I was supposed to read this while I was in the sixth form at school as part of a Twentieth Century Literature enrichment course (I took Science A-levels). Of all the books for the course this was the one I never read; I never even started it. Forty years on ...
I think it's brilliant! Woolf uses "stream of consciousness" (a phrase coined by Henry James's psychologist brother William) which means that we 'overhear' the thoughts of each character, some trivial, some profound, skipping from idea to idea like a goat with the attention span of a butterfly, rather like we really think. It seemed so natural to read. My only difficulty was that we were following the stream of consciousness of every character and the points of view changed often, sometimes without warning, and once or twice it was difficult to be clear on who was thinking what. And talk about a God's perspective! Woolf required us to believe that we could be privy not just to a single stream of consciousness, as with a protagonist narrator, but to all streams of consciousness as if we were Jungians tapping into the collective unconscious. And sometimes the characters themselves are bewildered by their own thoughts (evidence, perhaps, for the multiple scripts theory of consciousness explored by Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained): after Mrs Ramsay has thought "We are in the hands of the Lord ... instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? not she; she had been trapped into saying something that she did not mean." (I:11)
What Woolf has done with this novel is foregrounded thought and pushed plot, action and dialogue into the deep background.
The story starts with Mrs Ramsay promising her youngest-of-eight child, James (the most sensitive), that they will go to the lighthouse tomorrow. Mr Ramsay pours scorn on this idea, the weather will be poor. At the end of the book we discover that James has neither forgotten nor forgiven his father for this; James hates his father as a tyrant and through the book we see many instances of Mr Ramsay's neediness, needing reassurance and love, and thus becoming a succubus feeding off the love of his wife and children.
The large Ramsay family own a house on a Hebridean island (wrongly described by an American lecturer as being to the north of Scotland) and have invited loads of house guests including painter Lily, poet Augustus, old friend of Mr Ramsay (and fancier of Mrs Ramsay) William Bankes, Charles Tansley (made sour by his consciousness that he is the poor one among the privileged) and Paul who has gone off on a long walk with Mina where he will probably propose to her if they return safely. The first, longest section of the book ('The Window') is taken up with this day and the interactions within and between the family and the guests.
The next, section, 'Times Passes' is a selection of snapshots like the photos in an album. It is written from the perspective of the empty house; the only character being the cleaner. There are marriages and deaths, including two of the children and Mrs Ramsay herself, but these are almost throwaway comments enclosed always in square brackets.
In 'The Lighthouse', the final section, Mr Ramsay and some of the surviving children and some of the original house guests return to the house after an absence of many years (one of the best sections is from the perspective of the old lady who must make the house ready again after such long neglect). Mr James finally makes it to the lighthouse and the description of the boat journey is beautiful (but at the same time the undercurrents are tremendous). Lily finally paints her masterpiece although she is unaware of the fact, thinking that it will grace a servants' bedroom for a few years before being rolled up and tucked away in an attic.
There are some wonderful passages in it, from page one where James, a child cutting pictures out with scissors, imagines killing his father with an axe, a father who is described as "lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one"; which description might apply to his character, sarcastic, ridiculing James's mother, satisfied with himself. Mr Ramsay seeks to teach even his youngest children that "life is difficult, facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness..."; thus on page two is made explicit the metaphor or the journey to the lighthouse. His main concern is that his work will not outlive him.
But while Mr Ramsay is cruel and demanding, Mrs Ramsay is forever giving and seen by several of her male house guests as the most beautiful woman they have ever see; even painter Lily puts her, with James, a Madonna, in her developing picture as "a wedge-shaped core of darkness". Mrs Ramsay's thoughts scatter from feeling protective of her brood to observing house guests (they should get married) to arrangements for the dinner to "Books, she thought, grew of themselves. She never had time to read them.", to worrying why her children were so late and the cliff paths so slippery, to "There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that".
Not only do characters have very many inconsistent thoughts but it is made clear that we all have different views of one another: Lily thinks of the now famous poet Augustus Carmichael and considers "how many shapes one person might wear."
There is, of course, one character who has no interior monologue; he doesn't even have a name. In the final section, in the boat, is Macallister's boy who rows for them when there is a calm and fishes when he is not rowing, and cuts a piece from one fish to use as bait before throwing the living but mutilated fish back into the sea. Presumably this lower class oik has no thoughts, no character, no soul; is indistinguishable from the brutes on whom he preys. Virginia is a bit snobbish: Lily lives on Brompton Road and Charles Tansley comes down to dinner in his ordinary clothes because he doesn't have a dinner suit (and because he wants to make the point that he doesn't have a dinner suit; he is an inverted snob).
In her diaries Woolf says that Ulysses by James Joyce is "the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?" So she clearly didn't like the lower classes! For me this contrasts strongly with, for example, E M Forster's 'self-taught working man' in Howards End who is the tragic pivot who destroys other characters.
At the end of the book James is steering the boat to the lighthouse. He hasn't forgotten how his father ridiculed his hopes on page one; he hasn't forgiven; he would still like to kill the tyrant. Oedipus!
The other major character is Lily, the painter. She worries mainly about the difficulties of painting. "Where to begin? ... One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions ... Still the risk must be run; the mark made" although she herself never marries, unable to take that risk. And it is Lily at the end: "It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision."
Lily provides us with a beautiful description of liminality: "Always ... before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt."
And Cam, in the boat travelling to the lighthouse, making stories in her head, offers a Deleuze and Guattari moment of smoothness and striation: "all those paths and the lawn, thick and knotted with the lives they had lived there, were gone; were rubbed out; were past; were unreal".
Brilliant (though I am still disturbed by Macallister's boy). I must read more Woolf soon.
February 2016; 154 pages
I have now read The Waves. It is a much more difficult book. It also uses stream of consciousness and six characters whose life stories interweave but there is no narrator's voice to tell us what is happening. In some ways it is a much more interesting book and in other ways much more frustrating. Not for beginners!
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57