“The very stone one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare.” | To the Lighthouse mini review
“What is the meaning of life? That was all - a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
- "To the Lighthouse", Virginia Woolf
When I finished reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse for a course I took at uni last year (it was The Novel: Realism, History, Fiction), I was surprised by how absorbing Woolf's writing is. Her prose is lyrical, flowing and beautiful but also controlled and deliberate. Every word is in place like a stroke on Lily's canvas, within a deeply fragmented "stream-of-consciousness" style, dancing in a measured way from one character's perspective to the next within a paragraph. The novel's lack of an exciting plot is replaced with an extraordinary living portrait of a family and the people they know--individuals and their relationships with one another, how they perceive each person and the crystallising of a single moment. Through the interior dialogue and perceptions of characters, Woolf puts the small details and the continuum of conflicts within individual minds through a microscope. Often those perceptions are ever-changing for a character within one sentence. I found the focus on the emptiness of things, & the repetition, questioning everything - where ordinary life is examined but not idealised - really reinforces the psychological realism in Woolf's writing.
An example of this is when Lily tries to paint her picture, gradually growing frustrated and nervous at Mr. Ramsey's attempts at making her pity him, but changes her mind in the moment when he talks about his shoes. Such wavering occurs with all the characters and taps at the complexity of each individual. They highlight the traditional values of the late Victorians against the growing fragmentation and fragility of meaning in life people in a Post-War age felt; this is demonstrated in the relationships fraught with tension between men and women, parents and children. Their moments at reaching out & trying to understand each other intimately, failing often, was very moving at times. There was this moment when Mr. Ramsey notices Mrs. Ramsey sitting by the beach, being thoughtful almost sad, and he goes over to talk to her longing to ask her why, but instead does not tell her what he truly thinks--that scene was so heartbreaking! Woolf is incredible at portraying grief and time passing without being tragic or melodramatic.
As for worldview, this book exemplifies the Modernist rejection of moral purpose or meaning in the world, and this is very evident in Woolf's philosophy in this book. It was definitely one of the things that put me off from fully enjoying the book (also the fragmented cubism of perspective was quite weird and distracting at first). At the same time, this book is beautifully written and is a portrait of that particular time and era and the worldview pervading people following the Great War, questioning the meaning of everything. It is terribly sad.
Yes, at first I found this novel strange and a little frustrating to understand what was "going on" with all the constantly shifting perspectives - not the kind of reading to be done fast and in a rush! To try to figure out what HAPPENS is really missing the point of Woolf's realism. Listening to the book slowly on audio-book (narrated beautifully by Juliet Stevenson) helped me take the time to really listen to the thoughtful psychological depth that Woolf takes her characters through and it just blew my mind. She did remind me of George Eliot a little in how both of them are so deliberate and thoughtful with their use of words and interest in capturing reality - but in such a different way and with different attitudes about life and truth. I appreciated her depiction of the complexity of characters - even Mr. Ramsey and Mrs. Ramsey who act in such selfish ways have moments of real sympathy and pain. I loved how Woolf is able to capture the complex nature of loss through the passing of time and her perception of the world being fragmented and wavering.