Tuesday, August 18, 2009

178. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

History: Published in 1927, To the Lighthouse follows and extends the tradition of modernist novelists like Marcel Proust and James Joyce, where the plot is secondary to philosophical introspection, and the prose can be winding and hard to follow. The novel includes little dialogue and almost no action; most of it is written as thoughts and observations.
Plot: The novel is set in the Ramsays' summer home in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Skye. The section begins with Mrs. Ramsay assuring James that they should be able to visit the lighthouse on the next day. This prediction is denied by Mr. Ramsay, who voices his certainty that the weather will not be clear, an opinion that forces a certain tension between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, and also between Mr. Ramsay and James. This particular incident is referred to on various occasions throughout the chapter, especially in the context of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay's relationship.
The Ramsey's have been joined at the house by a number of friends and colleagues, one of them being Lily Briscoe who begins the novel as a young, uncertain painter attempting a portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay and her son James. Briscoe finds herself plagued by doubts throughout the novel, doubts largely fed by the statements of Charles Tansley, another guest, claiming that women can neither paint nor write. Tansley himself is an admirer of Mr Ramsay and his philosophical treatises.
The section closes with a large dinner party. Mr Ramsay nearly snaps at Augustus Carmichael, a visiting poet, when the latter asks for a second serving of soup. Mrs Ramsay, who is striving for the perfect dinner party is herself out of sorts when Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, two acquaintances whom she has brought together in engagement, arrive late to dinner, as Minta lost her grandmother’s brooch on the beach.
The second section is employed by the author to give a sense of time passing, absence, and death. Woolf explained the purpose of this section, writing that it was 'an interesting experiment [that gave] the sense of ten years passing.’ This section's role in linking the two dominant parts of the story was also expressed in Woolf's notes for the novel, where above a drawing of an "H" shape she wrote 'two blocks joined by a corridor.' During this period Britain begins and finishes fighting World War I. In addition, the reader is informed as to the fates of a number of characters introduced in the first part of the novel: Mrs Ramsay passes away, Prue dies from complications of childbirth, and Andrew is killed in the war. Mr Ramsay is left adrift without his wife to praise and comfort him during his bouts of fear and his anguish regarding the longevity of his philosophical work.
In the final section, “The Lighthouse,” some of the remaining Ramsays return to their summer home ten years after the events of Part I, as Mr Ramsay finally plans on taking the long-delayed trip to the lighthouse with his son James and daughter Cam(illa). The trip almost does not happen, as the children had not been ready, but they eventually take off. En route, the children give their father the silent treatment for forcing them to come along. James keeps the sailing boat steady, and rather than receiving the harsh words he has come to expect from his father, he hears praise, providing a rare moment of empathy between father and son; Cam's attitude towards her father has changed as well.
They are being accompanied by the sailor Macalister and his son, who catches fish during the trip. The son cuts a piece of flesh from a fish he has caught to use for bait, throwing the injured fish back into the sea.
While they set sail for the lighthouse, Lily attempts to complete her long-unfinished painting. She reconsiders Mrs Ramsay’s memory, grateful for her help in pushing Lily to continue with her art, yet at the same time struggling to free herself from the tacit control Mrs Ramsay had over other aspects of her life. Upon finishing the painting and seeing that it satisfies her, she realizes that the execution of her vision is more important to her than the idea of leaving some sort of legacy in her work – a lesson Mr Ramsay has yet to learn.
Review: I think it is a wonderful way to describe how families revolve around a difficult person, the patriarch, how the anxiety felt by the children because of the parent’s grouchiness continues until they are much older. It’s one of those books where, from the first page, you feel like you are at a special point in literature and watching, not a novel unfold, but a whole new style.
That’s not to say that I enjoyed all of it. I found some of it, not surprisingly, obscure, the multi-layered imagery simply too burdensome to delve into. I also thought that it was a bit too caught up with the symbology of everything. It was a frightening glimpse into the mind of someone who cannot simply chill out. But Woolf was able to reflect on life so, so intensely that she creates the minds of her characters in rich detail. You feel as if you are moving from one mind to another. There’s hardly any dialogue and yet so much is said. This is genius.
Opening Line: “Yes, of course, if it’s fine to-morrow,” said Mrs Ramsay.”
Closing Line: Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
Quotes: “Then beneath the color there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked; it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage or a child.”
Rating: Excellent.

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