An introduction to To the Lighthouse

An introduction to To the Lighthouse

Focussing on Virginia Woolf’s representation of time, consciousness and the rupture caused by World War One, Professor Kate Flint reveals how To the Lighthouse is a carefully structured, psychologically complex novel that ultimately asks the reader to reflect on their own ever-changing experience of being in the world.

To the Lighthouse, which Virginia Woolf published in 1927, was her fifth novel. In her two previous works, Jacob’s Room (1922) and Mrs Dalloway (1925), she had already tested readers’ expectations about the nature of fiction. In them, as in To the Lighthouse, the centre of consciousness shifts from one character to another, and from their perceptions of the external world at any given moment to their inner life, their associations and memories. As Woolf wrote in her 1921 essay ‘Modern Fiction’, she wanted to show how ‘an ordinary mind on an ordinary day’ receives and organises ‘a myriad impressions’. She abandons the neat ordering of life into fictional chapters, and sidelines the usual staples of novels – marriage plots, death bed scenes, coincidences and suspense. The overt story of To the Lighthouse, indeed, is slender. It is set on a Hebridean island, in a holiday house occupied by a large family and their guests. Contemporary novelist Arnold Bennett – one of Woolf’s critical targets – wrote, scathingly: ‘A group of people plan to sail in a small boat to a lighthouse. At the end some of them reach the lighthouse in a small boat. That is the externality of the plot.’ But what mattered to Woolf, far more than any strong story line, was her presentation of how individuals see and experience life. ‘The proper stuff of fiction does not exist,’ she concludes. ‘Everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss.’

Vanessa Bell dust jacket for To the Lighthouse

'Vanessa Bell dust jacket for To the Lighthouse

Front cover to Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, 1927.

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Notebook drafts of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (Volume II)

Notebook drafts of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (Volume II)

Virginia Woolf switches the centre of consciousness between Clarissa Dalloway and Lucrezia Smith, from a manuscript draft of Mrs Dalloway, 1924.

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It is the task of the novelist, however, not just to convey, but also to organise all this raw material, and To the Lighthouse is very carefully structured. Each of the two longer sections, ‘The Window’ and ‘The Lighthouse’, takes place over the course of one day: an experiment with representing multiple, overlapping, differently focussed and expressed layers of consciousness that James Joyce anticipated when he set all the action of Ulysses (1922) on a single day. Woolf engages the perspective of numerous characters, above all, however, Mrs Ramsay, the matriarch of the family, who sees it as one of her major tasks to ensure that everyone is sociable and happy – especially around the dinner table in the evening; Mr Ramsay, her husband, a scholar, irascible and insecure; and Lily Briscoe, a younger, single woman and an amateur artist. In ‘The Window’, it looks as though a planned expedition to the lighthouse in the bay will be thwarted by bad weather; in ‘The Lighthouse’, such an expedition successfully takes place, marking something of a reconciliation, or at least an understanding, between Mr Ramsay and his two youngest children, who accompany him. Lily stays on shore, painting a new version of the picture that she could never quite get right on her previous visit.

Ulysses by James Joyce, published by Shakespeare and Company

'Ulysses' by James Joyce, published by Shakespeare and Company

Serialised 1918–20 and published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses, like Mrs Dalloway, is set on a single day in June.

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But these two single days are 10 years apart. They are connected by a shorter, much more impersonal section, ‘Time Passes’. ‘Here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing – I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to’ (Diary, 30 April 1926). During this interval, much, in a sense, happens – including the First World War. Mrs Ramsay herself dies, an event recorded in parentheses – a marginalisation of this event through punctuation that is far more effective at creating shock than a drawn-out death bed scene would be. One of the Ramsay children is killed in the war; another dies during an illness connected with childbirth. The violent destruction of mechanised warfare on a vast scale is treated in a compressed, but vivid way: ‘flesh turned to atoms which drove before the wind, of stars flashing in their hearts’ – Woolf references explosions, the passage of a life and eternity in a single phrase.

The protagonist in this section is the house itself and its shabby furnishings. Rather like European civilisation during the war perhaps, it nearly collapses into rubble. But rather than explain this analogy – for this novel has no omniscient narrator who spells things out for readers – we sense this near destruction through the way that time creeps in like a devouring animal, that gusts of air move around and sigh tentatively, furnishings grow mould or slip out of place. Even without human presence Woolf creates emotional impact through presenting the material world as sensate (able to experience physical sensation). This treatment of the passage of time temporarily distances us from the domestic groupings, and also helps to dramatise the very noticeable shift in British social attitudes that took place during this 10-year period. Mrs Ramsay, anchoring ‘The Window’, holds traditional Victorian views about the importance of family and philanthropy, although a younger, more irreverent generation is pushing up against her beliefs. After the war, the stability of the family, and, especially, the role of women within society, no longer looks so certain. The organisation and rhythm of To the Lighthouse, including the distancing of human engagement in this section, underscores the sense of an immense rupture.

'Hyde Park Gate News', a magazine by Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell

The Hyde Park Gate News, a magazine by Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf incorporated autobiographical elements in To the Lighthouse. Echoing the novel’s character of James, this September 1892 issue of the family magazine The Hyde Park Gate News records how Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen was disappointed at not being allowed to go to the lighthouse.

