; I would have enjoyed To the Lighthouse more -as opposed to enjoying the first volume and appreciating the second and third- if it had all been in the stream-of-consciousness style of the first but, as it was, the technical 'Time Passes' stunned me in its beauty and mastery and 'To the Lighthouse' resolved the novel for me. It wouldn't be Woolf though if it was a simply an enjoyable novel, something profound is always at work and I come away wowed. Of the Woolf in Winter choices, To the Lighthouse was the one of the four novels that I hadn't yet read and had always wanted to; I also intended to read it for my Bucket List and for the Women Unbound challenge. It has been some time since I have read any Virginia Woolf and I have missed her; I am now wondering where to now ... do I reread Orlando for the next volume of the Woolf read-along or do I attempt one of the three novels of hers I have not yet read, the early The Voyage Out and Night and Day or the later The Years? Alternatively I could read A Writer's Diary or the Hermione Lee biography, both of which I have only dipped in and out of so far.

The Woolf in Winter discussion for To the Lighthouse is being hosted by Emily today.

Some favourite passages:

For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon country, uninhabited of men.

Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.

It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life - the drawing-room; behind the drawing-room the kitchen; above the kitchen the bedrooms; and beyond them the nurseries; they must be furnished, they must be filled with life.

She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover.


verity said...

I've never really read much Woolf, but after reading everyone's reviews of this I really want to give her another try, starting with this one, due to my love of the seaside. I think the cover of your edition is wonderful.

jess said...

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Your comment that you found "rage in the tone, in the pounding of the waves (the recurrent water imagery of Woolf at play), and the bitterness of the characters" was very interesting. I had not noticed that rage but it seems apparent after you said that. It was also interesting that the emotional/intllectual trials that so many of the characters face are counterpointed by Mrs. Ramsay's disillusion in the goodness of the world, which she turns with her remembrance of happiness and constant action.

JoAnn said...

Loved reading your thoughts, Claire. I found, through Mrs. Dalloway, that my approach to Woolf is emotional, too ... just enjoying as the words and sentences flow around me. What talent!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post Claire. I have decided me and Ginny are 'on a break' so am off to see some other authors for a while. I am going to come back to Woolf though but more on a whim than on a deadline and maybe something shorter too.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, Claire. It's been a while since I read Woolf - my last attempt was Orlando, last year, and I didn't finish. As I said to someone else, I get on best with Woolf if I read her books in one sitting, and just immerse myself in it. I can't really appreciate it when I'm picking it up and putting it down mid sentence as invariably happens when I'm travelling, and with the sound of London commuters all around me.

The Voyage Out is very good and rather different to her other stuff - it reads like a conventional Edwardian novel. Which is, for some, a good thing, and for others, not, I suppose. The Hermione Lee bio is also excellent. I want to read more of the later Woolf - I have Between the Acts on the TBR pile and I really want to read it soon.

claire said...

Claire.. Like you and JoAnn, I've come to approach her emotionally, too. Cannot possibly do it any other way.

The second part was my favourite because it was such a surprise, completely unexpected. I had to read the first few pages of that volume over again after I got to the part about Prue getting married and then Prue dying, to finally understand that it wasn't only a day like the first volume was.

May I ask how you liked The Waves? I understand it's one of the least favoured of her books. Which ones of those you've read is your favourite? I want to read everything by her now. I might start with her Selected Letters and Selected Diaries after the Woolf in Winter.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I bet you could guess that this wasn't for me! I thought that she wrote beautifully, but I like something to happen in a novel. I don't think I've ever read a book in which so little happens - it is a good job there are so many different books in the world and we can all enjoy different ones!

Laura said...

Lovely review, Claire. I like how you read the fairy tale -- that adds an interesting dimension.

Literary Feline said...

I really like the idea of approaching a book emotionally--but then, I suppose that is often what I do, being an emotional reader. I haven't yet read To The Lighthouse, but the more I read the discussions today about it, the more intrigued I become.

Emily said...

"the lighthouse itself signifies nothing but is representative of so much emotion and history" - I love this line! So aptly expressed. The "reality" of the novel lies in the characters' subjective experiences, which is something that really resonates with me. I love the way the impressions of the anonymous sleeper going down to the beach "searching for answers" changes with the changing times in "Time Passes": during the war, for example, no answers are to be found. Lovely, lovely post! I agree that Woolf is an author from whom everyone takes something different.

Jodie said...

Yes that's exactly right, there are multiple ways of reading this book, (as there are with most books, but this one has more possible interpretations than others I think)but it's very much a book everyone has their own version of. I do wonder if that's due to Woolf's own confusion as a loving wife, committed feminist, artist who needed her alone time, part of a big social set...and she puts in parts of everything so we can see her own stream on conciousness thoughts just as we see her characters go from one position to another.

Loved it and was especially glad to have it turn out so readable after bad times with the scond half of 'Orlando' a while ago. I fancy the diary myself after reading a few snippets in the introduction.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it wouldn't be a Woolf novel if it was simply enjoyable! I struggled a little bit with this one, but in the end, as you say, I was wowed. Woolf asks a little bit more from you, but she will reward you in return.

