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Reviving the classics: To the Lighthouse

To The Lighthouse

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 out of 5 stars

Mr and Mrs Ramsey spend their summer holidays surrounded by their children and friends. They have walks, talk about philosophy, and indulge in their passions like reading, poetry or painting. The returning topic is a trip to the nearby Lighthouse…

This book is difficult to summarise, as there is not much of a linear plot. The characters are brought together, and the author focuses more on what they think and feel than what they do. Virginia Woolf is a perfect example of a modernist writer using contemporary techniques. The techniques celebrated among the novelists of modernity were collected under the name of the stream of consciousness, named after William James’ description of how the mind experience perceptions, thoughts and memories— flowing, continuous and unbroken. In the literature context, the stream of consciousness works are those that, according to the definition coined by Robert Humphrey: ‘have as their essential subject matter the consciousness of one or more characters; that is, the depicted consciousness serves as a screen on which the material in these novels is presented.’[1]

However, the term “stream of consciousness” appears to be confusing and misused frequently. Many known works, like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, should not be taken into consideration unless we understand the phrase “stream of consciousness” as “inner awareness”. The technique used in To the Lighthouse is an indirect interior monologue, which Humphrey defines as a ‘monologue in which an omniscient author presents unspoken material as if it were directly from the consciousness of a character and, with commentary and description, guides the reader through it.’[2] The author is a conveyor of the character’s interior life. The most challenging task for the author is to maintain the characteristics of private consciousness, like personal symbols or codes, discontinuity and incoherence, while still communicating some meaning to the reader.

To the Lighthouse can be read in multiple ways. Some critics believe it to be an almost autobiographical novel, where Mr and Mrs Ramsey are identified with Woolf’s parents. The book would allow the author to process the problematic relationship between them, their premature deaths that left her devastated, and the demanding nature of her father— Leslie Stephen.

Another interpretation follows the scorned artist Lily Briscoe in her struggle to finish her painting. Woolf relates to the fleeting nature of inspiration and impressions and the challenges faced by female artists. In a society that has seen women mainly as wives and mothers, Woolf placed her poorly adapted heroine, who could not follow conventions. Aware that marriage would mean the end of her independence and her bellowed art, Lily led a humble life in her father’s house. She was determined to finish her artwork, but she was halted by her demons, raised by the popular claim that women could not produce works of art. Some critics identify Lily with Virginia Woolf or her sister Vanessa Bell who was a painter.

To sum up, Virginia Woolf’s books are not easy to read. The narrator follows the characters’ stream of thought, which can be unclear, chaotic, and discontinuous. It jumps between thoughts and impressions, past and present, just like our minds do. When you read it, you need to let go of your expectations of the linear plot and just let yourself be carried away by Woolf’s stream of words. She was a masterful writer, and her style is unique and beautiful. It is worth the initial effort.

[1]Robert Humphrey, Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press , 1954), p. 2.

[2] Humphrey, p. 29.


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