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Alongside Woolf’s representation of history on a grand scale is some highly personal material. ‘This is going to be fairly short,’ she wrote, ‘to have father’s character done complete in it; and mother’s; and St Ives; and childhood; and all the usual things I try to put in – life, death, etc.’ (Diary, 14 May 1925). Although To the Lighthouse is not, strictly speaking, autobiographical, the Hebridean house, with its view of a lighthouse in the bay, is a thinly disguised version of Talland House, near St Ives, Cornwall, where the Stephen family spent their summers between 1882 and 1895 (the year of the death of Woolf's mother Julia Stephen). The book functions as an ‘elegy’ – Woolf’s term – for her parents, and for aspects of her own childhood. Like her father Leslie Stephen, the author and editor, Mr Ramsay is presented as something of a domestic tyrant, pacing the terrace as he recites Tennyson, but also very vulnerable in his emotional volatility. Like Julia Stephen, Mrs Ramsay is charismatic and extraordinarily beautiful, but emanates a sometimes stifling form of femininity.

What is more, Woolf’s intensely felt preoccupations with her own writing – with making some kind of coherent, aesthetically compelling whole out of the raw materials of existence – are dispersed among several of the characters. Woolf uses words, but others use their different gifts to similar ends. Rose makes a gorgeously beautiful arrangement of fruit for the dinner table. Mrs Ramsay brings her guests together, managing to resolve silliness and spite into ‘something … which survived, after all these years, complete … and … stayed in the mind almost like a work of art,’ as Lily later recognised. Lily, of course, is trying to turn the impression of a moment into an actual work of art: her hopes for her canvas are very close to Woolf’s own literary aims.

To the Lighthouse, carefully structured in terms of its three sections, is also unified through certain recurrent preoccupations. One of these is, as we have already seen, the perception and representation of time, whether as an impersonal force, or as something that impacts directly on one’s consciousness. Woolf was to write of time’s paradox in her Diary on 4 January 1929: ‘I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever; will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world – this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous.’ She could be harking back to Lily’s challenge in painting her picture. Lily feels that on a canvas she can balance different elements of her composition to create a feeling of stability and permanence in the midst of chaos; she can acknowledge the enduring presence of Mrs Ramsay in her memory – the past’s continual re-eruption in the present – by depicting her as a shadow. Yet she also acknowledges that the picture itself will probably pass into obscurity, be hung in an attic. When she lays down her brush at the book’s end, just as Woolf lays down her writer’s pen, her expression of triumph is already in the past tense: ‘I have had my vision.’ For, as Woolf explains through Lily, time’s continuous flow means that there is no one great revelation of the meaning of life that one can capture and hold steady. 'Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one’. Woolf’s prose helps one recognise the fact of these continual, but evanescent epiphanies within ordinariness. Heavily punctuated, the novel demands that we read slowly. The attentiveness that we are asked to pay to the language, phrase by phrase, is the attention that Woolf would have us pay to the world.

Virginia Woolf's travel and literary notebook, 1906–09

Virginia Woolf's travel and literary notebook, 1906-09

Virginia Woolf frequently paralleled writing and the visual arts. In this diary entry from 1908, a visit to see Italian fresco paintings prompts Woolf to consider her own art.

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Lily thinks as she paints, and as Mr Ramsay and others interrupt her with their own needs, preoccupations and points of view. Woolf repeatedly explores this tension, this disequilibrium between the inner and outer selves. As Mrs Ramsay ladles out soup at dinner, she is aware of this gap: ‘that is what she was thinking, this is what she was doing.’ At another moment, social being though she is, she fully appreciates being silent, being alone, ‘being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.’ She is, indeed, something of an enigma. Lily remarks, ‘Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman.’ But this does not make Mrs Ramsay unique, for as the novel shows us, not only do different people have oscillating moods, responses and degrees of optimism and depression, so others relate to them in a range of ways. This exploration of the myriad selves possessed by one human being aligns Woolf to a number of other modernist novelists, undoubtedly influenced by psychology (although Woolf had yet to read Freud). As D H Lawrence said of his 1914 novel The Rainbow, one mustn’t look to this new fiction for ‘the old stable ego of the character’.

One image above all brings home Woolf’s insistence on multiple perspectives: the lighthouse. Her sister Vanessa’s original book jacket design for To the Lighthouse brings out its ambiguity. One may interpret the drawing as showing a volcanic, violent, phallic eruption, or as a towering maternal figure, arms outstretched in benevolence or welcome. We can associate the upright form with male sexuality in general, and with the fierce images of beak and scimitar repeatedly used to characterise Mr Ramsay – or with soft, liquid light, and the fluidity of the sea. In the novel, when the small boat has nearly reached the lighthouse, the young James recollects his impression of it as ‘a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening’. Now, however, it appears ‘stark and straight … barred with black and white.’ He asks himself:

‘So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing.’

Writing to her friend the art critic Roger Fry, on 27 May 1927, Woolf stated firmly that ‘I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to draw the design together’. A line, one might say, like that which Lily paints, at the end, to unify her picture, or even like that slender ‘Time Passes’, joining two larger sections, echoing the problem Lily faced with her picture of how to balance ‘this mass on the right hand with that on the left’. ‘I saw’, Woolf went on in her letter, ‘that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it [the lighthouse] the deposit for their own emotions.’ To the Lighthouse, with its careful structure, and the themes and images that unify it, is ultimately a book that demands that we read it very attentively. But it asks, primarily, that we are attentive not just to its language, or to its layers of psychological complexity, or to the portrait of a changing society that Woolf gives, but to our own continually shifting experience of being in the world.


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  • Kate Flint
  • Kate Flint is Provost Professor of Art History and English at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. She has published The Woman Reader, 1837-1914 (1993), The Victorians and The Visual Imagination (2000), and The Transatlantic Indian 1776-1930 (2008), edited the Cambridge History of Victorian Literature (2012), and has published widely on Victorian and modernist fiction; Victorian and early 20th century painting and photography, and cultural history. She is completing a book, ‘Flash! Photography, Writing, and Surprising Illumination’, and is working on ordinariness and the overlooked in C19th culture, and the internationalism of C19th British art.

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