Tuesday, January 26, 2021

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

1927. 2021. To the Lighthouse is as modern a novel as anything written now. Woolf gives us complete interiority of (some of) her characters, and as we watch them hesitate, yearn, bristle, struggle, we find each effort familiar, the ways our minds work too. The story takes place at a vacation house, an old manse growing shabby, on the Scottish coast, outside a small town. The Ramsays, Mr. and Mrs., their eight children, and their boarders – scholars, dreamers – spend their summers interacting and avoiding, gathered to dine at one long table but daily scattered.

Through Mrs. Ramsay we see a household run with conscious artistry, anchoring a social world in which every person is suitably paired-off, married and content. Through Mr. Ramsay we see scholarship honored, matters dealt with well, precisely, with thrift and consideration and inevitable though unrecognized success. Through Lily Briscoe, a painter, we see the tension between vision and execution, the moment of recognition followed by years of not bringing it to life. Through William Bankes, the older solicitor whom Mrs. Ramsay hopes to pair with Lily, we see a comfort in taking one’s time, in order, in details. Through Charles Tansley, one of the young scholars, we see the difficulty of relating with ordinary people, coupled with surges of admiration for Mrs. Ramsay. Through the Ramsay children we see expressions of pure freedom and joy, tamped down by their father’s rigid matter-of-factness that yields to enthusiasm only on his own behalf, never theirs. 

Woolf’s sentences are perfect expressions of how interiority is manifested in words: “But now – [William Bankes] turned, with his glasses raised to the scientific examination of [Lily Briscoe’s] canvas. The question being one of the relations of masses, of lights and shadows, which, to be honest, he had never considered before, he would like to have it explained – what then did she wish to make of it? And he indicated the scene before them. She looked. She could not show him what she wished to make of it, could not see it even herself, without a brush in her hand. She took up once more her old painting position with the dim eyes and the absent-minded manner, subduing all her impressions as a woman to something much more general; becoming once more under the power of that vision which she had seen clearly once and must now grope for among hedges and houses and mothers and children – her picture.” 

Woolf is experiencing a comeback these days, and rightly so: her ability to parse into words the restless movement of the human mind, helps us to dive beneath the surfaces that surround us, to quest for satisfaction, creative expression, understanding. Beyond what we see lies what it might mean, the myriad possibilities of that search and conclusion. If you read Woolf in high school, as I did, you’d benefit from revisiting her insights in the light of life experience.