notes were the basis for a lecture delivered in Liberal Studies on Thursday,
March 2, 1995, by Ian Johnston at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver
Island University). The document is in the public domain, released May 1999]
One does not
have to read very much of To the Lighthouse before one realizes that
Woolf has chosen here a very particular style, a way of telling the story which
exerts a strange and compelling effect upon the reader. In this lecture I wish
to focus upon some aspects of this style in order to consider some of the ways
in which a few very important aspects of what this novel has to reveal are
directly linked to the author's decisions about point of view and language.
One of my
major purposes in this lecture is to offer some suggestions about why we might
consider Woolf a major modernist writer and link her to other modernist artists
we have been considering in Liberal Studies, even to those who, at first glance
perhaps, don't seem to share quite the same style: Kafka, Eliot, and certain
I shall be
trying to establish as my major point the idea that what does link Woolf to
these other modernists is the way in which her style compels us to recognize a
fundamental problem of modern life: the deep and apparently unbridgeable
dichotomy between the fragmented inner world of the self and any sense of
coherent order to the world beyond the self, that is, the world of human
relationships, of nature, of society as a totality.
Power of Style: An Example
before moving to such large concerns, I would like to consider a particular
example, selected almost at random, from an early part of the book. This
particular example is part of a description of Mrs Ramsay; it occurs on p. 15 of
could do now was to admire the refrigerator, and turn the pages of the Stores
list in the hope that she might come upon something like a rake, or a mowing
machine, which, with its prongs and its handles, would need the greatest skill
and care in cutting out. All these young men parodied her husband, she
reflected; he said it would rain; they said it would be a positive tornado.
as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a
mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the
taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring
her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which
opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which
had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of
sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp,
sudden bark now and then, "How's that? How's that?" of the children
playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the
beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her
thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with
the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, "I am
guarding you--I am your support," but at other times suddenly and
unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task
actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, 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--this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other
sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an
impulse of terror.
thing we notice about this style, I suspect, is the extraordinary sentence
structure. The second paragraph contains a sentence of 260 words, a sentence
which, in effect, is a single complex sentence of 32 words enormously
embellished by parenthetical phrases and clauses, modifying phrases, and a whole
rich array of various grammatical constructions. These hold up the full meaning
of the sentence and transform it from something clear and straightforward into
something delayed, qualified, uncertain, and (for the reader) much more
difficult to assimilate.
If we examine
closely the structure of that long sentence, we see that the main clause begins
with an indication of the subject (the gruff murmur) but that any further
development of that clause is held up for nine lines, so that we get a range of
associations and modifying phrases describing that murmur. Thus, by the time we
get to the main verb (had ceased) we have gone through a range of
emotional associations connected to the initial subject. The meanings of the
words and, most important, the rhythm of the sentence establish the extent to
which Mrs Ramsay's mood is dependent upon the semi-conscious absorption of what
is going on around her. She cannot hear what people are saying, but the very
presence of the regular activity provides for her a comforting reassurance of
structure of the sentence itself presents the central issue of Mrs Ramsay's
character, that she is constantly dependent upon the existence of family rituals
all around her, that, although she may not participate directly in them or even
be fully aware of what is going on, she relies upon such a background sense of
ongoing domestic order to sustain her tranquil mood. The strongest word in the
entire sentence is the final word terror. It injects into what has seemed
a slow meandering through a number of quotidian details a sudden emotional
We can ask
ourselves an obvious question: Why does Woolf not simply present the main
clauses and thus deliver the full thought much more simply? After all, isn't the
main point here that Mrs Ramsay's mood changes suddenly in an unwelcome way?
It's clear, of course, what would be lost immediately, namely, the sense that
the subject (Mrs Ramsay) is not, any more than anyone else is, capable of such a
firm declarative thought process. What goes on in her mind, from one moment to
the next, is something much more complex than any such simple declaration would
illustrate. More about this later.
too, how almost all the details of this style focus our attention upon what is
going on in Mrs Ramsay's mind. We do learn some external details about what she
is doing and where she is sitting, but these details are clearly subordinated to
the most obvious content of the sentences: the details passing through Mrs
Ramsay's consciousness as she sits and stares at a magazine, half-listening to
the children playing and the men talking nearby. In other words, there's an
interplay here between the external world and Mrs Ramsay's inner consciousness
of that world, but the emphasis is very much on the latter rather than on the
former. That is clear from the fact that, although we have a very clear idea of
what Mrs Ramsay is feeling, we have no exact idea of her position, so exact that
we could paint the scene with more or less the same shared details. Such a
style, in other words, forces us to recognize the preeminence of the inner life
in the ongoing drama of a human existence.
comment that this style is wonderful because that's how people in fact think.
