They finally made it to the lighthouse. It took them the whole novel to get there but when Mr Ramsay and his children reach the shore, the destination – “a stark tower on a bare rock” – pales in comparison with the craggy and drawn-out journey that led up to it. This beautiful novel set on an island off the coast of Scotland (The Hebrides) is my first attempt at reading Woolf’s fiction, and arguably a compelling introduction to her writing. The main plotline seems to revolve around the question of whether the weather will be fine enough for the Ramsays to make that long-anticipated boat trip to the disquieting silhouette looming in the distance. But this deceivingly trivial climatic element is only one functional motif in the misty ambiance Woolf establishes through the characters’ perceptions of reality. I guess what matters ultimately in this book is not so much that Mr and Mrs Ramsay fail to reconcile their conflicting personalities and aspirations in the middle class drama, that the children James and Cam feel ambivalent about their father’s overbearing authority, or that despite her admiration for Mrs Ramsay’s beauty Lily Briscoe can’t seem to conjure up the right mix of colors to paint her portrait faithfully, as how all these issues are informed by the natural landmarks of the island and the dislocation of time that results from that insular environment. The constant ebb and flow of the waves seems to metaphorically reflect the characters’ idiosyncratic relationships with time. Time does seem to stand still on this island and yet there is a sense that everything has already been experienced and can only be missed or recreated through melancholic recollection. Mrs Ramsay knits her way through domesticity like an impatient Penelope not waiting for her Odysseus but struggling to gain a sense of herself around his (Mr Ramsay’s) dominant presence. A boeuf en daube takes twenty or thirty pages to be finally eaten while speculation runs high as to whether the latecomers to this pivotal dinner, Paul and Minta, got engaged in the meantime. By moving to this island, Mr Ramsay has turned away from the accolades of scholarly recognition but he is restlessly craving the attention and praise of his wife and children and intent on teaching those “young men at Cardiff” a lesson or two. Through it all, one family member gets killed at the western front of WW1, others from childbirth or diseases, only to resurrect later in the next wave of reminiscences. Divided into three sections – The Window, Time Passes, The Lighthouse – the novel has all the Proustian knack for evocative metaphors and detailed characterizations. The underlying theme seems to be the perception of reality and how each character strives to see and remember in a natural environment that dictates the progression of time and what the characters will be able to accomplish in its changing rhythms. Will Lily Briscoe ever finish her painting? Is it too late for Mr Ramsay to make amends and take his children to the lighthouse? Although Woolf equips her characters with acute vision, shapes and objects dissolve as if washed away by the tide shifts of the sea. Here’s Lily Briscoe observing Mrs Ramsay:
“Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.”
I can’t really elaborate on this novel as much as I intended. Oh well, books need to be read not commented on, right? By blurring the line between the vastness of the surrounding space and the smallness of domestic life, between the slow rhythms of insularity and the instantaneous flashes of the lighthouse, Woolf wrote an important novel. To say that her writing ranks alongside the 20th century modernists like Proust or Joyce is probably a truism but one we don’t hear that often (women of the 21st century, revolt!). I can hardly wait to ride The Waves.
Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (copyright 1927; A Harvest HBJ Book, 1989). Any edition will do, of course.