(*note to Dave* I know I said Hamlet, but I changed my mind. 😀 )
I read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf for this week’s blog. The following authors all listed it in their favorites:
Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Haven Kimmel, Susan Minot, Stewart O’Nan, Reynolds Price, Roxana Robinson, Lee Smith, and Meg Wolitzer.
In college, for a modern literature class, we read Mrs. Dalloway. I didn’t like it much, so I have since really avoided Virginia Woolf. Now I realize that might have been a mistake.
To The Lighthouse is a beautiful novel. Sometimes I am reading a book and am just awestruck by the beauty of the prose. I dabble in poetry sometimes, and some of the best novels are also poetry in many ways. Woolf attained this in To The Lighthouse.
The story basically is about a family and the cottage they vacation at each year. They always have various guests, both intellectual and artistic. The Ramseys consist of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their eight children. Mr. Ramsey is a philosopher and runs around just feeling whatever emotion comes over him. So, his wife, the children and his houseguests will often walk around quietly (so to speak) due to not knowing if he will suddenly be feeling impatience and temper. Lily is a houseguest there, a 34 year old “old maid” whom Mrs. Ramsey is attempting to marry off to Mr. Banke, an old friend of the family. Lily is a painter, who feels she is not very good.
The book covers two different summers. The first has the whole family there. The second, Mrs. Ramsey and two of the children have died, and it has been years since the family has vacationed there.
Woolf plays with and masters the switching narrator narrative. She meshes characters together so that when one narrative changes it flows into the next. For example, Mrs. Ramsey might be talking to her son and another person is contemplating her, remembering something. The narrative will change to what Mrs. Ramsey is thinking and doing right at that second.
It’s said about To The Lighthouse that Woolf was grappling with the age old question “What is the meaning of life?”, and while different characters pose that question through the course of the book, I didn’t get that as the main gist of the book. To me, due to the switching narratives and the contemplations on Mrs. Ramsey in the second half of the book, it was more about how we see ourselves versus how others see us. How people saw Mrs. Ramsey was quite different than how she saw herself. It also showed how time can change the perspectives people view us under.
I found the following quotations particularly…illuminating? amazing? (not sure what word is best here, so pick one!).
The first one is a rumination that Mrs. Ramsey has after sending her youngest child to bed, about the effects that being alone has to a mother.
“To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knot and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless.”
Mrs. Ramsey thinking of her husband and his tendency to wander around saying whatever popped into his head.
“…that directly he had said them he always seemed more cheerful than usual. All this phrase-making was a game, she thought, for if she had said half what he said, she would have blown her brains out by now.”
Mrs. Ramsey while reading a book in the evening and knitting at the same time (I liked this one because it describes how one sometimes does read a book).
“And she opened the book and began reading here and there at random, and as she did so, she felt that she was climbing backwards, upwards, shoving her way up under petals that curved over her, so that she only knew this is white, or this is red.”
Lily, thinking on Mrs. Ramsey after her death, during the second visit.
“She was astonishingly beautiful, as William said. But beauty was not everything. Beauty had this penalty it came too readily, came too completely. It stilled life froze it. One forgot the little agitations; the flush, the pallor, some queer distortion, some light or shadow, which made the face unrecognizable for a moment and yet added a quality one saw for ever after. It was simpler to smooth that all out under the cover of beauty”.
In the first half, the youngest boy James, desperately wants to go the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsey says they will go the following day, to which Mr. Ramsey cruelly dashes the hope. In the second half, James finally goes to the lighthouse with his father and his sister Cam.
“Now James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse was it? No the other was also the Lighthouse (referring to his imaginings and sightings of the lighthouse as a boy). For nothing was simply one thing. The other LIghthouse was true too.”
If you are a Downton Abbey fan and are jonesing for season 4, I highly recommend reading this. It has a bit less “drama” than Downton, but the language and the feel of the book will prepare you for Downton, and hopefully keep your addictive need to watch it tamped down a bit.
Til next time!