Virginia Woolf is one of those authors whose works I’ve wanted to read for the longest time, but for some reason, I have never managed to. Woolf's reputation precedes her: we all know that she had nervous breakdowns, attempted suicide once, and eventually succeeded (don’t we all know that?). So when our book club chose To The Lighthouse as the book for the month of May under the theme modernist literature, I was beyond thrilled.
To The Lighthouse follows the story of the Ramsays, a family of ten vacationing in their home, Isle of Skye, overlooking the water and the Lighthouse beyond. It is also the story of young artist Lily Briscoe, the Ramsays’ guest; Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay’s protégé, and; William Bankes, a family friend. Their stories are intertwined and framed in a novel divided into three parts, with the first part covering the duration of an afternoon, the second one spanning ten years, and the last one transpiring – again – in a single afternoon.
To The Lighthouse is written in the stream of consciousness narrative style which, I must admit, was difficult to get into. At least in the beginning. I had trouble holding on to an initial thought as subsequent ideas meandered and threatened to shake me out of focus. There were entire paragraphs which I read through without understanding a word, and so I had to read it again, a second or third time, slowly, before finally comprehending.
But the beauty of Woolf’s words, the elegance with which this stream of consciousness narrative was executed, eventually trumped whatever initial difficulties I encountered. At some point, I didn’t even notice that I had stopped struggling with the style, and I just let the novel wash over me.
Of the three parts of the novel – The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse – what tugged the most at my emotions was Time Passes. It spoke of the passage of time, one year after another, until ten years have gone by. Within this period, the house is described – in poetic, somber detail – to have slowly deteriorated, as the fate of the Ramsay family was disclosed matter-of-factly in bracketed sections. Jarring, bracketed sentences that tore my heart out while still reeling from the beauty of the prose. And to think that, in the first parts, I was unsympathetic towards the members of the Ramsay family.
Much has been said about the protagonists: submissive, maternal, and marriage-obsessed Mrs. Ramsay irked me to no end because of her opinion that a woman can only live her life if she were married. Her insistence on this, directed towards pensive little artist Lily Briscoe, made me feel indignant for the latter, whose passion was her art. (It made me feel indignant on behalf of every unattached woman, to be more candid.) Still, Lily looked up to her like her own mother, which shows that Mrs. Ramsay has been supportive of her and doted on her, in any case. I resented insecure Mr. Ramsay and wanted to match his temper with temper – this man, who cannot live without his wife – who knows he cannot live without her – but was too much of a sissy to acknowledge it. Rather, he was more concerned about his legacy.
I finished reading To The Lighthouse a couple of months ago, but until now, every time I think of it, the melancholy feeling that it left me comes surfacing. I think of Mrs. Ramsay, looking out the window, waiting for the strokes of light coming from the Lighthouse, and see her smile at Mr. Ramsay, who knew, without a word spoken, that his wife loves him. I think of Lily, who finally had her vision after many attempts at a painting that was left unfinished ten years prior. And I think of their Lighthouse, and know that I will never look at another lighthouse the same way ever again.
"And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him."
Book Details: Trade paperback, new from The Book Depository