Review: ‘To the Lighthouse’


 To the Lighthouse
By Virginia Woolf

  • Date finished: Oct. 3, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1927
  • Project: Favorites Project
  • Reading List: Fall 2014
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon reading:

The last time I read To the Lighthouse was the first time I read it, during a 400-level English class in college devoted entirely to the works of Virginia Woolf. I believe I had read just one book by Virginia Woolf before I took the class (Mrs. Dalloway? That would make sense), and I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about her. But it was taught by one of my favorite English professors at Miami University, and it seemed to be the most interesting of the author-specific classes, so I took the chance.

We ended up reading around eight to ten books by Ms. Woolf, and overall, it was just a wonderful class. Virginia Woolf, considered one of the earliest modernists, is not an easy author to navigate. Her books are richly written and self-aware, and the stories she tells can seem both mundane and off-the-wall. Every time I see a cocker spaniel, for instance, I call it a “Flush dog,” reminded of Woolf’ novel Flush, which tells the story of Emily Barrett Browning from the perspective of her spaniel, Flush. Women are at the center of Woolf’s works, presented (in my opinion) as both melancholy and empowering figures.

I wanted to re-read To the Lighthouse because I think it’s the book that, years later, stands out to me as the most iconic Woolf. A lot of people think of Mrs. Dalloway, and yet I, and some critics, would argue that Woolf is defined by To the Lighthouse, a work that, even now, is difficult to describe and full of philosophical introspection.

Let me start with the basics. The first part of To the Lighthouse tells the story of the Ramsays, a British family, as they go through an ordinary afternoon at their seaside cottage. Then, the book describes the passage of 10 years time, as the cottage is left empty during the first World War and several of the Ramsays die (including the ever-present Mrs. Ramsay). In the third section, the Ramsays and their friends return to the cottage and finally make the long-anticipated journey to the lighthouse in the bay, which has been slowly marking the passage of time with each revolution of its beam of light.

I won’t lie: as much as I love Viriginia Woolf, and I loved the class I took on her, she’s still a very tough writer to understand. I would have had to spend quite a bit more time than I had really reading this book – and doing the appropriate research to stay on top of everything going on in-between the lines – to fully “get it”. As it was, life has been busy, and it took me much longer to actually finish this relatively short book.

And so, I won’t pretend here to be an expert on all that happens in this novel, except to state that To the Lighthouse is less a novel driven by plot, and more by the intricacies and complexities that dictate human experience. This book passes fluidly in and out of various characters’, providing a very rich account of a single afternoon as experienced by multiple individuals with various point-of-views. What are we reading, then, is less an account of an event, and more of how that event happens in real life. Woolf is truly a genius for the way she details these thoughts and emotions, all of which feel very real and raw.

What I can say about To the Lighthouse, and about all of Woolf’s novels, is that I absolutely love their inner rhythm. Just as this novel is about the complexity of human experience, the book itself presents its own kind of experience for the reader, serving as a echo of the world it creates of us. Woolf’s writing pulses with the rhythmic rush of waves as they beat mercilessly, ceaselessly, soothingly against the rocky shore. As the years pass, we can feel the wind’s tiny hands creeping under door frames and around an abandoned teacup, see the white light from the lighhouse passing again…and again…over a bedroom wall.

This is why you can’t rush through Virginia Woolf, and why, despite her complex modernist themes, I can’t help but love her. Reading Woolf is an experience. There’s a certain quietness at the center of her works that, somehow, is able to bring me out of the ordinary world and into myself, where I’m reminded of certain fundamental truths about myself and life – why I love the flow of words written well, why the sea is a terrifying and wonderful beast, why the light falling across a windowpane can be so beautiful, it makes you feel like crying. I know this all sounds like a bunch of garbley-gook, but THESE are the thoughts of Woolf leaves me with. Very little else is able to do that, and that my friends, is the power of a good book. If only there were more.


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