Overview: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is an intimate look at a philosopher’s wife, her husband, and eight children and their guests at a summer house. The young son wants to take the boat trip to the Lighthouse but the weather is not cooperating and he is very disappointed. The novel is told in stream of consciousness from a very close omniscient point of view, so the reader is inside all of the character’s minds almost simultaneously.
The novel has three sections. The second section is a distant point of view in which time has passed and the house has been left vacant but is now being cleaned for the family’s return. The final section shows how the characters (and the world) have changed due to World War I.
This novel is semi-autobiographical in that Virginia Woolf was the seventh of eight children whose father was a philosopher and scholar and her mother died suddenly.
Things I Learned
Introducing characters through their thoughts and then their physical appearance: From the very first page the reader is in the characters’ heads. Here is how we are introduced to the Ramsay’s young son, James: “Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue . . .”
So we start inside his head and heart where he can’t keep his contradictory emotions separated, and then we see what he’s doing. Then she gives a little setting as part of his emotion: ” It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling—all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code, his secret language, though he appeared the image of stark, and uncompromising severity . . .”
And after we know his feelings, and how they affect his actions and his surroundings, we get some physical description: “. . . with his high forehead, and his fierce blue eyes, impeccably candid and pure, frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty . . .” I love that description of his frown, a six year old “frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty.” Then, in the same sentence she moves into how his mother sees him in that moment: “so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator, imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.”
So we’re even seeing his mother’s hopes for his future career. However, in the next paragraph we see another side of this little boy: “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence . . .”
What a turn. By saying what the boy would do, but didn’t, Woolf has shown a secret dark side to the child she’s been introducing, but also introduces the child’s father in a very interesting and mysterious way.
Let’s look at another character introduction: The next character introduced after Mr. Ramsay is Tansley. He speaks before anything is said about him: “It’s due west,” said the atheist Tansley, holding his bony fingers spread so that the wind blew through them, for he was sharing Mr. Ramsay’s evening walk up and down, up and down the terrace. That is to say, the wind blew from the worst possible direction for landing at the Lighthouse. Yes, he did say disagreeable things, Mrs. Ramsay admitted; it was odious of him to rub this in, and make James still more disappointed; but at the same time, she would not let them laugh at him. “
The narrator calls him “the atheist Tansley” and yet Mrs. Ramsay whose mind we end up in doesn’t like that her children tease him by calling him the atheist. They call him the atheist not specifically as a religious non-believer, but because he doesn’t believe in anything. And they are teasing him because he admires their father and is studying under him. The only physical characteristic given is that he has bony fingers. He is introduced in relation to Mr Ramsay, but from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view that he says disagreeable things, and thus the first thing he does in the novel is say something she finds disagreeable.
And here’s a third way she describes a character: She let’s the reader in on how one character thinks of another. Here we have how Lily (an artist friend) sees William Bankes (an old friend of Mr. Ramsay): “Suddenly, as if the movement of his hand had released it, the load of her accumulated impressions of him tilted up, and down poured in a ponderous avalanche all she felt about him That was one sensation. Then up rose in a fume the essence of his being. That was another. She felt herself transfixed by the intensity of her perception; it was his severity; his goodness. I respect you (she addressed silently him in person) in every atom; you are not vain; you are entirely impersonal; you are finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know; you have neither wife nor child (without any sexual feeling, she longed to cherish that loneliness), you live for science (involuntarily, sections of potatoes rose before her eyes); praise would be an insult to you; generous, pure-hearted, heroic man! But simultaneously, she remembered how he had brought a valet all the way up here; objected to dogs on chairs; would prose for hours (until Mr. Ramsay slammed out of the room) about salt in vegetables and the iniquity of English cooks.
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?”
I love how Lily’s thoughts go from “you are the finest human being that I know” to “he objected to dogs on chairs” to what does liking and disliking mean anyway?
Describing setting through the emotions it evokes: The setting in this novel is mostly the gardens around the summer home which is near the ocean. As I mentioned in the description of James Ramsay, objects and setting are described through emotion. Here’s another example: ” They came there regularly every evening drawn by some need. It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief. First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”
Notice also how she used her sentence structure to delay “a fountain of white water,” building the mystery and tension throughout the sentence, so that the reader, along with the people on the beach, “had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came.”
