In a word? Sublime. Dazing, captivating, demanding, resonant. This is a beautiful novel.
First and foremost, Woolf’s characteristic, flowing prose, often bewildering, often thrilling, always giving the feeling of being carried on a wave, makes To the Lighthouse a stunning read.
In the lyrical, poetic language which makes her novels feel so luxurious, Woolf explores the nature of time, consciousness, the workings and failings of human interaction. In a definitively modernist work, Woolf is concerned with puzzling out ‘the complexity of things’, the question of existence in a post-war, patriarchal, and rapidly evolving society. In my favourite episode, Lily Briscoe’s meandering thoughts as she approaches the house with Mr Bankes reach a climax, and are a trumpet song to nuance, intricacy, and the inadequacy of ‘conclusive’ answers in a modern society, as well as being a fine example of how spectacularly Woolf captures fleeting thought and the inner life of the individual:
How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all? … to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things … All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net – danced up and down in Lily’s mind
This appreciation of subtlety and complication starkly contrasts the masculine perspective. Mr Ramsay conceptualises his ambitions of intellectual greatness as following the letters of the alphabet: having reached Q, he must push on the R which eludes him. Nicola Bradbury notes that this is both a caricature of Woolf’s own father Leslie Stephen, who edited the first Dictionary of National Biography (arranged alphabetically), and a reductive simplification which evokes the schoolroom. Again, free indirect discourse from Lily gives a brilliant oblique criticism of this reductive mindset:
And with a painful effort of concentration, she focused her mind, not upon the silver-bossed bark of the tree, or upon its fish-shaped leaves, but upon a phantom kitchen table … Naturally, if one’s days were passed in this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table (and it was a mark of the finest minds to do so), naturally one could not be judged like an ordinary person.
Observing a society torn apart by war, and translating that into the microcosm of one family and their holiday home, Woolf is rejecting and ridiculing ‘the aggressive mentality which condones and legitimises war’, as Melba Cuddy-Keane comments of Mrs Dalloway (published two years earlier), which the vain ambition of her male characters exemplifies.
She provides us with an obvious alternative, an exquisite solution, in laying out and celebrating what society has hitherto ignored, or at least has consigned to insignificance on the fringes of male action and achievement. I love Laura Marcus’s theory that Woolf ‘feminises’ the fleeting nature of modernity, and it really does hold true here – Woolf’s ‘secret’, the message of her pioneering modernism lies in women, it lies in Mrs Ramsay:
or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?
Woolf insists on a female viewpoint, showcasing, celebrating, and focussing on it in ground-breaking detail with her shifting stream-of-consciousness narration. But, moreover, she urges us to value not simply the female perspective, but the values of the female experience, in a way that the imperialist and patriarchal society of her time didn’t. She is imploring us to revere the domestic roles, communal mindset, compassion, and sympathy which Mrs Ramsay, like Clarissa Dalloway, embodies.
Mr Ramsay’s dogged recitation of great quotes (naturally, from great men) is particularly useful in stressing this need for a shift in perspective. Beginning with the line of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade which best evidences the catastrophic consequences of male arrogance (‘somebody had blundered’), he finishes with lines from Cowper’s The Castaway which beseechingly advocate the importance of sympathy and communality: ‘We perish’d, each alone’.
What ‘people must have for the world to go on’ is not solitary male erudites, whose own egos exalt them above the apparent trivialities of the domestic sphere and the concerns of women, who they yet depend so heavily on for sympathy, support, and indulgent reassurance. It is more than ever, Woolf asserts, that we need to ask those questions which Mr Bankes so casually dismisses as women’s nonsense:
Foolish questions, vain questions, questions one never asked if one was occupied. Is human life this? Is human life that? One never had time to think about it.’
Ostensibly frivolous and a mere prop to ‘these very clever men’ with whom Woolf surrounds Mrs Ramsay, she achieves a profundity and magnificence which is unparalleled by any of them, as Lily Briscoe insightfully grasps:
she knew without having learnt. Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified. Her singleness of mind made her drop plumb like a stone, alight exact as a bird, gave her, naturally, this swoop and fall of the spirit upon truth which delighted
It is also Lily’s feminine perspective, her determination to ‘clasp some miserable remnants of her vision to her breast’ and faithfully detail her perceptions as a woman in her painting, as well as her refusal to pigeon-hole and reduce, which allows her to find the truth after which so many characters in the book are searching. Or, at least, to recognise that the truth is complex and elusive in a modern world, because of ‘How aimless it was, how chaotic, how unreal it was’.
Of her many insights, her view on the process and function of art particularly thrills, and makes me feel most that Woolf is channelling herself, or more broadly the female artist with whom she is concerned in A Room of One’s Own, in Lily:
One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.
Mrs Ramsay and Lily’s brilliance, for me, raise some interesting questions from a feminist viewpoint. Though documenting and celebrating the female experience divinely, Woolf’s ‘domestic epic’ (as Nick Mount terms it in his stunning lecture on the novel) perhaps doesn’t go far enough for modern readers. Like Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs Ramsay is a woman who has submitted to the patriarchy but who is still able to achieve profundity and happiness. In describing the children’s view of their mother’s servitude, Woolf glorifies, sanctifies, the compromise of submission which allows Mrs Ramsay to preserve her rich, discerning inner life:
like a queen’s lifting from the mud a dirty beggar’s foot and washing it
Whilst she is insisting that we attribute equal, even higher, value to the female experience, she is at the same time reinforcing less progressive models of inherent gender difference and separate spheres. She doesn’t ask that Mrs Ramsay be liberated, rather that she be admired. She takes issue with the segregation of ‘he, bound for adventure; she, moored to the shore’ only insofar as she criticises the assumption that remaining ashore and achieving greatness are inherently incompatible.
And yet: Lily. Lily, who acknowledges that ‘an unmarried woman had missed the best of life’ and yet struggles to convince herself that this imbibed attitude has any truth in its application to herself. Perhaps Woolf wants, like Lily, to ‘urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone’, separating herself from the sisters who, with less genius and fewer troubles, can be satisfied with submission and domesticity. Or, perhaps, that thing in Lily which even the supreme Mrs Ramsay admires (and herself lacks) is Woolf’s true conception of what femininity ought to be, buried below her consciousness of the constraints of her time:
There was in Lily a thread of something; a flare of something; something of her own which Mrs Ramsay liked very much indeed
As here, we can’t always be certain what Woolf is trying to communicate. She certainly demands a lot of her reader, but rewards them with much, so that upon closing the book we feel ‘the glow, the rhapsody, the self-surrender’ which characterises Mrs Ramsay’s glorious submission.
But like the lighthouse, whose purpose is to shine, ‘it is the blank darkness between its sweeps of light which define that need’ (Bradbury). It is those areas of eclipse, where Woolf offers the questions without the answers, which are so very necessary to her modernist agenda, and which all the more brightly elucidate her communication: her certainty in ‘the perplexity of life’.