But of course this is nonsense. No one thinks in such superbly polished prose,
taking care, clause by clause or phrase by phrase, that all the antecedents are
appropriately positioned and the modifiers clear. No, if people thought like
this, then English teachers would be out of a job.
What Woolf is
attempting here clearly is not to reproduce the thought process itself but to
develop a symbolic equivalent of thought, to use her command of English prose
style to create for us in the rhythm, structure, and accumulation of detail in
the sentence an emotional illumination of Mrs Ramsay's consciousness.
here with symbolist painting may be in order. It's clear that many symbolist
painters justified their style with reference to dreams and dream analysis. But
no one dreams a symbolist painting. What the symbolist (like, say, Dali) is
doing is using his art to create for the viewer the emotional equivalent of
dreams, to get us to recognize in the art something analogous to a dream
experience. But in creating such symbols, the painter, like Woolf, is doing
something very sophisticated and simply beyond the world of how people really
think and how they dream.
of the sentence, of course, does a good deal more than simply emphasize the
importance of the inner life of Mrs Ramsay. It also characterizes that inner
life in a curious way that is sustained for all of the characters in the novel.
We can summarize this briefly by observing that characteristically the people in
this novel, as in the above example, cannot complete a simple and coherent
thought without a host of other impressions, memories, feelings, images,
qualifications, and possibilities crowding in upon the mind.
In this one
sentence, for example, we are taken from the initial sense that something has
happened (the opening of that sentence) through all of Mrs Ramsay's impressions
of what is going on around her with her family into her sense of nature beyond
the family--a sense that includes the contradictory sensations of solace and
dread and leads to some momentary impression of the nature of life itself as
ephemeral, subject only to the cruel dictates of time. Thus, before the sentence
closes, the details have placed this thought amid a welter of other thoughts
crowding Mrs Ramsay's mind for attention. And in an instant, the peaceful scene
has been transformed into one characterized by the last word: terror.
Nothing we recognize as very significant has changed in the external scene, but
that isn't the point. The essential quality of life here is inner, and in that
inner world the emotional changes can be abrupt, unexpected, and extreme.
nothing particularly dramatic in the external scene; it is about as tranquil and
unthreatening as a domestic scene might be--a family at play and rest. Yet there
is an intense inner drama amid all this mundane detail. Woolf does not tell us
that the real drama of life is inner, but the structure of the sentences forces
us to acknowledge that as the major fact of life: one can go from security to
dread in an instant for reasons one cannot fully comprehend.
also indicates that the succession of thoughts is not in Mrs Ramsay's control.
The style is, of course, beautifully controlled, but its effect on the reader is
a constant feeling of surprise, complexity, and lack of control on the part of
Mrs Ramsay. What the next qualifying clause is going to add to the accumulating
details neither she nor the reader can tell. In the mind, as in the sentence,
things happen "suddenly and unexpectedly," and the mood may shift from
something as consoling as a cradle song to something as ominous as a
"ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat[ing] the measure of life,"
full of a sense of "destruction of the island and its engulfment in the
sea." The terror she feels at the end of the clause does not arise from any
decision she has consciously made or from anything terrifying she has
experienced. The slightest change in her external environment has altered her
mood in an instant.
sense, too, we get a feeling from the structure of the sentence of the ruthless
forward thrusting effects of time. For the thought process here cannot rest;
there are further qualifications, modifying clauses, appositive phrases which
insist on being heard in succession. And every piece added to the accumulating
string further complicates, changes, and, in a sense, harasses the personality
of the thinker. We learn explicitly enough, especially in Part II, of the
corrosive effects of time on whatever there is of value in the world. But long
before that section, the style itself insist upon the restless forward-driving,
unsettling nature of the inner life. Tranquility, if it comes, is momentary.
