Of the many possible approaches to discussing Woolf’s novels, some concern her portrayal of men and women, her vision of “moments of being,” her ways of rendering characters’ consciousness, and her understanding of how art infuses and illuminates lives. In my earlier posts on modern fiction, I have emphasized a sort of gigantism both of modern novelists’ ambitions and of their created characters’ selves, in the face of modernity’s paradoxical combination of enormous growth and encompassing disillusionment, due in part to the Great War’s millions of lives lost. That sense of the modern novel as a process of “magnification” is evident in Woolf’s work; I’ll be focusing my comments here on her most developed novel after Mrs. Dalloway (1925): the great To the Lighthouse, published in 1927 (her fine 1931 novel, The Waves, resonates with similar themes though it is perhaps less realized “as a novel” than the earlier two). In many respects, both of these later novels are acts of mourning and, in a sense, homages to her late parents in the 1927 novel and to her late brother in The Waves.
To the Lighthouse is dominated by three characters – Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. There are many subordinate characters (the Ramsay children, friends of the family, etc.), but the moments of deepest vision and richest human contact involve those three characters in one way or another. Both women are artists, Lily literally and Mrs. Ramsay in terms of her shaping of the human relations around her and also her imaginative sensitivity and receptivity. Both characters are, in different ways, attuned to the neediness of Mr. Ramsay and the other male characters, though Lily explicitly rejects the “angel in the house” role of bolstering and soothing the male ego and compensating for instances of male sterility (for example, Charles Tansley’s insecure and compensating ego). Mrs. Ramsay, in contrast, triumphs in precisely those activities, certainly in protecting the bright but poverty-stricken Charles and particularly with regard to her husband, Mr. Ramsay, but Mrs. Ramsay does so as part of the larger project of nurturing all the humans connected to her, male and female alike, so that falsifying Victorian sexual politics seem to have loosed its grip on her. The novel's great example of her project is her family dinner, exactly at the center of the novel, where boeuf en daub is served and each member and guest is made to feel part of the living continuum of human relations she “orchestrates.”
Central – and thrilling – in this novel, however, is Mrs. Ramsay’s imaginative self-consciousness and self-accounting; these reveries loom and envelop the first half of the novel, a wonderful instance of Woolf’s magnifying a character’s consciousness into a “giant in time.” Images of death repeatedly register in her consciousness as do images of living possibility (along with those of thwarting chaos and failures to communicate). The imagery which embodies these perceptions shoot through her magnified consciousness, and they are additionally remarkable for being unwittingly shared by Lily, the also self-searching summer guest who is painting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay.
This shared imagery within the enveloping consciousness of each character establishes an unconscious connection among Woolf’s main characters, often independent of class, gender, or role: an “underground” structure of shared humanity, which is in part Woolf’s modernist response to the pervasiveness of alienation and death in the period. For example, there are the waves Mrs. Ramsay hears, which “like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life.” Soon Lily sees “the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves…[where] behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water.” Later, when Mr. Ramsay stands there demanding “sympathy,” Mrs. Ramsay “seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her [knitting] again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself.” Later still Mrs. Ramsay senses “dully, ominously, a wave fall, how it came to this” exhaustion she now feels; this occurs just before Lily sees the family before her “like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”
This shared imagery helps to unify the novel’s unfolding structure of consciousness, or rather its process by which each character's consciousness is unfurled and displayed in all its rich verbal tapestry. (As you can see from the clash of terms, temporal and spatial dimensions face off against each other in this novel, so that in the second part of the novel, images of time’s action devastate both character and plot.) The culmination of the imagery woven through the novel’s first hundred and twenty pages occurs when Lily attempts to complete the portrait, she searches for some representation of Mrs. Ramsay’s “unity,” her capacity to compose all their lives, and she paints a dark “triangular purple shape” to balance the composition. This image is echoed at the end of the evening, when Mrs. Ramsay wants finally “to be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.” Then she looks out at the lighthouse, responsive to the light from it, the plan to visit it, the living promise of the visit.
The novel’s imagery, then, takes up entire lives – of Mrs. Ramsay and all who surround her – and helps to transform them into a beautifully unified composition. Of course, not only the imagery works in this way, for the internal monologues which bear the images within them are themselves flowing and brilliant constructs, great envelopes of self-critical awareness, as we’ve seen. (Woolf portrays Mr. Ramsay himself as a scathingly self-critical consciousness; the noted philosopher struggles against the failure of reason to account for existence. The results are his piteousness and his bitterness and even his refusal to take his son James to the Lighthouse the next morning.)
Of course, the visit does not occur that morning. In fact, the novel’s first part – “The Window,” with its domestic vantage point – gives way to the short, abrupt “Time Passes,” which in twenty pages chronicles the abandonment of the summer house in the following years. The sentences here contain clipped, abrupt phrases of turbulence and grief interspersed with terse, bracketed announcements of death [Mrs. Ramsay’s, their newly married daughter Prue’s, and in World War I, their son Andrew’s]. Time becomes a ruthless character in this second part of the novel; it is as if the richly composed first part of the novel were a fending off of time and death, “magnified,” shot through with premonition, yet a beautifully constructed oasis nonetheless.
“The Lighthouse,” the seventy-page third and final part of the novel, narrates the return of what remains of the family to the summer house, and it focuses on Lily Briscoe’s effort to confront the loss of Mrs. Ramsay and the grip death has on them all. She realizes both that sympathy might remedy their grief and that life and art, too, are nakedly vulnerable to the “waves,” to the reality of death. By the end of the novel, Mr. Ramsay, too, faces that vulnerability to an empty lonely universe. And on the sailboat finally nearing the lighthouse, he and his son James and his daughter Cam witness the fisherman’s son holding up a caught fish, mutilated and alive. Each character in this section is “extraordinarily exposed” to reality, and each faces how both violence and beauty can flash forth from ordinary experience. Here is Lily’s vision by the end of the novel: “to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” The huge infusion of imaginative consciousness achieved by Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a struggling yet beautifully composed and partly sacramental response of modern art to the modern period’s terrible disclosure that the world of things, like the world of people, is potentially a dead world. Here's a link to the novel: To the Lighthouse (and to The Waves).
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]