Re-reading Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

Summer’s the time for slow and meditative re-reading of old favourites, and at the top of my list is Virginia Woolf’s visionary 1927 novel, To The Lighthouse. I’ve just finished reading it again, meandering through sentences in which the reader drifts from one lucid thought to another, Woolf’s beautiful replication of the conscious mind at work.  The novel illuminates the passage of time in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, friends and visitors at a summer house on the Scottish coast. Endless waves break on the shore; everyday life continues with its small, quotidian pleasures and miseries; change touches everyone, and with it, grief, wonder and puzzlement over the mystery of being alive.

What’s wondrous and unique about this book is its sense of interiority, of deep and reflective consciousness. For these characters, time doesn’t advance in the usual way; it hovers, moves in circles, looping back and then ahead. It’s not the straight-ahead time of an energetic plot but subjective time as we experience it fragmented in the act of thought and memory.

The book’s first section explores a summer where hope and possibility are alive in the Ramsay children: young James who longs to visit the lighthouse (but is disappointed by his father’s crushing refusal) and Minta, who will soon be engaged; then Lily Briscoe the artist as she hopes to create a thing of beauty.  Hope culminates in Mrs. Ramsay’s sublime moment of happiness in the beautiful dinner scene which ends this period of time.

Yet in the second section, the house has been deserted; the First World War intervenes, the interior voice fades and we glimpse desolation imposed from without. “So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk and a thin rain drumming on the roof, a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness …”  Mrs. Ramsay and two of her children are reported dead.

Remnants of the family return, along with Lily the artist in the novel’s final section, structured as a kind of dialogue between two different but related efforts: the lighthouse-journey of James Ramsay (now a youth) with his father and sister, and Lily on the shore as she struggles to paint while reflecting on her own life and on the Ramsays’ losses and sorrows. Lily’s thoughts are eloquent; having lost her friend Mrs. Ramsay, her outraged grief is worthy of Job. “Was there no safety?” she cries out. “No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?” In re-reading this book, its sense of mourning struck me; how Lily’s  cry of anguish voices the suffering of the human condition as it has always been and always will be.

Her words also echo the metaphor of the artist trying to bring form out of chaos, one that no doubt parallels Woolf’s own struggle to give shape to life through writing. “What is the meaning of life?” asks Lily. “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…”

In the end, this lovely and visionary book is beyond analysis. It is luminous, alive with revelations great and small. It is, in its own way, a vision.


This edition of To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf was published in New York by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2001.


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