To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Wolf

Review by Edward Tanguay
February 26, 1996

I've read through the first chapter "The Window" so far and have enjoyed floating around ghost-like through these characters thoughts. It's a fresh point of view, a innovative perspective. Like Lael, in terms of the plot and characters, I am a bit lost (William Bankes, Minta Doyle, Paul Reyley, Charles Tansely, the Ramsey bunch, Mildred, Carrie, Jasper, Augustus . . . who are all these people--hard to narrow in on specific characters). But the text is somehow flowing and easy to read. It streams along like thought itself, interconnectedly:

He worked hard--seven hours a day; his subject was now the influence of something upon somebody--they were walking on and Mrs. Ramsay did not quite catch the meaning, only the words, here and there . . . dissertaion . . . fellowship . . . readership . . . lectureship.

This text is much easier to read than, say, Faulkner's _The Sound and the Fury_ which also hovers the reader through the minds of the characters. Woolfe's characters are much saner and more clear- thinking. I enjoyed discovering gem-like descriptions here and there:

All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net--danced up and down in Lily's mind.

. . . she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.

Minta, Andrew observed, was rather a good walker. She wore more sensible clothes than most women. She wore very short skirts and black knickerbockers. She would jump straight into a stream and flounder across. He liked her rashness, but he saw that it would not do--she would kill herself in some idiotic way one of these days.

Sitting opposite him could she not see, as in an X-ray photgraph, the ribs and thigh bones of the young man's desire to impress himself lying dark in the mist of his flesh--that thin mist which convention had laid over his burning desire to break into the conversation? (!)

He loathed people eating when he had finished. She saw his anger fly like a pack of hounds into his eyes, his brow, and she knew that in a moment something violent would explode, and then--but thank goodness! she saw him clutch himself and clap a brake on the wheel, and the whole of his body seemed to emit sparks but not words. (!)

I get the feeling that this is a "feminine" book. The style and the ideas seem soft and fluffy. The atmosphere is flowing with emotion and feelings and nuances and caring and wanting to take everything into consideration. This atmosphere serves as a sharp background foil to

Mr. Ramsay's blunt, masculine character. He is hard and rude and rough and mean. The contrast is striking and is well played out at the end of the first chapter when both Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are sitting up reading having their war of thoughts. Their contrast is fascinating.

*** To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
*** Review of the SECOND half
*** by Edward Tanguay
*** March 3, 1996

Having finished this book, I don't feel as though I have read a novel but a long poem. The perspective seems to hover and the language is smooth and easy to read. It has a nice rhythm. Even the myriad of things Woolf put in parentheses and brackets (sudden deaths of characters of all things!) were not jarring but seemed to pattern the way one thinks.

Against this flowing style is the hard and dominant character, Mr. Ramsay. He is relentless in his rigidity. Mr. Ramsay is an extreme character but someone who reminds you of people you know who are domineering yet have positive qualities as well. Woolf has a gift for the description of feelings and characters. Here are three descriptions of Mr. Ramsay which give him depth and help you to feel as though you know him:

But with Mr. Ramsay bearing down on her, she could do nothing. Every time he approached--he was walking up and down the terrace-- ruin approached, chaos approached. She could not paint. She stooped, she turned; she took up this rag; she squeezed that tube. But all she did was to ward him off a moment. He made it impossible for her to do anything.

That man, she thought, her anger rising in her, never gave; that man took. She, on the other hand, would be forced to give. Mrs. Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died--and had left all this. Really she was angry with Mrs. Ramsay. With the brush slightly trembling in her fingers she looked at the hedge, the step, the wall. It was all Mrs. Ramsay's doing. She was dead.

At any moment Mr. Ramsay (James scarcely dared look at him) might rouse himself, shut his book, and say something sharp . . .

I sensed a pairing of "feminine" and "masculine" thinking in this book. The whole style, the connectivity, the flowing thoughts, the inexpressable thoughts, the allusions, the metaphors, all helped draw out the directness and baseness of Mr. Ramsay and other men in the novel, for example, the shocking punch Woolf made with this single- paragraph chapter:

[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.]

I'm not sure Woolf wants to say which way of looking at the world is better, she simply want to draw the two approaches to extremes in Mr. Ramsay and the men on one side with the "masculine" perspective, and especially Lily and Mrs. Ramsay and the structure and perspective of the novel itself on the other side with the "feminine" outlook.

I enjoyed Woolf's skill of description in this novel. She has a talent for using metaphors and analogies, and can capture and minutely

describe events that ordinarily just pass through your mind in fleeting thoughts:

They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet. In complete silence she stood there, grasping her paint brush.

But his father did not rouse himself. He only raised his right hand mysteriously high in the air, and let it fall upon his knee again as if he were conducting some secret symphony.

He read, she thought, as if he were guiding something, or wheedling a large flock of sheep, or pushing his way up and up a single path; and somethimes he went fast and straight, and broke his way through the thicket, and sometimes it seemed a branch struck at thim, a bramble blinded him, but he was not going to let himself be beaten by that; on he went, tossing over page after page.

I found the relationship, or rather the tension between Charles and Lily interesting and insightful but never was able to center on what exactly their problem with each other was. That would be a relationship to center on for the next reading of this.

I think this stream-of-consciousness style of writing is significant for the 20th century with its breakdown of grandiose, supporting schemes. I admire Woolf's experimentation in emphasizing the perspectives of characters. Any well-read author, Virginia Woolf having ambushed her father's library when she was young, is worth reading simply to be exposed to the compilation of vast areas of thought. I see Virginia Woolfe's writing as a doorway to English prose and poetry and an understanding, if not a reinterpretation, of Victorian literature and thought.

Edward Tanguay

Send your thoughts on this book to The Online Reading Club.
Find out which books we are currently reading.