You may remember that I am participating in a Read More Woolf reading group at my university. Our first choice was The Voyage Out, and after reading it I was eagerly looking forward to More Woolf, since the second novel was the more famous To the Lighthouse.
While I thoroughly enjoyed The Voyage Out, and found in it the beginnings of Woolf’s strength and originality of theme and technique, it prepared me almost not at all for the sheer power and beauty of To the Lighthouse. In this novel, I discovered an evocation of creativity and love, an elegy when that is all laid waste, and a seeking after the principles that can make life worth living afterward.
The first section of the novel, “The Window,” shifts and swirls around Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their houseful of family and guests. There is no omniscient narrator; the plot unfolds through the shifting perspectives of each character’s consciousness and perception. Woolf spends her time not only in a character’s stream of thought, often distracted and flitting from one emotion and image to another, but also in the turbulent effort it takes to communicate these thoughts and emotions. As I noted in The Voyage Out, communication is often an absolute impossibility: between Mr. Ramsay and James, between Lily Briscoe and Paul, and on and on. Two of the most striking scenes of all end in silence, but they are a contrast in their success or failure to connect. The first is just at the end of “The Window,” when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay connect despite her refusal to say the words he wants:
She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she could not say it. Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—
“Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tomorrow. You won’t be able to go.” And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew.
The second scene is in the final section, “The Lighthouse,” when Mr. Ramsay, again, silently demands a sympathy from Lily Briscoe that she is unable to express.
A woman, she had provoked this horror; a woman, she should have known how to deal with it. It was immensely to her discredit, sexually, to stand there dumb. One said—what did one say?—Oh, Mr. Ramsay! Dear Mr. Ramsay! That was what that kind old lady who sketched, Mrs. Beckwith, would have said instantly, and rightly. But, no. They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at their feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet. In complete silence she stood there, grasping her paint brush.
In both scenes, Mr. Ramsay demands something from a woman. But only Mrs. Ramsay can provide it: only she is capable of the act of creation and love that can bridge the gap of communication with everyone, or nearly everyone, in this novel. Lily Briscoe, too, is a creator, but Mrs. Ramsay — even in her vanity and her triumph — is a lover and a connector.
“The Window” is a beautiful picture, a testament to loveliness. It’s not a portrait of perfection. Woolf shows us, after all, the inner workings of the human heart: its vanity, its burning, its desire to be admired, its rage when thwarted. But the household is gracious and educated, working gently in a circle around the Ramsays and their children, laughing and loving.
That is why it is such a shock when the narrator, displaced from consciousness in time and space, makes it clear in “Time Passes” that all this — the house, the guests, the light, the dreams, the love, the children — have gone, one way and another. A hand reaches out in the dark, clutching for comfort, and touches nothing at all, and goes empty, and is bereft. The books mildew. Only the beam of the lighthouse remains.
In the final section, Woolf delicately puts the question: in that case, how shall we live? Given this world, in which so much has been robbed from us; in which nothing is strong, nothing is holy; in which even the poets have lost all interest in life — what are the principles that can make a life worth living? The answer is provided, in the end, by Lily Briscoe, and by James, who finally makes his trip to the lighthouse with his father. In the one case, create; in the other case, only connect.
Woolf never flinches. This book’s portrayal of the devastation of the first World War is as powerful — if in a different key — as anything I’ve read. It is written with knowledge, but also with hope and compassion. The fragmentation and swooping techniques of high Modernism are here put to the real understanding of human nature, and the very reason I read.