By Jennifer Kerr
In 1927 the Hogarth Press (owned by Leonard and Virginia Woolf) published To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf thought it her most important book and it is still regarded as one of the most significant books of the twentieth century.
This is not the first book by Woolf in which we experience the 'stream of consciousness' for she has already established this method in Mrs Dalloway (1925) where we have the mingling of thoughts and actions. The narrative does not rely on an 'all seeing observer' or explanatory conversations. Unlike Mrs Dalloway which takes place in one day and focuses on the thoughts and actions of one person, Clarissa Dalloway, and how others relate to her, To the Lighthouse is a greater and more complex book as it intertwines the thoughts and reflections of numerous different people and their relationships with each other over a period of ten years.
The story takes place on the Isle of Skye just before the First World War. The Ramsay family have a holiday home overlooking the sea and the distant lighthouse. During the summer the family, which consists of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their eight children, invite numerous friends and colleagues to stay.
The book contains three sections or 'movements': the first part takes place during an afternoon and an evening in the house, the second portion - which may be considered the night - is a ten year interlude during which time Mrs Ramsay dies and two of her children die. The house remains empty throughout this time and we observe the encroaching decay of the house and garden. The third section is a return visit to the restored house, by some of the family their guests, and the time element is the duration of one morning.
Section 1: The Window
Virginia Woolf called the first section of her book 'The Window.' This sequence begins one summer afternoon when the Ramsay family are all congregated with their guests on Skye. Mrs Ramsay and her son are discussing the planned expedition to the Lighthouse, which is situated across the bay overlooked by the house. Mrs Ramsay a beautiful, intelligent and charming woman of fifty is sitting at the window, (from this vantage point she is also able to survey her family and guests as they come and go through the garden) with her youngest son James who is six years old, and both mother and son are bound in a mutually loving relationship. James is in a state of thrilling excitement at the prospect of his first visit to the lighthouse and then Mr Ramsay enters the room, and in an off-handed manner dismisses the prospect of the visit, as the weather on the following day will not be suitable. This devastates James not only the idea that he cannot go to the Lighthouse, but that his father shows such a dismissive attitude which seems so callous and uncaring and he resents his father's intrusiveness into his relationship with his mother.
Mr Ramsay an interesting and brilliant man, loved by his wife, but lacking in warmth and empathy and constantly haunted by his feelings that he has already achieved his best in his professional life. He is often perceived as being distant and introverted, while his wife consciously strives to understand her family, and unlike her husband, is loved by her children. She is a charming hostess mixing friends together and showing sensitivity to others, but we also know that beyond all the social graces she is looking to find the opportunity to live her own inner life.
The guests at the house are a mixture of young and old - Lily Briscoe, relieved from caring for her father has escaped to the island to concentrate on and struggle with her painting, watched over by the arrogant and anxious young Tansley, who undermines her abilities, possibly from sheer wilfulness and his own insecure nature. William Bankes an old friend of Mr Ramsay joins the family but has underlying thoughts that Mr Ramsay has not been able to achieve his early promise as a great philosopher. Bankes, a widower with no children, stands apart from the family, and is removed from family life, but perhaps is also longing for the family and the love that Mr and Mrs Ramsay share.
Also staying is the elderly poet Mr Carmichael who seems content to sit quietly reading and remains uninvolved with the stresses happening within the house. He is perceived as a literary failure due to an unfortunate marriage.
Two young guests Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle become engaged during this time - their relationship has been overseen and encouraged by their hostess. Mrs Ramsay would also like to see Lily Briscoe and William Bankes married and endeavours to draw these two guests together promoting their shared interests.
The approach of evening draws us towards the end of the first section of the book with Mrs Ramsay planning a dinner party - the meal is delicious and the table perfect - the guests however, create small diversions of unease, and unsettle the dinner party. On leaving the dining room after the meal Mrs Ramsay reflects onthe events at the table. Although distressful to her at the time, she is aware they have already slipped away.
