Feb 15, 2011

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

The first section of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse captures a day in the lives of the Ramsay family and their friends, a group of writers and artists, during a summer stay in the Isle of Skye. Then, after an interlude of ten years (which is brilliantly captured in only a few pages), we meet some of those characters again – after WWI, after unexpected deaths, and after the many social changes that took place in that ten-year period.

It would be difficult for me not to love a novel such as To The Lighthouse, since it focuses on a moment in history that interests me immensely: the transition from the Victorian/Edwardian period to the looser social mores of the latter decades of the twentieth century. As Nicola Bradbury puts it in her introduction to this edition, in To The Lighthouse “the personal and autobiographical is caught up in a larger cultural shift from one era and code of values to a new range of possibilities, especially for women.”

What appealed to me the most about this novel, then, was Woolf’s exploration of the role traditional gender expectations play in communication, in relationships, in the possibility or impossibility of ever achieving real intimacy. On the one hand, we have Mrs Ramsay, a perfect example of the Victorian matriarch. Her marriage is a long and solid one, and she’s at the centre of her family’s domestic life. Yet there are endless barriers that prevent her and her husband from ever communicating honesty, and thus from ever forming a truly close connection. Lily Briscoe, on the other hand, is an unmarried painter who knows what’s expected of her as a woman, but takes pleasure in disregarding it. Yet her friendships contain more real intimacy than the Ramsay’s decades-long marriage.

What’s interesting about how To The Lighthouse contrast these two situations is the tone in which this is done. In the hands of another writer, this could easily have been a smug, self-satisfied novel about how wrongheaded the Victorian generation was. But Woolf portrays her characters far more generously and complexly than that. The tone is never angry or disapproving – Lily herself, after all, is half in love with the vanishing world of the Ramsays. There’s real tenderness and appreciation in how this world is portrayed, which only makes the end result more moving. And yet we are frequently reminded that despite all its appeal, Lily still wants to break free.

I particularly loved this passage about Lily’s struggle with the heavy social expectations that fall on her as a woman:
There is a code of behaviour, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behoves the woman, whatever her own occupation might be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then, she thought, I should certainly expect Mr. Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did either of these things? So she sat there smiling.
As enjoyable as perplexing someone like Mr Tansley by not following this code of behaviour might be, readers aren’t allowed to forget that this struggle is very much real. Woolf never minimises how much it takes for Lily to break free of these expectations (and she wouldn’t – I imagine that this is something she very much struggled with herself). Even ten years later, with she returns to Skye, resisting Mr Ramsay’s all-consuming plea for sympathy still makes Lily feel that,
It was immensely to her discredit, sexually, to stand there dumb. One said--what did one say?--Oh, Mr. Ramsay! Dear Mr. Ramsay! That was what that kind old lady who sketched, Mrs. Beckwith, would have said instantly, and rightly. But, no. They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet. In complete silence she stood there, grasping her paint brush.
Yet this sense of inadequacy is compensated for by options far less lonely than a Victorian marriage. Lily has her friendship with William Bankes, for example, “one of the pleasures of her life”. This is a friendship that teaches her that “one could talk of painting then seriously to a man”. The shock of finally being taken seriously, of being treated like an intellectual equal at last, is followed by the knowledge that “this man had shared with her something profoundly intimate”.

The Ramsay’s marriage, on the other hand, is full of walls and prohibitions and rigid roles that have to be played, all of which inevitable results in a lot of loneliness and a lot of no-go areas: “No, they could not share that; they could not say that.” I think the following passage, from Mrs Ramsay’s point of view, illustrates it best of all:
She did not like, even for a second, to feel finer than her husband; and further, could not bear not being entirely sure, when she spoke to him, of the truth of what she said. Universities and people wanting him, lectures and books and their being of the highest importance--all that she did not doubt for a moment; but it was their relation, and his coming to her like that, openly, so that any one could see, that discomposed her; for then people said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible. But then again, it was the other thing too--not being able to tell him the truth, being afraid, for instance, about the greenhouse roof and the expense it would be, fifty pounds perhaps to mend it; and then about his books, to be afraid that he might guess, what she a little suspected, that his last book was not quite his best book (she gathered that from William Bankes); and then to hide small daily things, and the children seeing it, and the burden it laid on them--all this diminished the entire joy, the pure joy, of the two notes sounding together, and let the sound die on her ear now with a dismal flatness.
The burden is on them both – it’s a relationship model that disallows intimacy, and is therefore lonely and constrictive and unsatisfying for men and women alike. Even Mr Ramsay’s belief in the righteousness of his demands for sympathy, in the priority of his own emotional needs, doesn’t satisfy him in the end. This is not, by the way, something I think we’ve completely overcome now. Certainly this relationship model is no longer held up as the one we all ought to aspire to – there are different possibilities now, thanks to people like Lily disobeying the code of behaviour, and that makes me infinitely grateful. It makes a world of difference. But when I see certain people express their gendered attitudes today, when I hear them express their belief that their partners are Man or Woman first and Person second, and that there are therefore strict rules to be followed concerning what can or cannot be discussed with them, what they will or will not understand – when I see this, I wonder how much like the Ramsay’s their lives really are.

