To the Lighthouse

Are people afraid of Virginia Woolf, per the Edward Albee play, because she’s got the reputation of being a big tough writer, or because she’s genuinely hard to read and understand? As a a relative latecomer to her, the issue was at the forefront of my mind as I read To the Lighthouse, as was how glad I am to have come to her now as opposed to earlier, when I don’t think I would’ve been prepared. Now, I see To the Lighthouse as it was intended: as a vast artistic statement with much history behind it, which makes it a writer’s novel, or an intense reader’s; it reconciles so many opposites, being both fluid and structured, artificial and real, and yet at the cost, I suspect, of being easily understood through one’s first reading. To the Lighthouse demands such familiarity with what conventional narration is that to comprehend it with any fullness requires wide and deep reading as initiation. In Reflections on the Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco describes how he came to structure The Name of the Rose:

After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill (41).

Such a process isn’t built into To the Lighthouse, and without preparation, I suspect reading it would be like trying to understand trigonometry without knowing algebra. That might be an unfair comparison, especially given the hackles I’m sure it raises in the math phobic, but I make it for good reason: Woolf is built on understanding why and how she uses her great strength and technique: free indirect speech or limited omniscient narration, depending on the term you prefer, which allow her to peer into all her characters’ minds, allowing each to perceive the other’s limitations, weaknesses, foibles, and problems. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Those who wonder: Am I smart enough? Do I not get it? Am I like one of the characters, each of whom is shown with flaws more glaring than those of most hardboiled detective fiction?

The way we learn of those flaws also startles because of the novel’s shifting temporality: long paragraphs of thought explaining an interaction interrupt speech, so that the first statement and response to it are alienated. In later writers, like Raymond Carver, the speech and situation are simply assumed to be alienated from one another, the domestic situation strained or unspoken, and no longer interruptions necessary. But in Woolf, we have an explanation—but only from a character’s point of view. Here is one such passage, quoted at length because shortening it would defeat its purpose:

‘You won’t finish that stocking to-night,’ he said, pointing to her stocking. That was what she wanted – the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought; the marriage will turn out all right.
‘No,’ she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee. ‘I shan’t finish it.’
And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something – wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could always say things – she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so – it was not so. It was only that she could never say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? […]
[This continues for much longer, until, finally—]
‘Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tonight.’ She had not said it, but he knew it. And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again.

Triumphed? In what context? I hear Kurtz saying, “The Horror! The Horror!” and wonder, like an uncontacted tribe before a helicopter. The “triumph” comes at the end of To the Lighthouse’s first section, and it is as enigmatic as what proceed it. Notice that “he wanted something,” but it’s not clear that the thing he wanted or that she found so difficult is the love mentioned in the next part of the sentence. “Something” hangs ambiguously, like a writer trying to give the reader what the reader longs for but never knew they longed for.

Instead we long for something that we give imperfect names: depth of characterization, fastness of plot, reality, “entertainment,” symbolism, aesthetic experiences, or the other facets of a gem we call literature, or experience, or many other names. In Woolf, the mystery of that search comes from the deep internal lives of the characters and that contrast with their external lives—inside, they register knowledge, social orders, hierarchies, shifts, and even epiphanies, but all this happens beneath the veneer of social propriety and limited, clipped speech like “Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tonight,” ending an internal, gushing well of feeling that finds so little expression in speech. If someone like Robert Penn Warren strives to balance speech and internal monologue, making them reflect one another, abd Elmore Leonard pushes to strive almost entirely for description through speech, then Woolf, in contrast, pushes the seesaw almost solely on the side of the internal—which she can only accomplish through deft, extraordinary use of free indirect speech—otherwise we would have the hammering of a single and limited consciousness, which would deafen us with the repetition of its primary and perceptions, making us try to see through it rather than allowing the narrator to work. But the shifts aren’t easily perceived, making them different from novels where the narrators are clearly delineated, like Eliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity.

These traits make Woolf an acquired taste but one essential for writers to sample, and it’s also one usually acquired after tiring of novels driven solely by plot and novels without the depth of characterization Woolf has. Maybe Faulkner is the same way: I’ve never enjoyed reading his novels even as I recognize their importance. Yet I think I see a dividing line with Woolf and Proust—another modernist favorite more cited than read—on one side and Faulkner and Joyce on the other, with moving toward the former rather than the latter. This post in part articulates why, but there’s much more I can’t yet articulate. All four writers offer mystery above all, and not one that can be explained by finding out whodunit; therefore, I’m left describing without adequately explaining.

What would Woolf make of starting this problem? I’m not sure, as I complete this slippery review that too often uses the word “I,” establishing myself as a single perspective against the many “I’s” in To the Lighthouse. Still, Woolf influences how I now write posts: acknowledging myself, my biases, and the problems with my own reading, as well as what others would say to critics over-fond of “I”: narcissistic, obsessed with their own response, and the like. To them I have no perfect answer, though Virginia Woolf seems a good one.


“What, indeed, if you look from a mountain-top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still.”

—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

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