Introductory: Interpretations Differ
To The Lighthouse is, without any shade of doubt, a very complex novel and hence there are different interpretations from different critics. Norman Friedman’s comments on this point is worth noting: “To The Lighthouse is a very complex novel, and different critics have read different meanings into it.
While there is a general agreement that To The Lighthouse centres on questions of general order and chaos, male and female, permanence and change and intellection and intuition, the critics are far from unanimous in the actual tracing out of these themes. Thus, for example, it is clear that the simultaneous completion of Lily Briscoe’s painting and arrival of Mr. Ramsay, James and Cam at the Lighthouse are somehow functioning together to complete the book, but no two critics have agreed as to what the function means as an ending of what has gone before. One claims that Mr. Ramsay is undergoing a transition from his former intellectual personality to a newly discovered intuitive view, while another critic says that Lily is moving from a concern with form, that is art, to a concern with content, that is life. Another critic sees in the ending a shift from time to the timeless, while a fourth one sees here a shift from egotism to selflessness, and a fifth critic thinks of this simultaneous convergence as a clumsy device which solves no problem.”
We can multiply such examples, but it is evident that the dominant tendency is to interpret the thematic conflict—whatever it may be—as an antithesis to two mutually exclusive terms, one of which must be rejected in favour of the other. In fact, the full significance of the trip to the Lighthouse is not grasped. It is, more or less, seen as a one way affair. But a closer study of the novel will reveal that this either-or strategy is hardly adequate for dealing with the multiplicity of points of view through which each character is seen in the first section, the descending and the ascending movement of the second section and the shifting simultaneity of events which shape the third.
Relation of Self to Others
It is mainly the first part of the novel that deals with the relation of self to others. Very soon it becomes clear that not one single trait or characteristic of a person can be seized upon and cherished in order to know him or her. Mrs. Ramsay for instance, is really a warm and beautiful woman, yet annoyingly concerned with ordering the lives of others. And this is quite clear from the resentment which many of her circle express against her mania for marriage. She is, no doubt, maternal.
Next, let us take the example of Mr. Ramsay. Often he shows himself as a self-dramatising domestic tyrant, but still he is to be admired as a lone watcher at the dark frontiers of human ignorance. He is, no doubt, a detached and a lonely philosopher, yet he cannot but crave the contact of his wife and children. He is grim, yet optimistic, austere, yet fearful for his reputation; petty and selfish, and yet capable of losing himself completely in a novel of Scott; alert, yet he thrives on the simple company and the humble fare of fishermen.
Lily and Others
In the same way Lily Briscoe is also a complex figure. She is a spinster disinterested in ordinary sexual attachment; she is nevertheless capable of a fierce outburst of love. She is, no doubt, an artist perpetually terrified by a blank canvas, but still she is able to find a solution to the complex problem of art-life relationship. In the same way Mr. Bankes, Mr. Tansley, all are double beings or complex figures of the novel. And we find that the climax of the first section occurs at the dinner, a brilliantly dramatic communion meal where each ordinary ego, with its petty aggression and resentment, is gradually blended with the others into a pattern of completion and harmony. Thus it is clear that double vision or multiple perspective is very much necessary to know and understand human personality. And in this section we are able to have just such a perspective, as each character is presented from at least two points of view.
Man to Nature
We have seen how in the first section the relation of self to others has been dealt with. And Part II of the novel deals with the relation of man to nature. It does not portray merely the ravages of time and tide affecting the Ramsay family and their summer house. In addition the almost complete destruction of the house, we have also a chance to see its equally dramatic renewal. And then it is seen that its focus is on the comic-epic figure of Mrs. McNab, who lurches through the house wiping and dusting, breaking into a long dirge of sorrow and trouble, yet who feels, ‘looking sideways in the glass, as if after all, she had some consolation, as if indeed there were twined about her dirge some incorrigible hope’. Thus, it is she and her two helpers, Mrs. Bast and her son, who fetch up from oblivion all the Waverly novels, and who rescue the house from impending doom and destruction.
Further, we find in this very section that the fortunes of the Ramsay family suffer so many setbacks. Mrs. Ramsay dies unexpectedly, Andrew is killed in the battlefield in France, and Prue dies of childbirth. Even then we are made to understand that Mr. Ramsay’s work will endure, for the fate of his books was somehow tied up with the Waverly novels. Also, as the next section proceeds to demonstrate the family continues to develop. Thus it is clearly evident that section two or the central section of this great novel, therefore, demonstrates not the victory of natural chaos over human order, but rather the reverse. Man’s power and will to live ultimately prevail over death and destruction.
Relation of Art to life
Now, in the third section of the To The Lighthouse, the third level of the theme, the relation of art to life is treated. We find that the structure of this section is based upon the shuttling back and forth between Lily on the island and those in the boat watching the island, who in turn get further away. This is accompanied by the corresponding movement of those in the boat getting closer to the Lighthouse and Lily gelling closer to the solution of her aesthetic problem. And it must be noted that the determining factor in each case is love (the art of life), which might perhaps be defined as order or the achievement of form in human relations through the surrender of personality. Hence we find Lily brushing her painting as she feels the upsurge of that sympathy for Mr. Ramsay, which she had previously been stubbornly unable to give. James and Cam give up their longstanding antagonism towards their father. Mr. Ramsay, himself, at the same time, attains a resolution of his own tensions and worries. The point is not that they have made a one dimensional transition from this to that attitude, but that, since each is aware simultaneously both of what is receding and what is approaching, each has received in his way a sense of double vision.
