This is not a story, and readers may find it difficult and not worth continuing with, but it takes a little gear change to alter your expectations. However, for readers interested in the life of the novel To the Lighthouse is an interesting read; but before sitting down with it a little research into the times and the literary landscape into which it was written is a good idea. It is considered a pioneering work of literary modernism.
Modernism is hard to define since it’s such a broad term and encompasses other ‘isms’ like expressionism and surrealism to name just two; and modernists did not actively adhere to any philosophy or movement like the visual impressionists did. However, it is generally considered to show a strong feeling for experimentation, and anything that was new, as well as a strong anti-Victorian bent. It is also difficult to pin down a starting date but generally it is agreed that literary modernism began at or near the turn of the 20th Century. While Robert M Kirschen of the English Department at the University of Nevada, opts for the end of Modernism in 1939 (some say 1945) with the publication of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “the ultimate work of Modernism. It is truly the pinnacle of this experimentation and novelty. After the Wake, it is no longer possible for a writer to attempt to supersede his or her predecessors in the way Modernists often strove to do. As such, the Modernist movement had reached its natural teleological* conclusion, and anything which came after must be part of a different part of literary history” i.e. Postmodernism. However, these labels are arbitrary and are the result of literary theorists looking back into the immediate past and recognising similar themes, memes, and ideas across the broad spectrum of literary endeavour. James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Proud and Virginia Woolf are all considered pioneers and pillars of modernism.
In To the Lighthouse the drama, like many modernist texts, is not in the action, there is very little. Action did not interest Woolf. The book begins with the announcement of a desire, for the boy’s sake, for James, to go to the lighthouse, and ends, 10 years later, with them actually setting out. The drama is internal, the weave and weft of emotional attachments, of familial love and hate, the gamut between, and even dissertations on life matters. There is also an argument, external to the book, but installed in it’s very creation, about doubt of the creative force; about two guests, two of many, at the house: Charles Tansley, a sycophant, who pronounces that women do not have a creative force, and Lilly Briscoe, a woman who desperately yearns, and attempts, to be an artist, a successful painter, but fails. She is a metaphor for Woolf herself and her own legendary self-doubt (thinks Margaret Atwood); but ironically Woolf not only completes this work, and publishes it, but knows its success.
The man, Mr Ramsey, stands over his wife, while she knits a pair of stockings for the underprivileged boy of the lighthouse keeper, which she hopes to take and give to him, if they ever get there, and he demands sympathy, since he declares himself a failure as a man. While knitting, as the boy, James – loving his mother, hating his father – stands between her knees clutching a book, she assures her husband, “beyond a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence” that he is wrong about himself. Look at the undying admiration of Charles Tansley, and his very own fecundity, his own house “full of life” – he has eight children – and in response to his wife’s success in turning his self-doubt into self-admiration- not via the sympathy he sought – but “as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child” he goes for a walk to watch the children playing cricket. But once he is gone she is exhausted and can hardly lift her needles; can hardly read the fairy tale James so wants to hear, with the demands on her to mend her husband as well as wonder where the fifty pounds will come from to mend the greenhouse roof; and all this laden with the half knowledge that her husband is right about himself, adding lies to the accumulated burden she has to bear.
It is this internal drama, thoughts, treacheries, responsibilities, and admissions that interest Woolf. Then here, while knitting and thinking about why children must grow up; why can’t they stay happy forever, she thinks, “We are in the hands of the Lord?”
What brought her to say that: “We are in the hands of the Lord?” she wondered. The insincerity slipping in among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made this world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. She knitted with firm composure, slightly pursing her lips and, without being aware of it, so stiffened and composed the lines of her face in a habit of sternness that when her husband passed, though he was chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat, had stuck in a bog, he could not help noting, as he passed, the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him, and he felt, as he passed, that he could not protect her, and, when he reached the hedge, he was sad. He could do nothing to help her. He must stand by and watch her. Indeed, the infernal truth was, he made things worse for her. He was irritable — he was touchy. He had lost his temper over the Lighthouse. He looked into the hedge, into its intricacy, its darkness.
It is this combination, this ‘conversation’ between the narrator, Mrs Ramsey, and Mr, but all in the narrator’s ‘words’, that, among others, mark this text as a work of ‘modernism’; and, indeed, one of the first.
If you think of the third person narrator as an omnipotent genie commenting and assessing each character, every moment, past, present and future, and sitting on the shoulder of the protagonist listening in to their thoughts and desires and explaining, prophesizing, and assessing them for the reader, here it is like that genie is not just rooted to the shoulder of the main character but, flitting to and fro onto the shoulders of many characters. And in the final short sentence of chapter 11 Woolf has all three voices ‘speaking’: the narrator, wife and husband,
For he wished, she knew, to protect her.
James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in English in 1922 and Woolf’s reaction to it was initially uncomplimentary, “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” but she later came around to admitting his genius even if she may have not finished reading it. However, it is clear that she was influenced by him, and, no doubt, by the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, which also came out in English – it was originally published in France – in 1922. What a year!**.
However, it is important to keep in mind that just as fads flutter through most of our civilised efforts, food, fashion, and politics, so too do fads pepper our literary history; and ‘obscurity’ was a particular literary fad of the early 20th century. Writers thought that every story that could be written had been written so they sought ‘the new’ within the structure of the novel itself, the use of the language, and in the relationship between writer, narrator, and reader.
Woolf did not deliberately seek to be obscure, no writer does, but in order to describe, set down, what interested her she had to find new ways of convincing her readers that they would be interested in it too.
The pleasure of the works of Virginia Woolf is immediate; it is in the reading, not the remembering.
You can find the ebook, in various formats, for free here, as well as other works by Virginia Woolf including all her novels and a large number of short stories. If you are interested in discovering Woolf try her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915); a good place to start.
* Teleology is the philosophical attempt to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal
** THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, by Bill Goldstein, comes out in November this year.