Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To the Lighthouse, Woolf

To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf

“No, the other was the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.”

            The essence of the book is that everything one thinks, feels, and sees is real, at least for that moment. One wants to sum the book up with some definite truths – either there is connection among people, or there is not connection among people and we all, as Mr. Ramsay says, “perish, each alone.” Come on, Woolf, make up your mind already! a reviewer might be inclined to shout. But the flashing in and out is, of course, the point. Can people connect, the book asks? Yes. When, how? Seldom, it answers; the how changes all the time.
            The book has three parts: The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse. The first sets the scene of the Ramsay family at what might be considered the height, or heyday of their communal happiness. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are staying at their house at the seaside along with their eight children and several family friends. Though the story comes to us primarily through the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay, the thoughts of a few of the children and several of the guests are also conveyed. The overall impression is of a cozy life of pleasure, marred by only fleeting disturbances of emotion.  
In the Time Passes section we are told, in small, bracketed paragraphs, that Mrs. Ramsay and two of her children have passed away in separate incidents. The beautiful and melancholic descriptions of nature, light and shadows here reminded me a little of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, which I have reviewed on this blog before.
Finally, in The Lighthouse, a few of the family members – Mr. Ramsay and two of his children – and two of the guests return to the seaside house. This section is primarily told through the still (happily) unmarried painter, Lily Briscoe.
            “Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? – startling, unexpected, unknown?” 
            These thoughts of Lily’s hint at one of the central themes of this book, and of all of Woolf’s fiction – Time. How do we, and how do others, change? Why does everything always change? Perhaps most importantly, what remains? All of the characters in To the Lighthouse ask themselves these questions in different ways. What they do not do, however, is ask each other. This brings us to the next most important theme in the book – Connection. Everyone here seeks connection with others, and all find moments of it. For no one, though, does this sense of connection to humanity last longer than a few brief, blissful moments. This remains true. The characters’ understanding and acceptance of that truth changes.
            All of the typical Woolf elements are here: waves, the seaside, rocks, light, shadows, parties, artist characters. And, as I said, so are her usual preoccupations – Time and Connection. It’s tempting to judge a writer, such as Woolf (or Robbins, or Auster, or Austen, or Huxley, etc etc) for getting stuck on a theme or a particular set of questions. We could dismiss these writers as “one trick ponies,” but I contend that in so doing we would miss out on each of their beautiful attempts to convey what haunts and inspires them.

            What do you think? If a writer always comes back to the same themes, do you get bored? Do you stop buying their next books? Or do you find that you love their voice, style and particular way of looking at the world so much that you don’t mind the repetition, instead enjoying journeying along with them on a new, slightly different foray into their obsessions?

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