There’s a lot more I could say about this novel – for example, that as in Mrs Dalloway I loved Woolf’s use of point of view. I loved that we got to see each of the central characters from the inside, and how this makes the fact that they are each of them a complex human being inescapable. Getting to know them this intimately prevents us from judging or dismissing them – as Lily thinks to herself at one point “but nevertheless, the fact remained, it was impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them.”

I also loved the novel’s exploration of time – both in the famous “Time Passes” middle section and throughout the text in general. The world of To The Lighthouse is one that is indifferent to its inhabitant’s struggles, and yet this isn’t presented as a source of anguish. Time passes, people die, new people move through the spaces that the dead once inhabited, and often their struggles and preoccupations are very much the same. There’s an acceptance of impermanence here that I very much appreciated. I’ll leave you with two passages that illustrate it well:
His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the hedge, into the intricacy of the twigs.) Who then could blame the leader of that forlorn party which after all has climbed high enough to see the waste of the years and the perishing of the stars, if before death stiffens his limbs beyond the power of movement he does a little consciously raise his numbed fingers to his brow, and square his shoulders, so that when the search party comes they will find him dead at his post, the fine figure of a soldier? Mr. Ramsay squared his shoulders and stood very upright by the urn.

With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. (...) She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one's relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!
They read it too:
Evening All Afternoon, Book Gazing, Moored at Sea, Still Life With Books, Medieval Bookworm, Erin Reads, Nonsuch Book, Rebecca Reads, Paperback Reader



  1. Oh Virginia Woolf, despite finally having read one of your books and truly enjoying it, I am still utterly petrified of your writings.

    Ana, you made this book sound so very wonderful...and maybe even *slightly* less scary...

  2. I would echo Debi, Woolf intimidates the hell out of me. I just don't know if I am smart enough to "get" her! But you make this one seem so incredibly palatable. I have a thing for lighthouses, so with one in the title, this would probably be the first I would try.

  3. Debi, was just thinking the same thing. However Ana has yet again made me believe I can swim in the waters of Woolf. I have this book and hope to read it soon. Ana, you just make books so much more accessible!

  4. Debi, Sandy and Vivienne, while I understand being afraid of Virginia Woolf (that was me for years :P), I don't doubt for a second that you are all more than capable of enjoying her, or that you'd get a lot out of this book. It's probably my favourite of hers so far, so it might indeed be a good place to start (or to turn to next). I don't see it so much as a matter of "getting it" (how do you define "it" anyway? :P), but rather as a matter of connecting with the story and the things it's getting across. I find Woolf more challenging than difficult - I'm not sure if the distinction makes sense, but what I mean is that while she asks a lot of me as a reader, in terms of concentration and paying very close attention to the text, once I make that commitment I don't find her hard at all. Her writing flows so well, and the things she has to say resonate with me so much.

  5. My husband keeps saying this is one of his favorites but I join the intimidation club! :--)

  6. Oh Ana, this is a beautiful review! To the Lighthouse is both on my shelf and downloaded on my ipod. You make me want to get started TODAY!!

  7. Dare I say that I'm actually beginning to look forward to my first Woolf in the coming months? :) Sounds like this was a great read.

  8. I still have not read any Woolfe because she intimidates me so, but your review of this book makes me want to take a closer look. I am thankful that you are always here spurring me onward to try new things!

  9. I have tried and tried and tried to read Virginia Woolf and love her and I just haven't been successful. I so badly want to join the club of readers who adore her, but at least at this point in my life, she and I just don't click!

  10. …I think it's time to read Woolf.

  11. God I love Virginia Woolf.

    I like your attention to how complex the sexual dynamics are - that was something that really struck me on my latest re-read of To the Lighthouse, how tender and loving Woolf's portrayal of her parents' generation was, despite also being critical of it. Lily just YEARNS for Mrs. Ramsay, for her attention and her approval and for physical contact with her, despite knowing that she (Lily) is a much different person with different struggles to face. But she doesn't minimize Mrs. Ramsay, and even feels the attraction of Mr. Ramsay, especially in the latter part of the book. That's something I didn't pick up on as much in my first few readings, when I was delighting in her struggles for independence, moving the salt cellar to remind her to change her painting, etc. The two struggles coexist almost equally in her. It's fantastically well done.