The conflicts which have come up during the day between Mr and Mrs Ramsay are overcome when they talk with each other later in the evening, Mr Ramsay stating his continued love for Mrs Ramsay and Mrs Ramsay confirming his opinion regarding tomorrow's weather. She would never be able to commit herself to saying she loved him, but by this acknowledgement that his opinion was correct, he believes she confirms her love.
The evening ends and night falls.
Section 2: Time Passes
The middle section of the book - Time Passes - is the most poetic and haunting section. Ten years pass, the Great War comes and goes, Mrs Ramsay dies suddenly, her elder son Andrew dies in the war and her daughter Prue marries and dies in childbirth. We receive this information while reading about the house, now left shut up and neglected with no family visitors. The house becomes a symbol of life - a life that had been lived, a life dying and decaying and finally being restored to new life.
We watch the house slowly and gently decay, the occasional visit from the Mrs MacNab the caretaker catalogues the neglect, the wardrobes and dressers left with clothes, the fading colours, the flutterings of moths, the scutterings of mice, the garden becoming overgrown and wild.
Mrs MacNab's memories of the family drift in and out of this sequence as she moves around the deserted house, she contemplates all the life that had taken place there, but what will happen now, will the family sell the house? Then suddenly after ten years she receives a letter requesting her to prepare the house for a summer visit.
The house is again inhabited by Mr Ramsay, his sixteen year old son James his sister Cam and their guests Mr Carmichael and Lily Briscoe.
In the first part of the book Mr Carmichael is viewed as a sad and failed man, but now, over the passing years we learn he is a successful poet. Lily Briscoe had not married Mr Bankes as Mrs Ramsay had hoped, but she is very happy with her single life. Mrs Ramsay had also orchestrated the engagement of Minta and Paul, and now we learn that their marriage has not been a success.
Section 3: The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is the third and final section of the book and concentrates on the visit Mr Ramsay makes with James and Cam to the lighthouse accompanied by two local fishermen. Both children are irritated by Mr Ramsay; his constant need for understanding, his too long period of grief, his criticisms rather than praise, his brisk temper.
The trip, after a brief delay takes place, overseen from the garden by Lily Briscoe while she continues her painting. During this time her thoughts dwell on the passing of time and people, and how all must pass and vanish 'but not words, not paint.'
The idea of 'passing and perishing' is repeated throughout the book, the passing of people and time.
Cam gazes from the boat
Just before the boat which James has steered lands, Mr Ramsay calls out to James
Both children now, after so many years, appear to finally connect with their father.
As the boat eventually arrives at the lighthouse Lily Briscoe finishes her painting and the book ends.
Virginia Woolf appears to have used autobiographical background for the book. The Ramsay parents are similar to both her mother and father. Her mother died when Virginia was thirteen, and Leslie Stephen her father withdrew into a long period of mourning. Also there are similarities between the Lilie Briscoe and Virginia's sister the painter Vanessa Bell.
In a letter from Vanessa to Virginia after she completed reading To the Lighthouse we have confirmation of the family connection between Mrs Ramsay and Virginia's mother:
The Stephens family would regularly take a holiday home, Talland House in St Ives, which overlooked the Godrevy Lighthouse. The land and seascape of the West Coast of England and Scotland are similar and I sense she moved the location in name only.
The lighthouse is used as a focal point and as the destination but I also thought it provided beautiful descriptive imagery, not only of place but of mood.
In this quote from the first part of the book Mrs Ramsay is alone knitting:
From the middle section of the book Time Passes:
Woolf assured her friend the art critic Roger Fry that the lighthouse had no symbolic significance in the story:
I see the Lighthouse as a beautiful and haunting image, used by Woolf to create an event - the trip, and also to provide a sense of time passing, its continuousness regardless of the family or the house, but no more.
© Jennifer Kerr, October 2010