Virginia Woolf’s second novel Night and Day was published in 1919 and her famous essay on contemporary fiction, included in the Common Reader: First Series, was also written in the same year. In this essay she strongly expresses her dissatisfaction with the current form of the novel as represented by the novels of Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy. According to her in their novels ‘Life escapes’, because life is not like what they, specially Bennett, present in their famous novels. To her nothing else is worthwhile without life. The form of the novel which prevailed in the first quarter of this century seemed to her to obscure or even to falsify her experience. And Virginia Woolf has expressed her own ideas most forcefully in her inimitable poetic style in a passage in the same essay:
“Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘Like this’. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind or an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if the writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work on his own feeling and not on convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style…..Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display…..?”And hence,’ to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit,’ we find Virginia Woolf setting herself to destroy the current form of the novel and then driven to invent one which would express her own vision of life.
(ii) Publication of the Novel
To The Lighthouse appeared in 1927. This is Virginia Woolf’s fifth novel and is considered to be one of her outstanding works. It is a highly admirable piece of workmanship and critics like F.R. Leavis consider it to be her best novel. It is also probably, the most popular and widely admired of her novels.
To The Lighthouse happens to be the only novel of Virginia Woolf which has a three-part structure or division: The Window, Time Passes and The Lighthouse. In the very beginning of the first part, The Window, we find Mrs. Ramsay planning for a trip to the Lighthouse near their island the next day. Her youngest child, James, is very much eager to take this trip. But Mr. Ramsay with his incapability of untruth and Tansley with his odious habit of saying disagreeable things dash the young child’s hope to the ground by telling him bluntly that the weather is not going to be fine enough to enable them to take the trip. And the journey is not made. And in this section we get, more or less, a full and varied view of the personalities and characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay through the eyes of Lily Briscoe, William Bankes, young James and the guests assembled in that summer house in the Island of Skye in the Hebrides.
Time Passes, rather a short interlude, makes up part two. In this section we find memory beginning its task. This is very powerfully operative in the mind of old Mrs. McNab the charwoman. A period of ten years elapses. During this period the empty summer house begins to decay and the actors of the piece age and some of them, including Mrs. Ramsay, pass away from this world.
In the third section people come back to the summer house once again. The late Mrs. Ramsay is seen very mysteriously and powerfully through the eyes of Lily Briscoe. She seems to influence the lives of others mere powerfully even after her death. In the end we find Mr. Ramsay landing at the Lighthouse and Lily having her vision to complete her picture.
(iii) The Characters
Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay along with their eight children are in their summer house on the Island of Skye. They have also a few guests with them. Mrs. Ramsay with her sympathetic and intuitive nature and with her personal charms is the-central figure of the novel. Mr. Ramsay is a reputed philosopher and an erudite scholar. Among the guests William Bankes, an elderly person and a devoted scientist, is the boyhood friend of Mr. Ramsay. Lily Briscoe is a dedicated artist and Mrs. Ramsay wants her to marry Mr. Bankes. Paul Reyley and Minta Doype, an attractive pair, are in love with each other. Mt. Augustus Carmichael with his stained beard is a poet with an unhappy past. And then there is Charles Tansley, the scholarly student of Mr. Ramsay, with his egotism and social maladjustment. It may be noted that the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay greatly resemble those of Mrs. Woolf’s parents and she has put much of her own self in the character of Lily Briscoe. Hence the novel is also of great autobiographical significance.