Revolving: I noticed an interesting pattern of repetition through out the novel. An instantaneous repetition and then a later call back type of repetition that made me think of the cyclical nature of thought, memory, the seasons, years, life, etc. For example: On page seventy-six in my paperback she writes, “Minta cried out that she had lost her grandmother’s brooch—her grandmother’s brooch, the sole ornament she possessed—a weeping willow, it was(they must remember it) set in pearls. They must have seen it, she said, with the tears running down her cheeks, the brooch which her grandmother had fastened her cap with till the last day of her life. Now she had lost it. She would rather have lost anything than that!” Then on page 77 she writes, “There was nothing more that could be done now. If the brooch was there, it would still be there in the morning, they assured her, but Minta still sobbed, all the way up to the top of the cliff. It was her grandmother’s brooch; she would rather have lost anything but that, and yet Nancy felt, it might be true that she minded losing her brooch, but she wasn’t crying only for that. She was crying for something else. We might all sit down and cry, she felt. But she did not know what for.
Another example: On the bottom of page thirteen to page fourteen she writes, “He heard her quick step above; heard her voice cheerful, then low; looked at the mats, tea-caddies, glass shades; waited quite impatiently; looked forward eagerly to the walk home; determined to carry her bag; then heard her come out; shut a door; say they must keep the windows open and the doors shut, ask at the house for anything they wanted (she must be talking to a child) when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now) . . .” Then, on page twenty-seven: “The mat was fading; the wall-paper was flapping. You couldn’t tell any more that those were roses on it. Still, if every door in a house is left perpetually open, and no lockmaker in the whole of Scotland can mend a bolt, things must spoil. Every door was left open. She listened. The drawing-room door was open; the hall door was open; it sounded as if the bedroom doors were open; and certainly the window on the landing was open, for that she had opened herself. That windows should be open, and doors shut—simple as it was, could none of them remember it?”
The first example of this repetition is only a page apart, this connection of the character Tansley hearing Mrs. Ramsay talk about windows and doors and then Mrs. Ramsay talking about windows and doors is fourteen pages apart, and yet they are part of a pattern of repetition and call-backs throughout the writing that stood out to me as part of the novel as a whole as a study of distance.
Near the end of the novel she seems to explain all of her circular repetition when she says, “For in the rough and tumble of daily life, with all those children about, all those visitors, one had constantly a sense of repetition—of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.”
Distance and intimacy: The first section of the novel is so intimate that the reader is inside everyone’s heads almost at once. The second section is so distant that huge changes, life and death, are in brackets at the end of sections of exposition. The third section is back to intimacy, but a guarded intimacy that has changed too much over time. The premise being explored is at what distance is the correct distance for connection?
Near the end of the novel the character Lily makes this comparison of physical distance and emotional distance, “So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea which had scarcely a stain on it, which was so soft that the sails and the clouds seemed set in its blue, so much depends, she thought upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us; for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay. It seemed to be elongated, stretched out; he seemed to become more and more remote. He and his children seemed to be swallowed up in that blue, that distance;”
I really like this section talking about the Lighthouse from a distance compared to the lighthouse close-up: ” James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the by. n the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and light seemed to reach them in the airy sunny garden where they sat.”
From this passage one could conclude that relation includes both closeness and distance.
Contradictory Abstractions: Virginia Woolf liked to explore our contradictory natures and talked a lot about contradictory abstract nouns which I enjoyed. Here are some examples of how she explored contradictory abstract nouns: Truth / Deceit- “The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. “Damn you,” he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.
Not with the barometer falling and the wind due west.
To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.
He stood by her in silence. Very humbly, at length, he said that he would step over and ask he Coastguards if she liked.
There was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him.”
Reality / Illusion – “This will celebrate the occasion—a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound—for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be dance round with mockery, decorated with garlands.
