Tuesday, 17 March 2015

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

To The Lighthouse is an unusual classic.  It is a work of experimental fiction that uses the 'stream of consciousness' style.  In reality, To The Lighthouse has no true narrator; we trace one characters thoughts and feelings and then move to another and so forth with no real comment on the validity of what has passed.  (In a way, this is a very 'mindful' novel as meditation/mindfulness often teaches you to be aware of all passing thoughts in a non-judgmental way.)  This novel is mostly a collection of "interior monologue".  I get the feeling that this novel isn't about plot for Woolf (mostly because the little that does happen isn't really examined, it just happens) but about human relationships and the meaning of life.

For some reason, I didn't connect with this book.  I liked the concept of having no narrator but in practice it was hard to know who was talking and who they were referring to.  There is no clear indication of when a change of perspective takes place, it just blurs into one.  If you don't want to do a lot of work reading this book then it can become very obscure very quickly.  I frequently had to go back to the blurb to try to figure out who was happening.  I think this is one of those books that will be better on the second read.

The other issue was that I didn't really care about the characters; I didn't get the deal over the lighthouse (but I think the main off-putting feature was how it was framed in Freudian terms).  I found Lily and Mrs Ramsey far more interesting characters and somehow, Lily reminded me of E.M. Forster's A Room With a View.  I think that the style of the novel constrained the elements of a book that I enjoy.  It is difficult to get to know a character in this way.  I enjoy a good plot and I also enjoy going into great depth with themes or character development.  This book is mostly an afternoon looked at from different perspectives.  When I put this book down, I did not feel a great desire to finish it and I struggled to get back into it.

The good parts of this book definitely come in waves.  Time Passes was by far my favourite section, in many ways I found it quite brutal but I didn't the book overall remarkable.  For those curious about the Boeuf en Daube in the dinner party,  I found this amazing blog post from yummy-books with a recipe, hopefully I can try it soon.

From what I could tell, there were two main themes, human relationships and the whether a person's life has any meaning, or can leave any significant legacy.  The first theme didn't really excite me.  It was mostly textbook Freudian themes and whether a woman can remain unmarried (both of which are now either cliché or mostly irrelevant).  The second theme was more interesting, but I felt it was just 'put out there' on the table.  Woolf seems to have picked out three types of 'paths' and each example thinks about what difference they will make in the world.  Firstly, we have a philosopher (Mr Ramsay) who obsesses over his work, whether it is any good, what affect it will have etc.  Then we have the artist (Lily) who struggles trying to accurately depict what she sees on the canvas.  Finally, we have the mother (Mrs Ramsay) whose concern is her family and friends.  I enjoyed how Woolf portrayed the insecurities and doubts of Lily and Mr Ramsay and I wonder how much they applied to Woolf herself.  If I am honest and without any spoilers, I think that out of the three Mrs Ramsay will leave the biggest legacy.  This frankly surprised me, as before this I would have thought it would have been the philosopher.  The other thing that surprised me was this:
“The very stone one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare."
A lot of the questions are left to the reader to ask; they are not hinted at subtly like many other authors do.  Perhaps, the answer Woolf hints at is that the majority of us will only ever have a finite affect on the world around us.  I think Woolf's own effect depends on the reader and what they like.  This book clearly has its merits, but it is not one that interests me.

Book facts
Publication Date: 1927 
Pages: 306
Publisher: Penguin Books (Penguin Popular Classics series)
Cover: (1996 edition)

A young lady is lost deep in thought on a beach shore


  1. I didn't care for this either, but I doubt I'll ever be fond of a novel written in stream of consciousness. It had some poignant moments, and some beautiful prose, but mostly it just didn't resonate with me.

    1. I agree with you about how Woolf used time in her book well. It was quite brutal how she introduced death. Your comments about the film are interesting too, I was thinking of watching it but if it no more exciting than the book then I doubt it is worth it like you say.

  2. Ah, my favorite novel of all time :)

    Considering your preference for plot and character development, it is understandable why the novel didn't appeal to you very much. But you also mention that you failed to connect with it and for me, that is critical. That is the main reason why I love this novel so much; it affected me on such an emotional level more than any other novel has before or likely ever will. Like any other work of art, it's obviously not going to gel with everyone and like you said, it "depends on the reader." With this novel, Woolf attempts to strip down the novel from its "essentials" (plot, character, etc) in order to reveal raw emotion and naked human truths. This is a novel about ideas and pure emotion. If you find Woolf's unorthodox style outputting or if the novel leaves you cold, then you obviously won't like it.

    It's always great to hear alternative viewpoints on this novel and I really enjoyed reading your review. Oh, you also have a lovely blog here and I'll be sure to check back on a regular basis. :)

    1. Yes, you are right this novel is about ideas and emotion. I think I found myself disconnected with the characters, so I didn't have much sympathy say when James wanted to go to the lighthouse. I felt like this was the middle of a book, and the beginning and end are missing....

      Thank you that's really kind of you! I am already following you on my reader so it's a small world :-) Hope you're having a lovely day :-)


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