Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse (1927)

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.

I sleptwalked through this story when I was in high school in the early 70s (it was a really bad year for me) then encountered it in the late 80s in college (yeah, it took me a while to get there). I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to find it on the syllabus for Prof. Weinstein’s Fiction of Relationship MOOC. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to dig into it again, this time when I’m in the mood to do so rather than worrying about a grade. That’s the great thing about these Coursera classes – you don’t get anything out of them but understanding, so why bother unless you want to learn something?

And whaddya know – third time’s the charm. I finally “get” it. I’m not saying I’ve become a huge fan, but I can recognize and appreciate the techniques.

It’s one of those novels in which very little happens: a woman beginning a painting is the height of the action. What really works is that Mrs. Ramsey dies halfway through, in the short second section, yet is still a presence in the third part of the book. The pacing does exactly what it’s supposed to do: it focuses our attention, in this case, on what is being thought rather than done, and how those two things sometimes don’t match.

I’m very fond of writers who actually use punctuation, sections, paragraphs, extratextual devices in the service of their work. I’m reading a book right now that does this. I love it. Punctuation – not just the period and comma and quotes, but all of it, the semicolon, the colon, the dashes – is, after all, there to be used, and not haphazardly, but for a purpose. I also appreciate what’s done here with stream-of-consciousness and irony. So I “get” it – I see technique – but it’s still not a book I particularly enjoy – I don’t “get into” it.

As usual, I went looking for some informed discussion, and found an NPR interview from “The State of Things” between Frank Stasio and Duke Professor Reynolds Price. It’s an odd interview, but does contain some great moments, to wit:

Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the
sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his
arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before,
his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

Frank points out Mrs. Ramsey dies “after a comma.” It’s not just a comma, it’s a comma in a bracketed sentence tucked into the quick little second section. It’s an interesting technique, given the “waves of time” and the constancy of the lighthouse and how omnipresent Mrs. Ramsey still is in the third section, particularly to Lily, to minimize her actual death in this way.

Prof. Price, in fact, considers Lily the protagonist of the book. He’s an exceptionally distinguished professor, but my first reaction was to argue with him; it seems to me Mrs. Ramsey gets that claim, even though she’s a memory for half the book, because she still has the most influence. Yet, I see what he means: the climax of the novel belongs to Lily, and my favorite passage, the sum of the whole book to me, as quoted up top, is said by Lily. I find it interesting that he does not consider Lily to be a representation of Woolf – she was far more accomplished and well-read than Lily – so he disagrees with the fairly standard interpretation. I like that, a voice of dissent. He does accept the Ramseys as stand-ins for Woolf’s parents, however. There’s a definite passing-of-the-torch going on, so even though Lily is not Mrs. Ramsey’s daughter, she reads like she is.

Immediately, Mrs. Ramsey seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself, so that she had only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion, across the page of Grimm’s fairy story, while there throbbed through her, like a pulse in a spring which has expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation.

Frank mentions that in most passages, the sentence structure is such that Mrs. Ramsey’s thoughts are the primary part of the sentence, while her actual actions – reading a book or brushing her hair – are contained in subordinate clauses. It’s a book about thoughts, not actions, so they get the more dominant role; the actions reflect or contrast with the thoughts.

One of them notes that “She is writing a book which cannot be read adequately when one is planning tomorrow night’s dinner for four guests.…” That’s very true. It takes a great deal of concentration, and even then, it’s very hard to follow, just because of the number of characters introduced. Even on my third read, I had to keep a list of who’s who. Prof. Rice thought that was appropriate, since “she was a woman who always found it hard to do two things at once”

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll
have to be up with the lark,” she added.

They pay special attention to that first line. It starts with “Yes,” pretty dramatic, and of course the promise of the lighthouse, but what I found enlightening was Frank’s further comment: “we can get there but you can’t be skittering around on terra firma, you’ve got to be up there flying around with the larks.” That’s interesting to me because it’s somewhat opposite of what is expected: terra firma should be the place where things get done, but for the Lighthouse, that symbol of dreams, a different approach is required. This meshes with the reversal of sentence structure as well. Which is another point the Professor makes: the unity of theme, content, and form.

I’d already noticed the stabilizing, uniting effect Mrs. Ramsey had – it’s hard not to, when Lily expressly mentions it in the third section – but they comment that Mr. Ramsey is all about analysis, breaking things into pieces, fragmentation, whereas Mrs. Ramsey is about synthesis, bringing things together.

I also found the original NYT review from May of 1925, which was reprinted online in June 2008.

I’m looking forward to the class on this novel; unfortunately, it’s one of those things that other people seem to get more out of than I do, but I’m glad I at least get to listen in.

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