There is no closure here.
style, I would suggest, not only creates a sense of the primacy of the inner
life, of the extent to which the drama of everyday is determined by the complex
succession of thoughts and feelings arising for reasons incommensurate with any
external causes, but also characterizes that inner life as one over which the
subject has relatively little control. Mrs. Ramsay, like others in the novel,
can react emotionally to what is going on in her imagination; but people cannot
do very much to order or control that world.
Modernity of the Style
of the novel, I would suggest, is its most noteworthy feature and the one which,
more than anything else, gives the work its distinctly modernist flavour. To
make this point a little more clearly, I would first like to discuss some of the
other works we have studied and then return to Woolf's characters.
the significance of what Woolf is doing we might think for a moment about the
relationship in other books we have read between the inner world of the
characters and their perceptions of the outer world. In Homer, for example, the
characters have a firm confidence in the external world. It may be unpredictable
and often brutal, but they are confident that they understand why it is so (the
gods, everyone agrees, are in charge). Hence, nature and society have a certain
stability of meaning, and human beings can understand themselves with reference
to that natural order. So in Homer, we see again and again, the characters
declare how they think and feel with constant reference to the nature of things,
and there is thus little tension between the inner world of the characters
(which is generally not all that interesting) and the external world in which
We see the
same thing in, say, Hildegard. She is overwhelmingly confident that nature is
everywhere evidence of God's handiwork, so that she has no difficulty in using
natural imagery to explore the nature of human feelings and purposes. Once
again, there is no tension between her inner sense of herself and the natural
order beyond her, and so she can easily urge us to understand ourselves in terms
of God's work, the manifestations of which are present in every flower or tree.
thinkers, then, there is a certain solidity to life, a reassuring certainty in
the order of things, so that they can reassure whatever inner doubts they have
against the stability which they see in the world around them. Hence, their
conceptions of themselves take on something of the solidity of that world.
This is not
to say that they can have no doubts but rather that there is a way of dealing
with and resolving those doubts with reference to a system of order, the
evidence for which is all around them: in nature, in social relationships, in
the tasks they have to do, in their past and future.
we have seen already, this great confidence in the congruence of inner and outer
sources of meaning was decisively challenged in the seventeenth century. In our
reading we encountered this most clearly in the work of Descartes, who urges us
to distrust all contact with the external world, to direct our attentions
inward, and to build whatever we can know upon a ruthless self-examination. Only
if we do that, can we come to any serious understanding of ourselves and the
world (and even with that method, certain meanings we might want to have are not
confident that, taking this inward turn, one can construct a more certain sense
of the world around one and remain secure in the sense of one's relationship to
God. Hence, his Meditations strives to create the beginnings of a
suitable link between the inner self and the outer world of the natural order.
And Descartes is clearly confident that such a project can be continued.
inward turn, as we have discussed, creates a dichotomy between the inner self
and the outer world, between mind and matter, between the thinking, feeling
subject and the perceived objects of experience, and calls into question the
traditional faith in understanding the self in terms of a wider natural order
given by God. The sense of a separation between the self and such an order we
called, in our discussions of Marx, alienation, which, in the most
general sense, refers to a feeling that one's full identity as imagined inside
is not part, or not sufficiently part of one's real existence in the given
world. And we have looked at various attempts (by, most notably, Rousseau and
Marx and Wordsworth) to overcome this feeling.
We also saw
in the novel The Red and the Black, which is in some ways a very
interesting anticipation of To the Lighthouse, how the central tensions
in the life of Julien Sorel arose from this sense of separation and from his
inability satisfactorily to deal with it. We did argue a good deal about whether
the conclusion of that novel represents such a resolution, but, that aside, it
is clear that in most of the rest of the novel, we are dealing with a character
who knows himself so poorly and whose sense of the values of life are so
inadequate that, for all his skills and intelligence, he blunders through life
creating unhappiness for himself and for others.
