Virginia Woolf wanted to capture, in words, the nature of human consciousness—what it actually feels like to be alive”. Discuss with reference to To the Lighthouse. (P.U. 2005)

Introductory Remarks

In our introduction to this novel we have already quoted at length from Virginia Woolf’s famous essay on Modern Fiction to point out that it is her firm conviction that—“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.” And in the very same essay she has also very sharply criticised the current form of the novel as represented by the novels of Arnold Bennett. His main point is: “Life escapes, and perhaps without life nothing else is worthwhile… ‘Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments—as we provide.”

So this ‘Arnold Bennett form’ of the novel which prevailed in the first quarter of this century seemed to Virginia Woolf to obscure, even to falsify her experience. Hence she had no way but to reject the traditional technique or set herself to destroy the current form of novel and then to invent one that would express her own vision of life. She had to adopt a new technique ‘to convey this varying’, this unknown and uncircumcised spirit. The older novelists were obsessed with the outside husk and so could not get on to the inside kernel of life. That is why H.G. Wells and Bennett were just materialists to her and Joyce and Proust of France were spiritualists as their mode and endeavour was to capture that ‘uncircumcised spirit’, the fleetingness of life. She realised that the most important thing for a novelist is to comprehend and delineate the numerous impressions that the minds of the characters receive in the ordinary business of life.
The Stream of Consciousness Technique: Essential Elements
The ‘stream of consciousness’ novel is in fact a new type of fiction that developed in the early part of the nineteenth century. Dorothy Richardson was, no doubt, the pioneer in this field in England. But ‘Virginia Woolf is the most important name among this type of novelists. And the most important thing about this type of novel is that such novels have mainly as their essential subject-matter the consciousness of one or more characters. The depicted consciousness serves as screen on which the material in these novels is presented. There is very little external action. In its place we get the interior monologue and the fluid mental states—a fluid existing simultaneously at a number of points in a person’s total experience. Without any intervention in the way of explanations or commentary the interior life of a character is introduced to us by means of this interior monologue by the novelist enabling the reader to enter into the inner life of a character. And the most important aspect of this interior monologue is that it is a speech which precedes logical organisation reproducing the intimate thoughts just as they are born and just as they come. And as regards its form it finds its expression in direct sentences, reduced to a syntactic minimum.
Another very important factor is that in this new type of novels the writers do not treat time in a chronological way like the novelists of the old school. To them time ceases to have a positive nature. Its value and duration are relative to other fluctuating factors. In this respect they were much influenced by Bergsonian concept and ideas. Thus we find that in these novels plot, action, character and thought are drowned in the stream of consciousness.
To The Lighthouse and ‘The Stream of Consciousness Technique’
It has already been mentioned before that Virginia Woolf realised that the conventional technique of narration was not at all suitable to express her own view of life and so she had to adopt a new technique, more suited to her purpose. Hence in To The Lighthouse we find no sensations and thrills, no conventional stock-in-trade of the traditional novelists. There is hardly any story in the sense of a series of events. In it she has totally rejected ‘The Arnold Bennett form’. She has designed her book to present life as she sees and understands it. Virginia Woolf is more interested in inner than in the outer life. Hence she has freely exploited the interior monologue of the different characters. We are able to view each of the important characters through his or her own thoughts and actions as well as through the consciousness of different characters. So the depicted consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay enables to understand the true character and personality of Mr. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe or Charles Tansley. In the same way the stream of consciousness of Lily Briscoe reveals to us the personality and the finer shades of the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay or the odd and maladjusted personality of Charles Tansley.
New Concept of Time
The novelists of this new school brought about a deliberate change in the prevailing concept of time and introduced in its place a new concept. In this they were greatly influenced by Bergson who held that we all are remoulded constantly by experience and our consciousness is a process of endless accretions, as long as mind and senses are functioning. ‘The continuation of an infinite past in the living present’ is always there. Hence in their novels we find the action moving backward and forward freely in time. There is no chronological forward movement which is a common feature of the traditional novel. For them time ceases to have a positive nature. According to David Daiches—“The stream of consciousness technique is a means of escape from the tyranny of the time dimension. It is not only in distinct memories that the past impinges on the present, but also in much vaguer and more subtle ways, our mind floating off down some channel, superficially irrelevant but really having a definite starting off place from the initial situation, so that in presenting the character’s reaction to events, the author will show us states of mind being modified by associations and recollections deriving from the present situation, but referring to a constantly shifting series of events in the past.”
To the Lighthouse and Concept of Time
This manipulation of time has been done with remarkable skill in To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. The same was done very successfully also in Mrs Dallaway. We find that the clock-time is strictly limited; and this enables us to move freely in time and space in the consciousness of Mr. Ramsay or of Lily Briscoe. The interior monologues of Mrs. Ramsay in the first part and that of Lily Briscoe in the third part of the novel illustrate the point quite convincingly. Often in the mind, past and present merge. Virginia Woolf s peculiar technique, as exemplified in part I of the novel where Mrs. Ramsay sits knitting a stocking, consists in the fact that the exterior objective reality of the momentary present which the author directly reports and which appears as established fact—here the meaning of the stocking —is nothing but an occasion. The stress is entirely on what the occasion releases, things ‘which are not seen directly but by reflection, which are not tied to the present of the framing occurrence which releases them,” remarks an eminent critic.
