Virginia Woolf, “To the Lighthouse”

1927

To the Lighthouse is widely regarded as Woolf’s most structurally perfect novel, with its three parts – “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” standing as testaments to temporal experimentation in the novel. The first section, “The Window,” is 186 pages in length, and covers an afternoon in which two people are engaged, Mrs. Ramsay knits a stocking, Mr. Ramsay worries, Lily Briscoe begins a painting, and a dinner party occurs. “Time Passes” switches from the jumping subjectivity of the first section and takes on an object-oriented view, giving only bracketed attention to the major events of the family (Andrew and Mrs. Ramsay’s death and Prue’s marriage and death). Ten years pass in less than 30 pages. The final section, “The Lighthouse,” 120 pages in length, returns the Ramsays to the old house, revisiting a grown Cam and James, and considering Lily as she “finishes” the painting begun so many years ago. The leaps in this section are fewer and further between, with less on characters reading one another, per se. (Kent Puckett says the novel has a “sartorial omniscience,” put on and taken off alternately).

In “The Brown Stocking,” Eric Auerbach examines the moment of Mrs. Ramsay’s free indirect discourse at the start of the novel at some length. He points out that the time taken to describe or read it is longer than the time it would take in the experience. His point is that the richness of the characters’ consciousness unfolds in Woolf’s lingering over the everyday. He also examines how things are never described objectively, except in the very self-conscious “Time Passes.” For Auerbach, this shows Woolf’s interest in presenting herself as no greater an authority on her characters than the reader, versus the Victorian narrator.

There are a few passages in this novel that interest me especially. The first are the opening lines, so much like Mrs. Dalloway in their in medias res quality: “‘Yes, of course it it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay. ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added” 9. She is cutting figures from a magazine on the floor with James, while Mr. Ramsay discourages his hopes about the lighthouse trip. Mr. Ramsay is a terribly linear and literal man, as his concept of greatness demonstrates. He evaluates his own “splendid mind” as an alphabet – he has reached Q, but not R. This is not only like a “Question and Response” with himself, it is also a failure to arrive at R – the letter of his own name – the failure to arrive at himself. Furthermore, Ramsay is conflating levels of signification – he treats an arbitrary semiotic sign (a letter) literally, as though it were a signified (an object itself), when it is not even a signifier (a word).

In the face of his weakness, Mrs. Ramsay gathers herself as Clarissa does, in this novel more clearly to serve the endless needs of her insecure husband: “here insensibly she drew herself together, physically, the sense of her own beauty becoming, as it did so seldom, present to her” 64. Lily’s painting, in which Mr. Bankes cannot see

“What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’? he asked. It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James. She knew his objection – that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness… if there, in that corner, it was bright, here, in this, she felt the need of darkness… Mother and child then – objects of universal veneration [a contradiction in terms?], and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty – might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow without irreverance” 81.

Lily counters that the painting is not of them, but a tribute to them. Rather than prioritizing the bounded form, later filled with color as ornament (a Kantian ideal), Lily prioritizes the balance of color and shade first, only adding the definitive line (we don’t know if it is vertical or horizontal) in the last moment of the novel:

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was – her picture [reminds me of Clarissa!]. Yes, with all its greens and lbues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush with extreme fatigue [post partum], I have had my vision” 310.

In the end, Lily’s painting brings discourse and reality together. Mrs. Ramsay’s art is to bring things together as well – not only people, but things and their figurations, metaphors (a game, people blind, etc.) that will bind us as readers to the experience she is having that,like the embedded painting, we cannot actually see.

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