To the Lighthouse
From Modernism Lab Essays
Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, To the Lighthouse (1927), presents the war in a broader historical perspective than her first two novels, thus serving the function of elegy by coming to terms with the war, but also contributing its share to what the critic Samuel Hynes has called the “Myth of the War” ”—“the notion, partly true and partly imagined, that the war created a vast gap between the pre-war and the post-war world.”
The first section of Woolf’s novel, “The Window,” is set before the war, at the vacation house in the Hebrides of Mr. Ramsay, a philosophy professor, his wife, and their eight children. James, the youngest, wants to go to the lighthouse, and Mrs. Ramsay is knitting a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s son. Mr. Ramsay, however, insists that the weather the next day will be too bad for a trip by boat to the lighthouse. Out of this minor incident, Woolf creates a brilliant portrait of family relations in a long-ago era, ostensibly a few years before the war but really the mid-Victorian world of Woolf’s childhood. The portrait revolves around the marriage of the depressive and anxious philosopher Mr. Ramsay to the beautiful, energetic, but perhaps narrow-minded Mrs. Ramsay, who seems to preside over the fates of many men without understanding their world at all.
As in Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway, the theme of the female observer is central, as Lily Briscoe, a house guest of the Ramsays, tries to paint a post-impressionist landscape, in which James and Mrs. Ramsay appear as a purple triangle. Her quest for a style and compositional form to represent the Ramsays mirrors Woolf’s own quest for a representational technique adequate to the complex family history she narrates, making use of multiple perspectives, recording the streams of consciousness of various characters, and weaving in and out of their minds.
The war enters the novel as a decisive break with the Victorian and Edwardian past. In the middle section, “Time Passes,” Woolf shows the Ramsays’ house empty for a decade, as time and weather wreak havoc on the house and the war progresses in distant France. In this section, Woolf records the deaths of three major characters in parentheses: Mrs. Ramsay, who dies of unspecified causes, her son Andrew, who dies in the war, and her daughter Prue, who dies as a result of childbirth. Andrew’s death is recorded thus: “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]” The passage gives a hint of the bitter irony with which Woolf often referred to the war: in the phrase “twenty or thirty,” which suggests official disregard for the deaths of these young men, each of whom must have had an inner life as rich as that of a character in one of Woolf’s novel, but who in death become simply imprecise statistics; and in the small word “mercifully,” which suggests the way that people at home talk about deaths of those they don’t really know—how could any such death truly be merciful?
The third section of the novel describes the attempts of the survivors, especially James and Cam Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, and Lily Briscoe, to make sense of the losses, which are not all directly war-related but are all associated with the war. Finally, Lily is able to complete the painting she had begun before the war, and the surviving Ramsays are able to complete the trip to the lighthouse, a symbol of artistic unity, and of spatial and temporal perspective, perhaps the one thing in the novel that does not change as a result of the war. As Lily completes her painting with a final line down the center, perhaps symbolizing the lighthouse, she momentarily sees the Ramsays, the war, and the world before the war in her own post-impressionist form of perspective: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”