    Re: your point about Ramsay-esque relationships still existing, I was SHOCKED at how many of my classmates when I studied this book in college said that they recognized their own parents in the Ramsays. SHOCKED. Apparently those relationships are not just still-extant but pretty common.

  12. I really must read Woolf... I have only read Mrs Dalloway and that was back in university.

    P.S. I emailed you!

  13. Wonderful review, Ana! I haven't read any of Virginia Woolf's books yet, and maybe I should start with this one.

    I loved your usage of the word 'complexly' :) I have never seen it used as an adverb before.

    I loved your description of the friendship between Lily and William Bankes. I think I can read the book just for this :)

    I liked very much your observation - "But when I see certain people express their gendered attitudes today, when I hear them express their belief that their partners are Man or Woman first and Person second, and that there are therefore strict rules to be followed concerning what can or cannot be discussed with them, what they will or will not understand – when I see this, I wonder how much like the Ramsay’s their lives really are."

    Your observation reminded me of an observation of a writer called Emily Maguire, whose book I read recently. Maguire's observation went like this - "Having grown up after the feminist revolution, I’d always been told that girls could do anything boys could do, that men and women were equal in every way. This wasn’t just dogma for me – I felt it. I knew I was not defined by my gender, that the things I thought and did were expressions of my “Emily-ness”, not my femaleness. Yet in recent years I had come to realize that other people would view me as a woman first and a person second regardless of how I saw myself, and that these same people would project onto me their ideas of what “woman” meant. Thus I was faced with the prospect of disappointing expectations not of my own making : to be a mother and homemaker, to be demure about sexuality, to value my appearance over my intellect. I never understood why I didn’t experience my femaleness in the way mainstream culture said I should, but there was nothing more frustrating than having to defend myself as a woman in order to be treated as a human being."

  14. I'm terrified of this book. I believe it was the first Woolf I read, and it went completely over my head. I literally remember one image from it, something about painting on a beach, and I might be getting that mixed up with a scene from Jacob's Room. Now that it's been a decade and I'm far more familiar with Woolf's style, I know I should revisit, but this was by far the most difficult book I've read by her and I'm scared...

  15. Oh, how I love this book! Oh, how well you've caught it! So many layers, so many kinds and levels of intimacy (the Ramsays have one moment, walking in the garden...I think)--and yet To the Lighthouse is Woolf's most accessible novel. When I read it again through this new lens you've given me, Nymeth, I will have much to ponder. Thank you.

  16. Ah, this sounds so amazing...You know..I think Virginia Woolf may be my most loved author that I've never read :p Just because I love her so much as a person from everything I know of her and what she wrote about. I truly need to suck up my fears and actually read some of that writing...and this one sounds like a fantastic one to read.

  17. I read and reviewed this last year and found it difficult to do so (I seem to go into "academic" mode when it comes to Woolf) so brava for doing so well.

    I didn't love it unequivocally as I have done others she has written but we can't love 'em all!

  18. I still haven't read any of Woolf's novels which I really should since I really liked A Room of One's Own. Especially since I own two of them! Seeing your post makes it less scary;P

  19. Jill: I could bribe you with cookies to read it? ;) I actually suspect you'd love it.

    JoAnn: Thank you! I've no doubt you're going to really enjoy it.

    Amy: A Room of One's Own is awesome and you're going to love it (I think :P)

    Zibilee: It's what book bloggers are for ;)

    Steph: I'm sorry to hear it, but then again I have my own list of authors I could say the same about :P

    Clare: Yes it is :P You could join us in May for A Room of One's Own!

    Emily: I'm sure having read your discussion with Jason/Frances/etc about this last year helped me pay closer attention to that aspect of the text. Have I thanked you all for curing me of my Woolfphobia yet? ;) And gah about your classmates :\ I have heard similar things in other contexts.

    Kelly: as I was telling Clare, you could read A Room of One's Own with us in May!

    Vishy: I remember when you posted about Emily Maguire! That's a fantastic passage, and clearly I need to read the book.

    Amanda: I hope you have more luck next time, if you do decide to pick it up again!

    ds: I agree about the accessibility, and it actually surprised me! What was interesting about the Ramsays is that they WERE close in their own way too, in a clumsy, lonely way, as close as they knew how to be. Clumsy captured all those nuances so well.

    Chris: I think you should start with Orlando. I can't imagine you not loving it!

    Claire: Oops, sorry that I missed yours! And yes, can't love them all :P

    Sakura: Do read her novels! If I can, anyone can :P

  20. You make this sound so fantastic! I enojoyed Mrs Dalloway but have been to chicken to try her other works :D

  21. This will soon be my first Virginia Woolf, as it sits patiently on my shelf. Very much looking forward to reading it!

