Thursday, 16 March 2017

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I wanted to read Virginia Woolf for a long time but somehow did not get around to do it. One day recently, I grabbed To the Lighthouse which I have had in my bookcase for quite some time. If this is something typically of her, I am a new fan. A wonderfully written book, with mesmerising characters.

While reading I was thinking of the Bloomsbury group and her own family. How people gathered in the summers to be creative, social or anti-social, meeting friends and enjoying themselves. I read that this novel is partly autobiographical and it was a great strain for her to write it.

The novel is divided into three parts; in the first part, we meet Mrs and Mr Ramsay, their family of eight children and invited friends and colleagues. The story starts when their son James wants to go to the Lighthouse and Mrs Ramsay promises to take him there tomorrow, should the weather be fine. Mr Ramsay spoils it by saying that the weather will not be fine.

Mr Ramsay is a philosophy professor and successful academics. He also makes a point to know everything, and he is always right. Mrs Ramsay is a woman loved by everyone. All people around her, family as well as friends, sees her at the centre of the universe.

We understand from the discussion of the weather, and whether it is possible or not to go to the Lighthouse, that there is an underlying conflict between Mr and Mrs Ramsay, as well as between Mr Ramsay and James, as well as with his other children. We meet Lily Briscoe, a young painter, who is trying to paint Mrs Ramsay and James. She has doubts about her talent. This is further put in doubt when another house guest, Mr Tansley, says that women can't paint. Mr Tansley is an ardent admirer of Mr Ramsay. At the evening dinner Mrs Ramsay is unusually irritated on people arriving late, or not at all, and how the dinner conversation is going. How can you plan a dinner when the guests are not disciplined? Furthermore, she is the only one who can keep Mr Ramsay happy, but she seems to have had it with him as well. They never get to go to the Lighthouse.

The second part takes place ten years later, after the First World War. Mrs Ramsay is dead, as is two of her children. Mr Ramsay is lost without the praise and comfort of his wife, and is also starting to doubt his own academic career. Mrs McNab working in the abandoned house is the only one who has taken care of it during the years. Now it is in an appalling state and needs care and attention. Her pleading to Mr Ramsay has not generated any money, only his over-all belief that she will manage the house.

In the third and final part we are back at the house which is now in a deteriorating state. The group of people are also less than last time. Mr Ramsay suddenly decides that it is time to go to the Lighthouse, and urges his daughter Camilla and son James to prepare, although they are reluctant. During most of the sail, they keep silent in protest, and only Mr Ramsay and the sailors Macalister and his son are keeping up a polite conversation.

As they are on their way Lily Briscoe tries to finally complete her unfinished painting from ten years ago. As she is working she is trying to see Mrs Ramsay in a more objective light than before, but misses her presence. She sees the boat on the way to the Lighthouse and manages with a last effort to finalise the painting. In stead of feeling satisfied she realises that the finalisation is more important than the work she has put in it.

The novel does not include a lot of dialogue. The ideas and thought come out as observations, only in the mind of the people. It highlights childhood feelings and problematic adult relationships. It seems several of the characters have a sense of loss, without being able to clearly understand why. Mrs Ramsay was loved by everyone, and even made her impact on people long after her death. She was the centre that kept them all together. When she is gone they are all shattered. The novel ends in some kind of satisfaction for Mr Ramsay and the children who finally reached the Lighthouse, but the story ends in a sort of nothingness.

Woolf writes a beautiful prose and the descriptions are full of sunshine. You can easily see all of the characters in their milieu in front of you while reading. It is like an impressionist painting. Warm sunshine and pastell colours. I really enjoyed reading it and was sad when it was finished. The story and its characters have lingered with me for a long time.


  1. Thanks, I definitely want to try this one, though the author scares me a little, lol

  2. This is my favourite and it is quite an easy read. Full of sunshine and summer and a remarkable woman.

  3. "Woolf writes a beautiful prose and the descriptions are full of sunshine. You can easily see all of the characters in their milieu in front of you while reading. It is like an impressionist painting. Warm sunshine and pastell colours." what a lovely thing to say - I now can't wait until it's time to read To the Lighthouse.

    1. I do hope you like it. It is a story full of sunshine, at least in the beginning. The way Woolf describes the guests of the house, their doings at different times and the days passing by is so wonderful. You just see it in front of you. It changes into a little bit more serious further on. I still consider it one of my favourite books.