I finished To The Lighthouse on Sunday night (or Monday morning if we are being completely honest with one another) and I do not think I would be able to satisfactorily recount its plot to anyone interested in reading Virginia for the first time and do anything but discourage them (please don’t be discouraged.) I can’t really remember what happened in Mrs. Dalloway either, except that she bought flowers herself and there was also a dinner party scene. Septimius Smith hurled himself out of a window sometime during the evening.
What would I tell someone about To The Lighthouse? In the first section of the novel, the Ramsays and their guests do not go to the lighthouse. In the second section, most of the characters you’ve met in the first section are dead. You know this because the house tells you so. This section—Time Passes—is told from the point of view of the house itself during the ten years between the first and third sections of the novel. World War I has taken place and the house, a vacation home in the Hebrides, doesn’t know what to call the conflict but a “downpouring of immense darkness”—describing it throughout like an oncoming storm. The house has the right idea. Reading this section, it’s not difficult to see why Woolf filled her pockets with rocks in 1941 and waded out into the middle of the Ouse to drown. How could you do anything else, seeing what was coming having known what already happened? [NOTE: I’m doing the thing I hate here. I hate it when readers make a writer’s work about her life. For this reason, I hate most analysis of Sylvia Plath. I promise this is secondary. I’m not doing it to tidy up the work or explain it away or make it less of a work of art.]
The remaining characters, Mr. Ramsay and two of his remaining adult children, Cam and James, finally make it to the lighthouse in the third section and their returning houseguest, Lily Briscoe, finally finishes a painting she’s been thinking about painting for a decade. None of this is what the book is about but most people want a plot summary when they ask “what’s it about?” about a book you’re reading.
No one reads Woolf’s novels for the plot. No one reads modernist literature for the plot. Quick, what’s the plot of Ulysses? Exactly.
If someone were to ask me what To The Lighthouse is about, I would tell them it is about the ways in which we need and are needed. Mr. Ramsay, a philosophy professor needs his wife’s emotional support while he struggles to complete his next work, afraid his genius has left him. Their young son, James, hates his father for interrupting his time with his mother—hate as pure as only a small child can produce [NOTE: in my copy, whoever owned it before me has written “Freudian” in the margins of this exchange. There are two notes in the novel not written by me and they both refer to Freud. I would like to know who owned this book before me.] James needs his mother to himself. A wish that can’t possibly be fulfilled with seven siblings, a needy father, and houseguests. James would also like to go to the lighthouse, but the weather is bad and Mr. Ramsay says no. Elsewhere, Mrs. Ramsay wants a moment alone after all the children have gone to bed when she does not need to think about anyone but herself. She would like to give the illusion of sitting in a room and knitting, but really she in her head entirely with herself. Girl, wouldn’t we all (see again: eight kids, that husband, and guests)…She also wants dinner to go well and maybe for Lily Briscoe to settle down. Lily would like to paint rather than get married.
…is Woolf Lily? I’m not supposed to ask this question. People who have gone to graduate school are not supposed to suggest one of the main characters is really just a stand-in for the author…even if Stephen Dedalus is definitely James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway is Frederic Henry. I know Woolf loved to throw a good dinner party and I’m sure she understood Mr. Ramsay’s fear that one might be out of good books…but she’s definitely Lily, right? Certainly, Lily’s impulse to create, even if the painting ends up forgotten in an attic, even if Charles Tansley stands behind her—too close—and tells her women can’t paint, can’t write. Why else would he have said they cannot write when Lily is not writing? These passages with Lily alternately fretting about her work and declaring herself an artist have the tone of an artist’s statement. She is telling herself who she is as an artist, even before she paints. The novel ends when she completes her painting. The last line, “I have had my vision.” She gets the moment, in a way, Mrs. Ramsay longed for. She helps Woolf get what she wants too.
This novel is preoccupied with legacy—Mr. Ramsay’s, Mrs. Ramsay’s, Lily’s—- with what passes and is left behind. The house is forgotten for a decade. Characters die (really, millions upon millions of people died in the decade between the novel’s first and third parts.) Other characters disappear (of the Ramsays six remaining children, only Cam and James are mentioned in the third section of the novel.) When Mrs. Ramsay, spooning out a second helping of bouef en daube for William Bankes, she looks at her family, husband, and guests quietly eating and feels at peace—
there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change…Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.
Of course, we know it does not. The dinner party ends. The war comes.
Mrs. Ramsay opens that passage before ladling soup and asks herself “But what have I done with my life?” Lily echoes her at the end of the novel, asking,
what is the meaning of life?…the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, ‘Life stand still here.’ Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)—this was the nature of the revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing[.]
The perfect boeuf en daube on a rainy day in which no one goes to the lighthouse must qualify as a match in the dark. Order and pleasure in a day on which no one really gets what they want otherwise. That evening exists for the characters still alive a decade later. Lily seems to think Mrs. Ramsay’s legacy was her children—her use of sphere here is telling, Woolf reminding the reader of 19th-century notions of domesticity and a woman’s supposed place. Woolf avoids that sphere (except to write about it) and so does Lily (except to paint it.)
The novel isn’t a simple rejection of domesticity. It’s not a diatribe. Mrs. Ramsay is portrayed lovingly by Woolf and loved by Lily. But Lily ultimately makes her own life as she makes her own art for herself. “I have had my vision” she says at the end of the novel. Not a vision. My vision. Woolf, the writer, bought a printing press with her husband in order to remove the commercial stumbling blocks to publication. Without the restraint of needing to appease as publisher, Woolf was free to experiment. She had her vision too.
I worried throughout reading that I didn’t have the mental energy for Woolf. It’s easy to be exhausted right now. I would have to re-read sections. There’s no skimming a modernist. This isn’t a book you read in snippets, waiting in line or for a few minutes before bed. The prose is clear, but not straightforward. It requires something of you. I can’t remember the last book made me work this hard—The Female Man, perhaps. But the book isn’t forbidding. I don’t want to warn you off of it. It’s a good book. You should read it. You just have to want to do the work. This book is worth the work.