Book/Author: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
Age/Genre: Adult Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: This would be a great beach read – or garden/lawn – whatever nature is available to you. I tend to get introspective while camping, so I can see that being a great fit, too.
Reading Accoutrements: DO NOT have your phone near you. Otherwise, you’ll find it easy to get distracted during the slow bits.
Content Notes: War, Death, Sexism, Otherism
Before now, I had never finished a Virginia Woolf novel. I attempted two while attending college but Orlando seemed dense and boring at the time, and I felt I could have gotten into Mrs. Dalloway, but it wasn’t an actual assignment and I had too many other books to read. Recently, a TON of authors I’ve been reading (and loving) have been heavily inspired by Virginia Woolf, so I decided it was time to give her writing another shot. After all, I’m intrigued by everything I read about her as a person and writer, and I’m interested in her take on existentialism, which we kind of touched on briefly while reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a World Drama class.
I chose To the Lighthouse not for any real literary reason, but because my husband had a copy from his college days. I also figured that it’s one of Woolf’s novels that I hear mentioned in the wild the most, so it’d be a good place to start. I’m going to break convention a little bit and give my overall impression of the book here instead of at the end.
To the Lighthouse is a beautiful, intriguing, relatable, and difficult read. There are a lot of artful phrases, philosophical musings, and characters that are dynamic and flawed. The writing is… intentional. You can tell Woolf wrote exactly how she wanted to. The stream-of-consciousness style succeeds in showing how people’s minds wander as they converse with others and muse on the world in general. Because of this, To the Lighthouse is not a light, easy read; you have to pay really close attention to what is going on. The narrative shifts perspective without warning, and you’ll suddenly move from Mrs. Ramsay’s perspective to Mr. Ramsay’s, to Lily Briscoe’s observance of them, then back to Mrs. Ramsay.
But Jeriann, you might ask, who are these people? You haven’t told us anything about the plot! That’s because I’ve been putting it off. But here’s a little bit for you: To the Lighthouse follows Mrs. Ramsay and her family, who live on a small island near a lighthouse. The Ramsays have eight children and often have several friends and associates staying with them. Mrs. Ramsay is known for her beauty, and is pretty independent, but for some reason thinks marriage completes people, even though she pities men and feels they hold women back in a lot of ways. Some of these observations of Mrs. Ramsay come from herself, and others from the minds of those around her, most prominently Lily Briscoe.
Lily Briscoe is an artist who stays with the Ramsays on occasion. She is perpetually single, and resists the Ramsays’ attempts to couple her up. She also has strong insight into the emotional impact that others, primarily Mrs. Ramsay, have on other people. There is a lot of mental communication and talk of willpower affecting reality. I really like Lily as a character, but I hated how the only physical descriptor we get of her is her “Chinese eyes.” And those get mentioned at least five times throughout the book. Repetition is a big aspect of the writing overall, but I got really sick of this detail being shoved in our faces. It seems to reduce Lily’s character to other people’s racial perceptions.
What I enjoyed about To the Lighthouse was that a lot of the characters muse about the meaning of life in ways that are really relatable. Their thoughts on the world are fluid and inconsistent, largely because they’re humans who have no real idea about the reasons for things than anyone else does. For example, Mrs. Ramsay ponders whether she or her husband is more pessimistic, as she regrets that her children are currently the happiest they’ll ever be, the thought of which upsets him because it seems bleak. But Mrs. Ramsay’s observations don’t seem to make her depressed or melancholy, whereas her husband is in a perpetual state of moodiness, often needing sympathy and reassurance from the women in his life.
We get observations from several of the Ramsays’ children, guests, and housestaff, and the novel takes place over the span of 10 years. I would definitely recommend To the Lighthouse if you want a book that forces you to think. I believe I was in the right mood to read this because a lot of the books I’ve been reading borrow certain aspects of the writing, so it didn’t seem too foreign. There were definitely parts that I felt dragged a bit, and I can see how some people would put this down after fifty pages and find it difficult to pick up again. I loved it though, and will definitely be reading more Virginia Woolf in the future. I really want to give Orlando another shot, since it’s one of the earliest trans storylines I know about, and I want to see how Woolf addresses gender fluidity.
Have you read any Virginia Woolf? What was your experience with her writing?