  22. I'm so glad you read this one! Is it okay to say that? That doesn't soud too weird? To the Lighthouse is a book that crawls into my everyday, now that I've read it twice, and makes me understand the world differently. It's one of the books that made me think the ordinary could be beautiful, that time can be something besides an enemy or a shame. I'm glad you liked it.

  23. HA - In my above comment to ds, "Clumsy captured..." should read "Woolf captured", of course. I SWEAR I haven't been drinking :P

    Bina: There is nothing to fear! Even if you don't get on with it, at least you'll know :P

    Alita: Oh, I hope you like it! Looking forward to your thoughts.

    Jason: It doesn't sound weird at all! In my own personal scale, saying that a book changed how I understand the world is one of the highest compliments I can pay it. I love what you said about time not being an enemy.

  24. Thank you for visiting my blog yesterday :-) and thanks for a great review. I've only read two of her novels to date (Orlando and The Voyage Out). I enjoyed both (Orlando was quite something else) but I can't recall much of the latter. I think I need to pick up another of hers soon.

  25. While checking your replies to comments, I discovered that you are reading John Carey's 'What Good are the Arts?" :) This is really wonderful! I can't wait to read your thoughts on it and I can't wait to have a conversation with you on it!

  26. Cristina: You're welcome! Your blog was a lovely discovery :) I do hope you enjoy your next Woolf, whatever it is.

    Vishy: I really can't thank you enough for nudging me to read it!

  27. You make me want to reread this, even though my initial experience with it was so memorable that I never have--it was on a list of great works of literature that I was going through and reading for a PhD comprehensive exam, and I kept trying to read it and not getting interested. Finally I took it to the pool one day and absolutely loved it; read it in one sitting.

    So I echo what you say about not being intimidated by it. It's a beach book! I wish everybody could loosen up and enjoy it!

  28. First--the cover is gorgeous and alone makes me want to read the book! I have to admit to being very intimidated by Woolf. I've only studied Mrs. Dalloway (loved), and attempted to read A Room of One's Own (probably bad timing), but I just can't seem to pick anything else up.

    Like you, though, I loved the introspective look in Mrs. Dalloway, so you have me interested. I also love the fin de siècle time period. Why am I so scared!?!

  29. I tried, I swear I did, but I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages. Stream of consciousness is just not for me. The strange thing is that I read The Waves when I was 16 and really loved it, but am sure the effect would be different if I read it again. The same with the Russians.

    I often wonder what changed in my way of reading since then.

  30. No one should be apprehensive about reading Woolf. Just surf over the luminous waves of her prose till she decides to bring you to shore.

  31. It's so fascinating to see the comments on this post- people are either terrified of Woolf or love her, but it doesn't seem like anyone who has read her *dislikes* her- just maybe didn't understand the depths of her writing?

    The only book by Woolf I have is Orlando, and I think it's the one I'd probably enjoy the most as it seems more like a rollicking adventure story than a deep meditative treatise on social norms. I mean, I'm sure it *does* have deeper themes, but they're wrapped up in a cross-dressing tale that spans several centuries, which seems like great fun :-)

  32. Random but what your review reminds me of is Cassandra's father forcibly put in the castle in 'I Capture the Castle' to get on with his next work of brilliance. Through much of the book they all creep around him as he tries to restart his genuis with the girls take care of the practicalities and Rose has to try to catch a man to save their family finances. Topaz must act the reassuring partner sure his genius will come backa nd that he must not be bothered with daily living trifles (the money). In that novel eventually Cassandra can take no more and decide to be brutal with him and probably Mr Ramsey could ahve done with some similar treatment. Perhaps their relationship would have been better for it. Doesn't Lily say somewhere that women think themselves required to coddle men, rather than trying to have an honest conversation with them?

  33. Isn't the Time Passes section gorgeous? This book moved me so much I couldn't count how many times I cried.

  34. I love all of Woolf's novels, and this one battles with a couple of others (Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob's Room) as my favourite. I don't think I've ever read a review which made Woolf seem so accessible, so I'm hoping lots of your fans go and read her now!

  35. This is a wonderful write up, once again, Nymeth.

    I found To the Lighthouse far more challenging to read than Mrs Dalloway, for some reason, but I feel in love with it in the Time Passes section, such beautiful writing! And I definitely need to revisit it.

  36. Awesome review. I recently picked up a copy of To the Lighthouse but I haven't touched it yet, because the whole "stream of consciousness" thing scares me.

    However, your review made this book a little less intimidating. Also, your excerpt about pity spreading around Lily's feet like water is just beautiful. :)

  37. I've been meaning to read this for ages. Thank you for a great review!
    I too am a fan of the Wordsworth Classics - some of the covers are gorgeous. The quality is good and incredibly priced.


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