It's not that
Julien doesn't long for personal fulfillment or even at times have a clear image
of what that might involve. But he has two major problems realizing that
longing: in the first place, his inner sense of himself is fragile and changing,
racked with doubts and insecurities; in the second place, the world he confronts
and which insists on treating him as an object offers him no suitable avenue for
him to pursue in quest of his fullest identity (except perhaps in the nostalgic
images of the Napoleonic past)--thus he lacks, say, the integrity of someone
like Jane Eyre, in some senses equally Romantic, but with a much firmer and more
consistent sense of her own self.
characteristic feature of a good deal of Modernist art which we have already
considered is the recognition that such an attempt to resolve the question of
alienation is futile. The self has become so fractured and the world has become
so unknowable or so strange that the possibilities for connecting a sense of who
I am as a human being with some wider purpose for life itself no longer exist. I
may yearn for such a resolution, and I may even momentarily carry an image of
what that fulfillment might actually mean. I might even sense, like Prufrock,
that without such fulfillment my life is going to be radically unsatisfactory.
But if I set out, like Prufrock, to obtain what my life needs, I am going to be
defeated because the world does not answer to such a request and, more
important, my own consciousness, my own integrity, such as it is, is not up to
And one way
in which the modernist writers we have read evoke this sense of an unbreachable
barrier between a fragmented inner self and a menacing and unknowable world is
by creating a discrepancy between the style of narration and the external events
being described, so that the reader is confronted with a constant tension
between style and subject matter, and this tension becomes one of the major
symbolic means of generating a sense of the anxiety of modern life.
about this a little bit in connection with Kafka's prose in The Metamorphosis.
There the weird and horrific events are given to us, largely from the point of
view of Gregor's own mind, in a flat, unemotional, and prosaic style quite at
odds with the strangeness of the situation. One wants what one finds in, say,
Shakespeare, some style commensurate to the situation. But we don't get that.
One effect of this is to underscore just how inadequate Gregor's mind is to gain
any sense of the reality of the situation he or any of his family is in, and,
beyond Gregor, a sense of how language itself cannot capture the full meaning of
these events. There is, as we observed, no closure.
And we dealt
with something of the same issue in dealing with the character of Prufrock.
Here, as in the Waste Land, the contrast is between the richness of the
past or of the occasional inner vision up against the sterile, ugly, poverty of
the outside world (like an argument of insidious intent or a rat's alley).
Prufrock has, we can see, potentially a rich imagination, and he is certainly
intelligent enough to sense what is wrong with his life. But whatever values
life offers exist only in his inner imagination: the world outside does not
match these images, and his attempt to realize them somehow (for he knows life
will be meaningless unless he can realize them) are futile. This becomes most
apparent in the closing lines of the poem, in which we learn that Prufrock does
indeed understand in his mind what the full beauty, vitality, and purpose of
life might involve. But these images exist only in his dreams. When human voices
wake him, he drowns. The chasm between his inner life and the world around him
is something he cannot bridge.
Woolf is, in
a sense, doing the same thing. Here the events surrounding the characters are
anything but weird--this novel is full of what should be cozy domesticity: a
family holiday in a beautiful setting, full of friends, children, communal
get-togethers, drinks, dinners, walks along the beach. But the style is wholly
inappropriate to such a view of the events, for the style insists upon the
dramatic complexity, unpredictability, painful tensions, and dangers inherent in
every minor social turn.
Mrs Ramsay and others in the novel want closure. Big questions keep insisting on
raising themselves: What is the meaning of life? But the thought processes, as
revealed in the style, show that no answer to such a question is possible, since
no quiet and complete thinking is possible. There are always the interruptions
from outside, from the memory, from associations, from buried feelings. How can
one achieve any form of closure, when the personality who is asking the
questions is incapable of holding onto a firm sense of itself, of controlling
what is going on? Even Mr Ramsay, famous throughout the country for the power of
his logical mind, cannot control his own sense of himself and is as subject as
everyone else to the sudden terrors of an unexpected thought or feeling which,
as often as not, is resolved equally unexpectedly.
of making this point is to stress that these modernist characters experience
life as a flux, a disordered succession of inner thoughts, ambitions, hopes,
desires, fears, something over which they exercise no firm control. In a moment
there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
reassuring sense of a permanent order, they have nothing to measure themselves
against, no firm model of who they are, socially or individually. Thus, they are
defined by the emotions and memories and impressions of each passing moment. And
they are helpless in front of the major questions of life, like "What is
the purpose of life?" or "What have I done with my life?" or
"What is happening to me?" They cannot face these questions because
they cannot deal with life as a totality, since they experience it as a
ceaseless flux of often dissociated impressions, unwelcome memories, desires
(many of which go unsatisfied), and fears.
