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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Woolf: To the Lighthouse


Blogger SMJ said...

An English family takes a summer residence in the Hebrides. A group of friends and acquaintances are invited to join them. A trip is planned to a nearby lighthouse. The trip is canceled due to poor weather. Walks are taken along the beach, artists paint unfinished canvases, children play, and adults converse smartly over sumptuous dinners held in the evening. These are the narrative highlights which comprise Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. It reflects a time in an affluent British empire, poised at the height of Edwardian society, when intelligent conversation and refinement of manners were à propos to a civilized life. And yet, like a roller coaster approaching the summit of a terrifying slope, this gentile society will soon plunge into the maelstrom of the first world war and be forever changed.

It all begins with a promise from a mother to her son. The promise entails an expedition to a nearby island for the purpose of carrying provisions to the lighthouse keepers. For James, the boat trip to the lighthouse will be the grand adventure of his summer, a journey to which he looks forward with great anticipation. But no sooner does the mother give her approval, than Mr. Ramsey, the father, dampens the child’s enthusiasm by declaring that next day’s weather won’t be fair, so the trip to the lighthouse cannot occur. This cruel dashing of a young child’s joy sets the stage for the rest of the story. Many years will pass, a terrible war will be fought, and much unhappiness will transpire before this journey is finally completed.

Several themes are explored in this novel, such as love, marriage, solitude, and the transitory nature of human existence. Mrs. Ramsey, as the conciliator of the family, watches over the children while allowing her peripatetic husband to pursue his private quest for truth. With beauty and sophistication, she runs the household as a kind of formal gathering of lodgers whose daily happiness is her main concern. But along with entertaining her guests, Mrs. Ramsey ponders the fragile quality of her world…

“…but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow.”

For Mrs. Ramsey, it is as though managing a successful dinner provides a veil which shelters her family from the vicissitudes of life. The veil is made possible by the social conventions of grace and privilege, and the skill she employs in deflecting the harsh intrusions of reality. Mr. Ramsey, on the other hand, is a strong advocate for unvarnished truth, even when at the expense of other people’s feelings. He takes frequent walks along the shore in which his greatest pleasure is to probe the depths of his own mind. A metaphysician by trade, he seeks the purity of reason, though his marriage is a fog of uncertainty. Unsure of his wife’s affection, he has doubts as to the ultimate worth of his calling…

“It was his fate, his peculiarity, whether he wished it or not, to come out thus on a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away, and there to stand, like a desolate sea-bird, alone….facing the dark of human ignorance, how we know nothing and the sea eats away the ground we stand on.”

For Ramsey, the shadows of human ignorance and mortality threaten to obliterate the small sliver of light cast from his own achievements, and, in a larger sense, the achievements of mankind. For Woolf’s novel depicts the passing of one age into another, of one empire perhaps diminishing while another rises.

The travails of one small family are viewed as a tableau in miniature against the larger context of worlds colliding. It is with this larger context in mind that we read the first section of To the Lighthouse, entitled “The Window.” From this vantage point, Mrs. Ramsey, sitting near a window which looks out on the shoreline below, perceives the small universe of her life. Her son, James, sits on the floor at her feet, cutting out pictures of a make believe world that substitute for the imperfections of his own. Lily Briscoe stands on the edge of the lawn with her easel and paint, trying to capture the essence of a timeless moment. But Mrs. Ramsey thinks “with her little Chinese eyes and her puckered up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously.”

Like Mr. Ramsey’s philosophy, his personal pilgrimage from “Q to R,” the art of Lily Briscoe does not quite measure up. It will never be confused with a work by J.M. Turner. And yet it satisfies some inner need of her own to find balance in the world, to fix on canvas what lies beyond her to repair in life-- her lack of a husband, the void of a family.

Woolf, however, is not advocating marriage as a cure-all for despair. The Ramsey marriage comes at a price for both of them, for they each magnify the insecurities of the other. And, as she reveals in the final segment of the novel, the union of Minta Doyle with Paul Rayley lacks the harmonious joy with which their affair began. Despite the evidence of such forlorn bachelors as Charles Tansley and William Bankes, Woolf depicts marriage not as a solution for everyone, but as an arrangement bringing its own dowry of pleasures and disappointments.

In reading Virginia Woolf, one encounters an oblique style that is both intimate and elusive. She often switches narrative points of view, sometimes from one paragraph to the next, which mirrors the ambiguity of human relationships. By doing so, the author preserves an emotional distance between reader and text, which becomes a kind of literary footnote to the social etiquette of her age.

But if the style is difficult, the chronology of the novel is clear: Part 1, “The Window,” covers a single day in the life of the Ramseys as they vacation near a small town in the Hebrides; Part 2, “Time Passes,” marks a transition in the lives of the characters introduced in Part 1. About ten years elapse between Parts 1 and 2. The final chapter, Part 3, concerns the family’s return to their summer home, and the completion of the postponed journey to the lighthouse.

In the ten years since their last visit, the house has fallen into disrepair and needs extensive cleaning. One of the caretakers, Mrs. McNabb, does what she can to restore order to the place. The war which had interrupted their lives is now over, but at a terrible cost to the family, as well as to the nation. Time and misfortune has taken its toll on everyone. Mrs. Ramsey and her children, Andrew and Prue, have all perished. Years have gone by and, finally, a return to their summer residence is organized with some of the surviving children and the father, along with Mr. Carmichael and Lily Briscoe, who has remained unmarried. Those who visit now carry the memories of those who are no longer present, like photographs that James once clipped from catalogues with his mother. Between the father and the children, there is lingering resentment, a resentment that has been years in the making, and which was only temporarily alleviated by the mother. But Mrs. Ramsey is no longer around to mediate their disputes.

Now, it is Lily Briscoe’s turn to sit by the window, observing the tableau of this summer gathering. She sits before her easel and with her paint and brushes, resumes the interrupted work of her youth. It is as though she believes if she can finish her painting, she will have made sense out of all the random pieces of her world. She watches as Mr. Ramsey and the children climb into a boat and sail towards the lighthouse, a lighthouse which, like Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” in some vaguely mystical way, seems to represent the eternal truth that we are all seeking—but I cannot say what that truth is, and I am not convinced that Virginia Woolf knows either. It might be salvation or it might be enlightenment, or perhaps just the idea that not everything is perishable…

“There is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out…in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral…of such moments, she thought, the thing is that endures.”

Some things, apparently, are worth doing even if they lack all capacity to change our world. It might be a painting that ends up in the attic, or the metaphysical struggle to go from Q to R, or simply a man’s promise to take a child on a boat and sail away to an indifferent spot of land.

6/09/2005 1:22 PM  

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