To the Lighthouse is Woolf’s most famous novel. Like her great contemporaries, D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce, Woolf often centers her stories on the figure of the writer or artist. Woolf also joins her fellow Modernists in seeking to provide a fuller and more accurate image of human consciousness.
Fairly or not, the Modernists see the work of most earlier novelists as superficial, concerned largely with appearances. They try to push beneath the surface, moving toward a deeper or more profound psychological truth. Finally, Woolf shares with the other Modernists an interest in artistic or stylistic experimentation.
With this novel, Woolf was revisiting both happy and painful memories of childhood and creating (in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay) almost exact likenesses of her own parents. As she began work on the novel, Woolf assumed that her father would be its central figure, but as the work continued, her focus shifted to her mother. It is one of the Ramsays’ houseguests, rather than one of their daughters, who seems a kind of surrogate for Woolf herself.
In writing To the Lighthouse, Woolf also faced a number of professional challenges. She had ambivalent feelings about the tradition of English fiction, and she was originally reluctant to identify To the Lighthouse as a novel. Woolf’s desire to free herself from novelistic conventions is evident in her determination to blur the distinction between prose and poetry. Throughout the novel, she creates striking symbols and images: a piece of knitting, a green shawl, the lighthouse itself. She also takes a poetic approach to chapter and section breaks. Like the stanzas or sections in a Modernist poem, the three main parts of To the Lighthouse are composed in very different styles.
The novel is divided into three parts, with the first section (“The Window”) being the longest and most complicated. This section centers on Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, and six houseguests. The centerpiece of this section is an elegant dinner party, held at the Ramsays’ vacation home in the Hebrides. Though the party begins badly, it soon takes on the beauty and intensity of a great work of art. The fleetingness of this moment makes it all the more satisfying and exhilarating, and the party becomes one of Woolf’s greatest symbols—an image of what art can do for those who love it.
The second part of the novel (“Time Passes”) is highly experimental. If the first section was overcrowded and confusing, the second is strangely empty. Here, Woolf centers the action on the vacant house, exploring the possibility of a novel without human characters. Humanity does not disappear entirely, however, and in a devastating series of brief reports, all contained within square brackets, Woolf tells us of the deaths of three important characters. If this section has a human hero, it is Mrs. McNab, a local woman who comes to clean the house in preparation for its reopening. As the section closes, the house is full again.
The third section (“The Lighthouse”) reunites some of the surviving characters. After the dislocations of the first two sections, it may strike us as almost conventional in tone and approach. In this section, Woolf’s surrogate, Lily Briscoe, attempts to finish a painting she had started in the first section. At the same time, James Ramsay joins his father and sister Cam on a trip to the nearby lighthouse. While Lily struggles to accept Mrs. Ramsay’s death, James battles his anger toward his father. By the end of the novel, both characters have attained a kind of peace—Lily by finishing her picture and James by reaching the lighthouse.
In closing this lecture, and moving toward the end of our course, we should consider Woolf’s place in the history of the English novel. Like almost all the novelists treated in these lectures, she is keenly sensitive to distinctions of rank and status. In addition, Woolf shares her predecessors’ concern with relationships—and occasional conflicts— between men and women. She is especially alert to the role of gender in shaping relationships between parents and children.
Finally, Woolf follows earlier novelists in exploring the nature of human consciousness. She devotes little time to action or dialogue, focusing instead on the characters’ inner lives. Though she is indebted to many earlier novelists, Woolf’s representation of human consciousness is unsurpassed in its originality and beauty. It is for this reason, above all others, that we might view her work as the culmination of a long and grand tradition in English fiction.
[Courtesy: Professor Timothy Spurgin]