10th May 2012
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
I was surprised to hear the reaction of many of my friends when I asked what they thought of To The Lighthouse. Some of them had never heard of the novel and for those who had, the short answer was ‘I hate it’.
From the point of view of the friends I spoke to, the complexities of the prose style and narrative resulted in a novel so dense and impenetrable that it left the them feeling impatient, unable to engage and, well, down right confused and exhausted.
For many readers though, it has been and remains to be, these characteristics and stylistic techniques which make To The Lighthouse special. I am fond of the novel, not because it has a riveting and exciting plot, but because of its historical importance in a literary context.
To The Lighthouse was written in a period of heightened unrest. A post-industrial society which had overcome horrors of war, which was grappling with radical political ideologies, and emerging prominence of scientific advancements over religious doctrine.
It was a world in which tradition was being questioned, and one which desperately sought to shed established the principles and conservatism of nineteenth century culture. To The Lighthouse challenged literary conventions. It engaged with the avant-garde and pushed boundaries, in both stylistic and gendered contexts.
The legacy of Woolf is rich and her influence is of such importance in the history of women’s writing that as readers/appreciators/ students of literature we should remain thankful, regardless of whether we engage with the tale being told.
Love it or hate it, it is impossible to deny the importance of To The Lighthouse, and the significance this novel has in both the wider modernist movement and its contribution to female-authored fiction.
In spite of its stylist intricacy it is essentially a tender novel. It induces feelings of retrospection and introspection and Woolf’s language weaves a beautiful, poignant, and realistic portrait of family life.
Readers of To The Lighthouse are presented with the simplicity and tensions of family structure and routine. The novel take place over a decade or so, including the years of the First World War and documents the holidays of the Ramsey family and their guests.
The novel begins with the suggestion of a trip to the lighthouse and ends, ten years later, with the remaining family members embarking upon the trip suggested at the beginning of the novel.
The narrative mode and the detailed and descriptive language form a contrast to the cyclical simplicity of the story and provide a window through which the reader is invited to share in mundane aspects of family life in an intimate and poetic manner.
The characteristics that many of my friends identified as ‘obstacles’ are the very things which, for me, give texture, substance, and longevity. If you can overcome these ‘obstacles’ and allow yourself to be absorbed by the experiments in language, the symbolism, and the lyricism of the novel you’ll be glad that you did.
To The Lighthouse is beautiful and memorable and has just as much to offer the twenty-first century reader as it gave its contemporary readers in 1927.