(iv) Synopsis of To The Lighthouse
There is nothing much complex in the story of this novel. In fact the story is of very little significance. The Ramsays are spending their holidays in their summer house on the Island of Skye with a group of friends. The Lighthouse that shines out at night at a distance in the sea is the point, both material and symbolic, towards which all the lines of the novel converge. In the very opening chapter we find James Ramsay, the six year old child of the Ramsays, cutting pictures from an old catalogue. He is sitting at the feet of his mother who is seen knitting by the window. The sensitive soul of young James is excited as he is going to realise his dream of making his first trip to the Lighthouse the next day. His sympathetic mother encourages him by saying that they are sure to go if the weather is fine. But his hopes are dashed to the ground when first Mr. Ramsay and then his scholarly disciple Tansley tells him that the weather won’t be fine. And this sets the ball rolling creating extreme antagonism between the father and the son. The day moves on. Different characters are busy in their pastimes. Lily Briscoe paints and Carmichael dozes and dreams.
In the evening the clangour of the gong summons them all to assemble in the dining room to enjoy the special dishes prepared by Mrs. Ramsay for this great occasion. The dinner goes by slowly and dully. Dinner being over the children go to bed; the young people go off to the beach for a stroll. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sit in their room and read. It is likely to be rainy the next day. So the trip to the Lighthouse is to be cancelled. The evening is empty and yet as full and almost as long as Clarissa Dalloway’s day in Mrs. Dallaway. Whereas the latter took its rhythms from the hours struck by Big Ben, here only the changing light in the garden marks the flow of time and the unchanging noise of the waves holds the evening motionless. A multiplicity of contacts is created by the characters through their physical closeness, but each also withdraws into his or her haunted solitude. Though they are living together yet each is an isolated soul.
With the advent of night everybody comes indoors and the lights go out; and that night, that few hours’ withdrawal, blends with the darkness, and the withdrawal of ten years’ absence that flow over the empty house in twenty-five pages in which marriage, births and deaths are inscribed in parenthesis. One night Mrs. Ramsay died quietly. Prue was married and died due to some illness connected with child-birth. And Andrew Ramsay was killed by an exploding shell in a battle-field in France. Time passed. Nobody came to the summer house that was gravitating towards decay and destruction. Only Mrs. McNab came there from time to time to look after the house. This is the second part which after the personal reign of duration, asserts the impersonal triumph of time.
Then the morning dawns after the successive nights merged into one and the guests start coming again to the old summer house. Mrs. Ramsay is no more, but still she dominates and greatly influences the lives of others; specially those of Mr. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Mr. Ramsay starts off for the Lighthouse with Cam and James. And Lily Briscoe sets up her easel where it must have stood ten years ago. And she realises her vision at the same moment as James realises his childhood dream by landing at the Lighthouse. In the intensity of this second moment duration (psychological time) has revived and triumphed over time (clock time), triumphed even over death, since Mrs. Ramsay—who has died in parenthesis, under the reign of time — haunts these pages with a presence that echoes the material permanence of the Lighthouse.
(v) The Lighthouse Symbol
David Daiches has justly remarked: ‘The framework of To The Lighthouse is simple but upon it Virginia Woolf weaves a delicate pattern of symbolic character and situations.” This is because she wants to convey inner reality or psychological truths. So we find that the sea, the window, the waves and even the characters or group of characters have been treated as symbols. And the most important symbol is the Lighthouse itself. Standing lonely in the midst of the sea, it is a symbol of the individual who is at once a unique being and as part of the flux of history. “To reach the Lighthouse is, in a sense, to make contact with a truth outside oneself, to surrender the uniqueness of one’s ego to an impersonal reality. That is why we find that when Mr. Ramsay and others finally reach the Lighthouse, personal grudges disappear, compassion and understanding emerge and egotism gives way to impersonality.”