Story and Form
After her second novel, Night and Day Virgina Woolf ceases to tell stories. In To The Lighthouse also we no longer find the sequence of events leading to a climax. She abandoned the convention of the story for the same reason that she abandoned the convention of character drawing, as neither of them could be made to express life as she saw it. The events noted by her are not the immediate causes or consequences of other events in her book. In fact their importance depends upon their effect in the consciousness of her creatures and not upon their function in a plot. So in the third part of To The Lighthouse the importance of Lily Briscoe’s intense recollections from the past and her vision of Mr. Ramsay sitting in the same old place in that room really depends upon their effect in her consciousness.
Virginia Woolf perfectly realised that the tools and established conventions of the Edwardian novelists would mean sure ruin for the novelists of the new generation. That is why she made continued experiments with the form of the novel. Her chief purpose was to record what life felt like to living beings and then to communicate the impression made by one individual upon others. She also aimed at revealing human personality partly through its own self consciousness and partly through the picture projected by it upon other minds. Hence she has removed the narrator from the scene. Thus in the third part of To The Lighthouse when James emerges into manhood, we get his impressions of the world of the elderly linked with past memories and projects for the future through the medium of his own reflection. This shows that the direction, in which she is moving, is towards complete objectivity. But this is not the objectivity of the drama. It is an objectivity in which the feelings, the meditations, the memories of the protagonists are projected without intervention upon the mind of the reader.
Some Other Aspects
Another aspect of Mrs. Woolf’s technique is to create suspense and curiosity in the mind of the readers. We find in To The Lighthouse that the opening remark of Mrs. Ramsay is an answer to an unstated question which we have to supply by picking up clues from what follows. This is for getting the readers, natural curiosity involved. We find that there is a pattern; and the pattern is one of brief statements in direct speech separated by longer descriptions of the character’s reactions and thoughts in indirect speech. And the conversation about going to the Lighthouse acts as a stone thrown into the middle of a pool starring ripples of reaction in the minds of several characters.
Mrs. Woolf has also used the device of third person narration with great skill. Her use of indirect speech for the interior monologues of her characters makes it easy for her to work into these rental soliloquies a number of statements and ideas which are outside the range of knowledge of the character she is dealing with. This is quite evident in the opening chapter when she describes the feeling of games about his father and then she begins to describe through impersonal sentences what Mr. Ramsay did and said:
“What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth…….“
Narrow Framework
Another important point to be noted is that Mr. Woolf planned almost all her later novels within a narrow framework. For this purpose either she confined the action to a brief period of time, or by limiting the foreground characters to a small number. Often she employed both these devices. So in To The Lighthouse we find the action confined to a period of only two days with a gap of ten years in-between. There may be ten characters making any permanent appearance, but only seven of them, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe, Mr. Bankes, Mr. Tansley, James and Cam reveal themselves fully in speech and in silent soliloquy. Thus we find that in To The Lighthouse the outward structure is simple consisting of three movements of unequal length and of two different kinds, as it were two acts linked by a chorus.
Poetic Prose
Virginia Woolf’s use of poetic prose is also quite ingenious and noteworthy. As in Mrs. Dalloway the form is the vehicle for two kinds of experience—one on the plane of prose and the other on the plane of poetry. On the prose plane To The Lighthouse tells about the Ramsay family, and their relations to one another. On the other plane the Lighthouse is a poetic symbol with an uncircumscribed power of suggestion.
Stream of Consciousness Novel with a Difference
The convention of plot, tragedy, comedy, climax, catastrophe are to be disregarded by the novelists of this school. And Virginia Woolf is one of the greatest among them. To The Lighthouse is no doubt a stream of consciousness’ novel, but with a difference. She has used the technique of ‘the stream of consciousness’ with interior monologues to capture the inner reality, the truth of life with remarkable skill. But still in most of her novels she has not followed her theory in every detail. She knew that art implies a selection and ordering of material. Hence there is some form and pattern in To The Lighthouse and there is some inner unity. And then the novelist is also playing the role of a central intelligence and is constantly busy, organising the material and illuminating it by frequent comments. If we follow the discussions between Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes regarding the French recipe, we shall see how the central intelligence is reporting a part of the dinner conversation. In fact Virginia Woolf was a great experimenter. She experimented with many methods and gave to ‘the stream of consciousness’ technique so many twists and turns and finally achieved her complete success in Mrs. Dallaway and To The Lighthouse. We may sum up by quoting some relevant comments by R. L. Chambers: “The novel represents a perfect compromise between the need for formal clarity and the requirements of ‘The stream of consciousness’ method. In this novel ‘the stream of consciousness technique achieved a balance which it had hitherto seemed to lack. It proves that ‘the stream of consciousness’ method, though it might be queer, was not very, very queer after all.”

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