Sunday, December 23, 2018

To the Lighthouse (1927)

This is a short novel but not so easy. Things don't "happen" as they do in more conventional narrative (scare quotes as feeble approximation). I was tempted to say nothing at all happens, but then I thought about it. Death, of course, has to be counted as something that happens—sometimes I think it's the only thing that does. And there are three of them here, including arguably the main character, Mrs. Ramsay, a family matriarch and mother of eight children (two of whom are the other deaths). But these things "happen" in the shortest section (of three), called "Time Passes," which specifically lists out events. The first section, the longest, takes place at a summer house used by the Ramsays, their friends, and extended family. They decide to go on a day trip the next day to a nearby lighthouse. Then they decide not to. The first half of the book is spent leaping from head to head of various characters and dwelling there awhile. What's hard is learning the implied assumptions of each new character as we eavesdrop on their thoughts and see from their points of view. There's a lot of reading followed by pauses to assemble and interpret the known facts into a concrete picture. I was reading it for the first time—I suspect it deepens and enriches some returning to it. Virginia Woolf is a skillful and sensuous writer. The ideas are prolific and rich. One theme, for example, is the choices offered to women for creativity and what they mean. Mrs. Ramsay has eight children. Lily Briscoe is an unmarried painter in her 30s (in her 40s in the last section). The novel is autobiographical, based on Woolf's summers growing up in an educated and professional family. Mr. Ramsay is a model of Woolf's father, a man of letters, an editor and a critic. The cast on hand in To the Lighthouse is literate and artistic to a person, and I like that, though I admit I come to it with some class resentment. I'd avoided the novel anyway for its reputation as being difficult. I was also wary of its preoccupations with women's issues in a context of privilege. But Woolf's handling makes it all work. She is very sharp and clear-sighted—Mrs. Ramsay may deserve to be ranked with greatest fictional characters such as Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, or Elizabeth Bennet. Many of the characters here, in fact, are etched and memorable.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Ms. Ramsay is such a loving portrait, an ideal of maternal feminism, but by no means Woolf's own path, which gives it an extra touching poignance.