Double Vision through Imagery
A closer look at the imagery of the book, its figure of speech, its scene and plot may further demonstrate the presence of this double vision. To begin with, the Lighthouse itself as the most conspicuous image functions in two ways as something to be reached, and as source of flashing light. This means has a symbolic role to play. As a source of light, it appears in two connections, first, as it impinges upon the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay in the first section after she had finished reading to James, and second, as it flashes upon the empty house in section two.
Thus we find that Mrs. Ramsay, the busy mother of eight children often feels the need ‘to be silent, to be alone. Often she muses upon the alternating flashes of light in a mood of detachment, peace and rest. And this musing gives her a sense of victory over life, and she identifies herself with the third stroke—the long steady stroke—which becomes for her an image of purity and truth, of strength and courage, searching and beautiful. Her self, having shed its attachments, was free for the strongest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless … Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir, and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this serenity, and pausing there she looked out to meet the stroke, of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three which was—her stroke.’
Now this can be taken as the thesis of her emotional cycle, the antithesis is evoked as her mood soon changes into one of the grim recognition of inevitable facts of ‘suffering, death, the poor’, and she gradually descends from her state on triumphant freedom from the fact, the hurry and the stir by seizing upon the light from a different perspective, ‘for when one woke, all one’s relation changed’. Looking now at the light, it is the remorseless, the pitiless.
Reconciliation of Opposites
Then it is found that only when these two moods become reconciled, will the cycle be complete. The second view seems ‘so much here, yet so little hers’, and then her meditations are crowned in their third phase by ‘exquisite happiness, intense happiness’, and she cries out, ‘It is enough. It is enough’. It seems to be apparent that by seeing the long steady flash of light in two different aspects—as an image of expansion and release and, then, as an image of contraction and confinement, she has received the final intuition of the truth about the nature of reality. And this intuition is that one must be both subjectively involved, and objectively detached from life, and that true happiness rests neither in the one sphere nor in the other exclusively, but in achieving a harmonious balance, however fragile, between the two. Now she can rest contented, if only for a moment.
The second part or the middle section of the novel portrays the death and rebirth of the decaying and deserted house. Here the light makes its second appearance by gliding over the rooms gently as if it laid its cares arid lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again. It is clear from the sentence which follows immediately that this is one side of doubleness. ‘But in the very lull of the loving caress as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed’. And a few pages on, just before the arrival of the forces of renewal in the house, in ‘that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and night pauses’, the Lighthouse beam as an image of expansion and release (life-love-hope) and contraction and confinement (death-destruction-terror) held in relation, entered the room for a moment, ‘sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw.’ So we find that the three moods—loving care, tearing apart and equanimity are well represented by the light, It may now be asserted that only by going through the opposing experience or multiple perspective one can get a comprehensive view of life.
Lily’s Experience: Doubleness of Reality
In the third section of the novel, Lily’s brush descends in stroke after stroke when she begins her painting for a second time. ‘And so pausing and so flickering she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the stroke another, and all were related. ‘Thus, in each of the lighthouse beam itself, her vision begins to emerge in stroke and pause in alternation, and ‘the truth, the reality which suddenly laid hands upon her emerged stark at the back of appearance and commanded her attention’. In other words, as the light flickers, as it goes and comes back, Lily begins to see the course that her painting was to take. This flicker, which to an ordinary observer is an endless dull repetition, holds Lily’s mind and enables her to discover the truth and reality that the appearance signifies to her. The stroke and pause of the Lighthouse beam symbolise the problem of subject and object and the perception of nature of reality. Hence it may be concluded that reality has always a doubleness; and this can be understood only through a double vision.
Subject, Object and Native of Reality
We find this phrase—subject and object and the nature of reality—in the first part of To The Lighthouse. Andrew Ramsay has used this phrase in answer to a question from Lily Briscoe about the content of his father’s books. And the words are significant and have underlying meaning also. In fact it is exactly this problem which works its way through the novel on three perceptible levels—human relations, metaphysics and aesthetics. The novel can be seen to have been built around the problem of how the knower looks at the known, how one person looks at another, how man looks at nature and how the artist looks at life. These points have been discussed in detail in the foregoing paragraphs. We have shown how the main characters of To The Lighthouse look at the world in various ways. In fact three specific ways of seeing the object can be examined in To The Lighthouse through the eye of the artist (Lily Briscoe) through the eye of a child (James Nancy and Cam), and through the feminine creative eye of Mrs. Ramsay, whose vision might be solid to be that of a poet. Hence the characters see themselves and the world differently and very often bring the objective world into subjective consciousness.
To understand life and the nature of reality the need of double vision is essential. We may now conclude with the very apt comments of Norman Friedman on this point: “A right understanding is achieved by those who try to understand the nature of reality simultaneously from two different stand points—subjective and objective—through which one must pass in making the transition from one perspective to the other. From whatever view point we regard life, whether it be that of a detached philosopher ironically contemplating from a height’ or that of the busy mother and the house wife frantically involved in the fever and fret of daily routine, one must give it up in favour of the other, becoming immersed in the waters of transition and emerging with a double perspective (synthesis). In other words, both an involvement in life and a certain detachment from it, are necessary to understand it fully. Doing only one of the two would naturally give a partial view of a life, which can be quite misleading. Hence the need for a double vision. One has to strike a balance, to lose which is to give way to the chaos, of a black and lovely darkness on the one side, and to the disorder of a terrifying and senseless force on the other.”