Thursday, 3 December 1998

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse (1927)

Edition: Panther
Review number: 175

To The Lighthouse is the story of one woman, Mrs Ramsay, and the influence she has over her family, a large one with eight children, and her house guests. The Ramsay family live on a Hebridean island during the summer, where all three parts of the novel are set. In the first part, set before a war, she is carefully organising the lives of her children, her house guests and her neighbours. (She is an inveterate matchmaker.) Her husband is more interested in his work (something left undefined of an intellectual nature) than in his family, and often undoes much that she has been working towards by a casual remark. We see this in the proposed trip to the lighthouse on a small island off the coast, a treat for the Ramsay's son James and an opportunity for Mrs Ramsay to send her charitable aid to the lighthouse keeper. James has set his heart on going, encouraged by his mother, and then Mr Ramsay points out that given the time of year and the falling barometer there is no way the trip can be made safely. His remark is the occasion for much resentment, to which he is completely oblivious.

The second part chronicles the war through the decay of the now abandoned house; in the third part, the family return, depleted by the deaths of Mrs Ramsay and three of her children. In this part, it is the elderly Mr Ramsay who wants to go to the lighthouse, reluctantly accompanied by James and his sister Cam, now teenagers. The book ends with two significant events: they finally reach the lighthouse, and James' rowing is praised by his father, the first word of praise he has ever received from him.

The most obvious question about the book is "What is signified by a trip to the lighthouse?" Why is it that different characters at different times want to go there? The way that the eventually arrival at the lighthouse occurs at the moment when James receives the word of praise from his father is not a coincidence, nor is the way that the arrival brings the end of the book, no description of the actual visit being written by Woolf. The purpose of a lighthouse is to warn ships away from the rocks around it, effectively to point the way that travellers should go. That aspect of a lighthouse is not really mentioned in the book; the characters are more concerned by the difficulty of getting there and the isolation of those who live there. However, is this is the significance then the only way I can think of to relate this to the plot of the novel is to suggest it shows the way to a better relationship between James and his father, which can only be attained when the influence of Mrs Ramsay is overcome. That fits in with the way that James wants to go in the first part, encouraged by his mother but prevented by circumstances, and with his father wishing to go in the third part while James and Cam no longer want to.

One of the great strengths of this novel is the way the Woolf suggests a symbolic meaning while writing a novel which is rigorously naturalistic. In that sense, it is the opposite of Orlando, the only other Virginia Woolf novel I have read; there, the novel appears full of symbols, but few of them mean anything outside of themselves or only hark back to the main themes, longevity and sexual development.

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