It’s one of those famous literary works you’re supposed to have read, may have taken a run at, and then ran away screaming. Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ is cited as one of the great works of modernist writing of the 20th Century. I will unashamedly admit to having skimmed it 20 years ago and chalked it up as artsy twaddle.
It is a very ‘literary‘ work – and by that I mean that it has very little action and it is often said to have no plot. The story is told through the interior thoughts of a number of characters and small snippets of dialogue between them. It is diegetic (telling) in the extreme. No one in Hollywood picked this up and thought it would make a thrilling film.
So, why read it?
Well, if you don’t enjoy the actual fabric of the language used in writing, this book will be heavy going. Woolf uses extreme levels of simile and metaphor and applies them to the task of describing atmosphere and emotion that most writers simply don’t tackle because of the limits of language to communicate highly liminal, transient and phenomenological events in the interactions between the characters and space and time.
Also, although I believe it has a plot – a very strong one – it isn’t an easily spotted one, because the plot is not about events but the evolution of selves and interrelations.
If you are frustrated by the lack of nuance with which most fictional relationships are represented, you’ll really enjoy the book. The level of emotional and subjective flux that Woolf attempts to describe is still, even today, bitingly realistic – almost embarrassingly so. We don’t like to admit our feelings can change on a dime, but they do, and this is one of the things that Woolf captures so well.
The characters are laid bare in all their narcissistic glory. We see them justify their attempts to soothe their wounded egos, their confusion over who they are supposed to be in the world, their disappointments over how their achievements have fallen short of their aspirations. And it is all detailed in almost hyperbolic subjectivity that imbues a kind of vertigo on the reader, forcing you to step away and constantly mark the point of view of the narrative.
‘To The Lighthouse’ is also a masterful, psychologically savvy understanding of relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents. Those uncomfortable ambivalences – where admiration and hatred, love and pity, jealousy and benevolence can exist, paired in almost quantum fluctuations.
In reading this, I came to assume that Lacan never read the book, or if he did, he wasn’t enough of a gentleman to acknowledge a debt, because his proclamation ‘Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’ (there is no such thing as a sexual ‘relationship’) is far more intelligibly explored in this story than Lacan or any of his protégés ever managed. Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey have had a lot of sexual contact – they have eight children – but it become clear in the first third of the novel that they really don’t know each other at all. They imagine what the other wants, and act to either meet or deny that set of imagined desires. But they are always projections of the desire of the other. Slowly, we begin to see that each of their assumptions of what the other desires are almost in contradiction to what they each need. Mrs. Ramsey believes that Mr. Ramsey wants an admiring, unclever but devoted wife; he really wants her sympathy for his professional and personal failure and he’d have no value for that sympathy if he felt it came from someone stupid and doggedly loyal. She wants desperately to be admired, to be perceived as beautiful and kind, but her husband believes she values her privacy (in fact, he believes that part of her frightening beauty is how it is seen from afar, isolated and on a pedestal) and part of that privacy is to leave her unadmired and unpraised. They don’t see each other. They see what they imagine the other wants to see.
There is also a strong Freudian tang to the story. Especially in the relationship between James Ramsey and his father. The description of his father’s interruption of his time with his mother, and even the physical choreography of the interchange is dramatically Oedipal.
The story is partitioned into three acts, all revolving around the Ramsey’s summer house on the Isle of Skye. One of the graceful themes of the story is that the house itself is a character. The first part tells of a summer gathering at the house before WWI. The second act is a deeply poetic and haunting story of the house, abandoned by the family and falling apart in the aftermath of the Great War and Mrs. Ramsey’s death. The third part is a reunion of the surviving characters who – after many years – finally manage to get ‘To the Lighthouse’.
I don’t want to mislead you. It’s not an easy read. It is mannered and the first part is especially frozen in a certain formalism of expression that is appropriate to the era. But if you write fiction, and if you are interested in seeing how completely a character might be fleshed out in prose, then I highly recommend you make the effort to read it.
Another compelling reason to visit this text as a contemporary writer is to remind ourselves that the ‘show don’t tell’ rule is not a commandment. That there are narrative possibilities in ‘telling’ that ‘showing’ cannot afford. For all Woolf’s apparent slowness of pace, if you blink, you’re going to miss something. The diegetic narrative in this work allows for a communication of detail that is simply not possible in a mimetic text.