(vi) The Stream of Consciousness
It must be noted that Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse like most of her other famous novels is not a conventional novel. In it we have a great departure from the nineteenth century tradition of the English novel. The novelist has designed her book to present life as she sees and understands it totally rejecting ‘The Arnold Bennett form.’ We may call it a stream of consciousness novel’ in many respects even though Prof. Arnold Kettle has his objections. Such novels have their essential subject matter as the consciousness of one or more characters. We find the depicted consciousness serving as a screen on which the material in these novels is presented. We are introduced into the interior life of a character by means of the interior monologue with very little intervention in the way of explanation or commentary on the part of the novelist. There is very little external action or violent deeds; instead there is the interior monologue and the fluid mental states. Thus in this novel we can view each of the important characters through his or her own thoughts and actions as well as through the consciousness of other characters. This may be called ‘the multiple point of view’ technique. This is no doubt ‘a stream of consciousness novel’ but with a difference. And an eminent critic has justly remarked; “There is a careful weaving together of characters’ consciousness, author’s comments, and one character’s view of another. “Hence To The Lighthouse is neither chaotic nor incoherent like most of the novels of this genre—it is more finely organised and more effective than anything else Virginia Woolf wrote.’
(vii) The Unity is Poetic
We have already noted that Virginia Woolf made a definite break with the traditional technique of the conventional novels. So a reader is not likely to find that continuity of the traditional novel, real or attempted, in novels of Virginia Woolf. This continuity is very much apparent in the novels which follow the traditional technique. This is because there is a gulf of difference between the two presentations of life. In the conventional novel the novelist makes his own role much more obvious. The scenes are set deliberately and the action is stage-managed. The author draws the threads together gradually from outside with an eye to a climax. This traditional method is dramatic and the unity is dramatic. But in Virginia Woolf’s novels—from Jacob’s Room to The Waves—we find that there is far less scene—setting and none of it is obvious. There is no deliberate Stage—managing, if it is there it is concealed. But still the unity is there and it is deliberately achieved—achieved in a new way. Virginia Woolf’s method is poetic and the unity is a poetic unity.
(viii) Characters as Types
The cast of characters may be identified as individuals but still they are discernible as types. Old Mr. Carmichael, Mr. Banks, the devoted scientist, Lily Briscoe, the dedicated artist—all are suggestive of types. The very name Lily, conferred on the devotee of art indicates the pure beauty, the flowering whiteness appropriate to weddings and funerals. And above all in Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay we find how artistically Mrs. Woolf wears intellect and intuition and then reveals that it is Mrs. Ramsay’s intuition that really controls the union.
Virginia Woolf’s lyricism has been revealed in a most enchanting manner in her To The Lighthouse. Her style has generally been recognised to be poetic prose. And this poetical character of her style is in evidence in the superb lyrical nature of the second part of this great novel entitled, “Time Passes.”
To The Lighthouse displays a galaxy of fictional characters who are trying, with varying degrees of success, to establish relationship with people around them. Accepting this the novel may justly be called a study of the ways and means by which satisfactory human relationships might be established.
In fact as a complex work of art the novel suggests a number of themes and ideas. And different critics have interpreted them in different ways. Blackstone suggests that its dominant themes are firstly love, married life and family and secondly self-shedding and self-dramatisation. Norman Friedman feels that the novel studies the ‘subject and object and nature of reality’.
Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is a unique work of art and there is nothing second hand about this novel. And the style in which it is written permits the novelist to convey with wonderful precision a certain intimate quality of felt life. Let us conclude by quoting some very apt and elucidating lines of an eminent critic like David Daiches: ‘To The Lighthouse is a work in which plot, locale and treatment are so carefully bound up with each other that the resulting whole is more finely organised and more effective than anything else Virginia Woolf wrote. The setting in an indefinite island off the north-west coast of Scotland enables her to indulge in her characteristic symbolic rarefications with maximum effect, for here form and content fit perfectly and inevitably. Middle class London is not, perhaps, the best scene for a tenuous meditative work of this kind, and Mrs. Dalloway might be said to suffer from a certain incompatibility between the content and the method of treatment. A misty island is more effective than a London dinner party as the setting for a novel of indirect philosophic suggestion, and as a result qualities of Virginia Woolf’s writing, which in her other works tend to appear, if not as faults at least as of doubtful appropriateness, are seen in this work to their fullest advantage. In To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf found a subject that enabled her to do full justice to her technique.”