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I love this cover; it makes you want to take a walk on the beach, doesn't it?

Hi Jess, thanks for commenting. I found Mrs Ramsay's disillusion weighty and touching; her comments that the children would never be so happy again were so poignant, especially when it turned out to be a prescient truth.

JoAnn, it's a very different reading approach, I find, that one must take towards Woolf but it pays off and is so rewarding!

Simon, I think taking Ginny slowly is the best thing; reading for yourself, as opposed to a deadline, will offer better results, I think.

Rachel, I like your approach of reading Woolf in one sitting and I may have to try that. I found Between the Acts very dark but really liked it; it made quite an impression on me and reminded me of "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield.

I think I'll attempt The Voyage Out next.

Claire, 'Time Passes' was such a shock and so very well done; those first few pages were indeed disorientating.

The Waves is difficult, frankly. I studied it and had to prepare presentation for it so it wasn't the easiest reads; I'd be interested to see how I find it years later but my copy is at home so I can't do that for the read-along. I adore A Room of One's Own and with her fiction, so far, it would be a tie between Orlando and Mrs Dallloway.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I'm not surprised at all that Virginia Woolf wasn't for you. My reading is so varied and eclectic that I don't mind nothing happening every once in a while, in fact sometimes I relish it (a bit like life, in that respect).

Thanks, Laura, I thought reading the fairy tale added an extra dimension too (I'm a huge fairy tale fan too, so that helped!)

Literary Feline, it's difficult not to be intrigued when so many people are discussing the one book. I love being an emotional reader! Woolf definitely affects the emotions, which is one of the things I love about her.

Emily, I found the anonymous sleeper part so surreal yet affecting! Very much like a surrealist painting, you can envisage a night-gowned sleeper walking the beach...

Jodie, I agree with your thoughts that the different versions are all made up of Virginia Woolf's own different versions. Claire of Kiss a Cloud put it beautifully in her review of Mrs Dalloway when she described it as Cubism - Woolf's writing is seeing different things from different angles but being unable fully to see it as a whole.

What I have so far read of her diaries is fascinating!

Sarah, I fully concur with that sentiment! She is undoubtedly worth the struggle and pays dividends.

Rebecca Reid said...

Very interesting that Woolf didn't want it to mean anything in particular. My problem was that as i read I was looking for the meaning. And not finding it.

It wasn't my favorite just because I thought it was rather pointless. Apparently, she wanted us to make up our own point. And that isn't my favorite way. I liked Mrs. Dalloway more, did Woolf ever comment on her point? I thought there were several about life.

Anyway, thanks for this review.

Frances said...

This is also an emotional read for me despite the fact that I have read it six times now. It has undeniable emotional force, and leaves me in periodic tears every time. Probably not cool to admit that.

Appreciate your observation about where rage may be found in the novel especially in the waves. Speaks to the ebb and flow of life as not just the gentle rocking but also as something of great power occasionally capable of various forms of violence.

Great post! Thanks so much for reading along, and I hope to see you on the 12th for Orlando.

Anonymous said...

This book sounds fantastic, and I love the second passage you've quoted. Absolutely love it. I wish I'd read it as part of Woolf In Winter... Oh well, next time....

PS : I had the Vintage cover of Mrs. Dalloway, but the Penguin covers are gorgeous.

Karen said...

I love how you describe that you approach reading Woolf emotionally - that is so true. I have discovered this in my reading of her work too a real change in my reading style but I am loving it!

Amy said...

The Voyage Out was the first Woolf I read, and it's not as amazing as Dalloway or Lighthouse; probably best read as a "look where she started." Plus, it marks Mrs. Dalloway's debut. :-)

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, I can understand your frustration; sometimes I am too intent on "what does it mean?" that it detracts from my enjoyment, which is why I always go into Woolf not expecting a meaning. Did she have a point? From my reading so far I haven't found any comment except for not meaning anything by the lighthouse itself. It was certainly a meditation on art and the muse, I think.

Frances, how lovely to have an intense emotional response upon each reading!

My thoughts on the violence and rage of the water were prompted by your mention of water in Mrs Dalloway; I do like to chart the connections between her novels and the continuous themes.

anothercookie, I love that passage too and I was tempted to quote the entire page! It's an interior monologue of Mr Ramsay looking at his wife, one of a few, and so tender.

I adore this cover; the colours are so perfect for the novel as it seems to be taken at dusk, through a hue...

Karen, I don't think I could read her any other way; I always have to get into that particular mindset for Woolf and she's quite alone in that respect.

Amy, I am intrigued by it, for it being her debut but will lower my expectations. I also own Melymbrosia, which is a manuscript that was later toned down and turned into The Voyage Out.

Care said...

Thank you for including the thoughts of VW on what this book might 'mean'; I enjoyed all your ideas in this post. I am so looking forward to more Woolf - emotional, indeed.

Paperback Reader said...

Care, my blog has actually moved to


Anonymous said...

i have rasearch about feminism in To the Lighthouse .. can someone help me ??