Wisdom / Naivete – “And that’s the way I’d like my children to live—Cam was sure that her father was thinking that, for he stopped her throwing a sandwich into the sea and told her, as if he were thinking of the fishermen and how they lived, that if she did not want it she should put it back in the parcel. She should not waste it. He said it so wisely, as if he knew so well all the things that happened in the world that she put it back at once, and then he gave her, from his own parcel, a gingerbread nut, as if her were a great Spanish gentleman, she thought, handing a flower to a lady at a window (so courteous his manner was). He was shabby, and simple, eating bread and cheese; and yet he was leading them on a great expedition where, for all she knew, they would be drowned.”
Love Languages: Love languages is something that I read about and liked in Plot vs. Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke. The idea that everyone expresses and understands love in different ways. Virginia Woolf gives a good example of individual love languages, “He wanted something—wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. . . . Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for 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. ” This passage shows two people with two different love languages, one wants to hear the words and say the words, the other shows love through deeds and actions and wants love through deeds and actions.
Dialectic Thinking: And speaking of love languages. Here’s a great passage where Lily demonstrates dialectic thinking on love: “Such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now. It is so beautiful, so exciting, this love, that I tremble on the verge of it, and offer, quite out of my own habit, to look for a brooch on a beach; also it is the stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions, and turns a nice young man with a profile like a gem’s (Paul’s was exquisite) into a bully with a crowbar (he was swaggering, he was insolent) in the Mile End Road. Yet, she said to herself, from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreaths heaped and roses; and if you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this—love;”
Applying What I Learned
Character description: Since I’m writing in close third point of view, I can’t float around in all my character’s heads. The only way I have to describe my characters is through my main character’s point of view. However, to follow Woolf’s order of introduction from emotion, to action, to physical description, I can try introducing my characters through body language, and facial expression, then what they are doing and objects they are interacting with, then more specific details of what they look like. I can also be more aware of how my main character is feeling when other characters are introduced, and use that feeling as a filter for how she would see the other person.
Another thing I can learn from Woolf’s character descriptions is to surprise the reader by presenting the character’s dark side as part or their description. How can I do that without knowing the character’s thoughts? They can say something rude, or unpleasant. They can do something unexpectedly mean, or bad, or just icky. I’m excited to try this out.
Setting: I really liked how she combined setting with emotion. My main character’s house is an important setting in the novel. When the reader is first introduced to this house, my main character has just gone through a life and death battle. She’s slightly injured, and on a sedative, the adrenaline is running out, so she’s exhausted but her mind is spinning, replaying what just happened, trying to remember every detail, so what does the house look like when she walks up to it? She’s angry and frustrated, but happy to be alive. Is the neighborhood friendly and familiar, or menacing and full of strangers? Is the house inviting and safe, or old and in need of a frustrating amount of work? Is it the house full of happy memories, or the house of sad memories? When she goes inside, what are the things she notices? The smells, textures, sensations, are they comforting, or further traumatizing, reinforcing that somehow she deserved what just happened? All these things can be expressed in how I describe my MC going into her house.
Revolving: Though I won’t be using this in Virginia Woolf’s style, it could be a useful technique for showing my main character’s ideas changing over time. I could have her think something at the beginning and have that thought come up slightly changed in reaction to an event, and then again slightly changed in response to another event, until she’s thinking the opposite at the end. I could do the same thing with another character through dialogue. The character can make a statement of belief or feeling at the beginning of the novel that they repeat slightly changed through out until they are saying the compete opposite by the end. I like those ideas and can already think of how to use them in my novel.
Distance: How can I use Woolf’s study of distance and intimacy as a writing technique? I think my take away is how she states the premise to the reader. She has her characters thinking about it and drawing conclusions. Since my main character is the only character with thoughts the reader can read. She may have some thoughts about how distance and intimacy interplay. However, that is not my novel’s premise. Near the end of my novel she needs to be thinking about truth and deceit and how her views on issues of truth and deceit have changed.
Love Languages come up in my novel between my main character and her best friend. One sees love through actions and deeds, the other through gifts and objects. Both of them feel taken for granted and that the other doesn’t love equally because they have these different love languages. I can try to make this clearer through my MC’s thoughts when she does something she thinks is showing love to her friend but doesn’t get the reaction she expects or wants. And since my novel is in close third, not omniscient POV, I will have to clearly show her best friend’s feelings through body language and dialogue.