On Re-Reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
I had the flu when I reread To the Lighthouse, more than 30 years after my first reading, and I was struck in the haze of fever by my frailty in the face of illness and aging and by Virginia Woolf’s poetic vision of life and death and what it all means. In her essay “On Being Ill” in her Collected Essays, she said, “The wave of life flings itself out indefatigably. It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out.”
The brevity of life and the inevitability of loss seem to me to be the foundations from which To the Lighthouse explores the questions of existence and how to make sense of it.
Loss pervades the story. In the first and longest section “The Window”—the section most full of family, children, friends, activity—one cannot evade this sense of loss. Mrs. Ramsay—50, uncommonly beautiful, and intimately, actively involved in the lives of all around her—is intensely aware of how the waves on the beach “like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life ... and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow.”
Her oldest son Andrew explains to Lily, the lovely artistic house guest, Mr. Ramsay’s philosophical pursuit, his work: “Subject and object and the nature of reality … .” When Lily cannot understand Andrew’s explanation of his father’s books, he says in exquisite simplicity, “Think of a kitchen table then … when you’re not there.”
Loss, what is gone, emerges even here, early in the novel. Though in Lily’s mind this table ends up scrubbed and in a pear tree. The vision of the table remains in her mind at the end of the novel as “something bare, hard … uncompromisingly plain,” much like existence as revealed in this novel.
Mrs. Ramsay looks out on the constant stroke of the Lighthouse, thinks of her youngest son James’s disappointment because they will not make the trip to the Lighthouse that day, knows that he will remember this loss all his life, she says inside her head, “It will end, it will end.”
But it is not the disappointment she refers to; it is the larger question of existence. The fact that all will end and the question, What does it mean? are central to her thinking.
It is Lily who ultimately asks this question pointedly at the opening of the last section “The Lighthouse,” but it is Mrs. Ramsay who moves us in that direction from the first. “With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice... . No happiness lasted; she knew that.” And it is she who first introduces the question of meaning as she sits down to dinner and the fullness that family and friends bring to her table when she asks herself, “But what have I done with my life?” And it is she who notes at the end of the dinner, “… it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already past.”
Thus it seems fitting that the novel’s briefest and to my mind most powerful section “Time Passes” should dramatically shift its point of view, a literary technique difficult to manage and that marks her eloquent stamp on literature, to the forces that bring these losses and confound answers to the questions of time and nature.
Here the fact that nature “in the end will conquer” is made explicit. “The little airs”—unseen, detached from the body of the wind, feather-light—“gave off an aimless gust of lamentation… .” As the reader palpably experiences the decay of the family home through Ms. Woolf’s lyrical, rhythmic prose, she emphatically speaks of “this silence, this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling” and gives force to the impalpable, inexorable power of time and nature. In this context, three deaths occur in brackets: Mrs. Ramsay, rather suddenly; her daughter Prue Ramsay, in childbirth; her son Andrew, in the war. These deaths occur in brackets to place them more clearly in the perspective of the insight Mrs. Ramsay has given us in “The Window”: “It will end, it will end.”
The last section “The Lighthouse” gives Lily the task of asking what it all means: “Why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable,” she asks and cries out Mrs. Ramsay’s name. As if in answer, her question is followed by a one sentence chapter in a bracket: “Macalister’s boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with. The mutilated body (it was alive still) was thrown back into the sea.”
In that juxtaposition, without explanation, Ms. Woolf shows the brevity, cruelty and violence of life. As the novel moves toward its lyrical close, Lily tells us, “So much depends then … upon distance.”
She has been watching Mr. Ramsay and two of his children James and Cam on their journey of grief to the Lighthouse in memory of Mrs. Ramsay, who remains a force throughout the reading. The novel ends when Lily completes her painting and with her words, “I have had my vision.”
And I am left with a vision of the enormous complexity of the questions of existence that Ms. Woolf has briefly, brilliantly etched through Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, the domesticity of family and friends, the little airs that brought decay to their house and a boat ride to the Lighthouse.
I am reminded of Rabbi Hillel who in the part of The Talmud, “The Maxims of the Fathers” from the second century A.D., asks “Even if I think of myself, what am I?”
I am reminded of my 84-year-old father who called me in the middle of the night and asked. “What am I here for?”—a cry of despair that underscored for me the humility of existence.
On re-reading Virginia Woolf, I see that, like James Joyce, whom she praises in her essay “Modern Fiction,” she is “concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain” and that “if honestly examined life presents question after question which must be left to sound on and on after the story is over.”
Re-reading Woolf will enlighten and resonate.
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