So we get the
sense of characters, isolated individuals, who endlessly introspect, wondering
about their identity, the meaning of their lives, the significance of their
feelings. Often they raise these questions only on the inside, sometimes in the
midst of the most mundane activities (like Mrs Ramsay). Generally, the questions
don't get taken into anything like a community forum, simply because there isn't
such a forum, and in some cases, as in Gregor's, such communication is
impossible; in others, like Prufrock's and Mrs Ramsay's, social conventions
stand in the way of an open confession about one's deepest concerns before
others (who in any case would probably be incapable of assisting, because they
are wrestling in the same inner space with the same questions).
The result is
that they seem to live much of their lives picking away at the leaves of their
own psyches, searching for some final significance. The effect, to borrow a
metaphor from Ibsen's Peer Gynt, is like peeling an onion. Every layer
one removes reveals another one underneath; and if one persists to the very
centre, there's nothing there but empty space.
This sense of
what I have called the "fragmented self" is a particular concern of
Modernist writers. It's clear that there is no possibility in their world of the
old social self, since the shared communal understanding of value upon which
that depends has disappeared. It's true that Mrs Ramsay devotes her whole life
to a project of conferring social value on people, seeking always to place
people in appropriate traditional social arrangements, like guests at her home
or table or partners in a marriage. But her society is too complex, too
transitory, too vulnerable to provide any more, as it does in Homer or
Shakespeare, a firm grounding for one's sense of who one is. In that sense, Mrs
Ramsay is clearly a figure from the past, whose understanding of life, whose
grasp on events, is shaped entirely by her ability as a social being to
establish meaningful relationships among people.
appreciate this quality in her by noting the difficulty Mrs Ramsay has in
dealing with anyone or anything which does not fall immediately within her
social orbit. People whom she does not have to care for as guests or family or
as charitable cases, people who are beyond her social control, such people she
does not like to think about; they make her uneasy (like her old friends the
Mannings). And, as we saw in that sample sentence with which I started, any
sudden change in the quotidian daily environment fills her at once with a sense
of terror, just as any reminder of his own potential mediocrity fills her
husband with a sense of total inadequacy and mortality. The point is that even
if someone like Mrs Ramsay would like to live in a society firm in its shared
beliefs, that world is no longer available to her, except to a very limited and
alternative, the Enlightenment project for the creation of the "independent
self," the goal of Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, Kant, and Marx seems equally
impossible. For what is the modern self? It is a welter of confusing and often
contradictory images, held together by a personality ruled, as much as anything,
by anxiety, uncertainty, and a vague dread. We see all this in Eliot's
"Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and there's a good deal of a sense
of that in Woolf's novel as well.
external world where young men are blown up in an instant and young women noted
for their beauty die in childbirth and the sea airs eventually destroy all
domestic arrangements, what is left of any social self? And in an internal world
which is incapable of making any firm, lasting connections to the outer world
and which is the prey of all sorts of transitory impressions and feelings, who
can construct a firm sense of who one is? And without that, where is any answer
to the value of life to be found?
Of course, in
earlier times young women died in childbirth, and young men were killed in war.
But because there was a structure of meaning to the world and because people
understood themselves in terms of that structure they could understand the
events within a given system of order, and that understanding was expressed in
terms of the shared social rituals which conferred meaning on the events of
daily life. In the world of Gregor Samsa, J. Alfred Prufrock, and the Ramsays
and their guests there are no longer any shared social rituals capable of
withstanding the corroding effects of time and the constant shifting of the
individual's perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. And thus any attempt to
discover a meaning in the flux of experience, inner or outer, is bound to fail.
Death and decay remain the great mysteries of life, but now individuals stand
before them isolated, confused, and anxious.
So in a sense
these modernists writers, Woolf prominent among them, are taking direct aim at
one of the highest goals of the Enlightenment, the desire for a fully
integrated, independent self, the autonomous individual who does not require a
traditional social identity because she has learned through reason how to
organize and direct her life. Emancipating individuals from traditional social
rituals, in these modernist works, seems to have resulted in something very
different from what Rousseau or Kant or Wollstonecraft hoped for. It has made
them fragmented, anxious, weary, and confused about everything from their
relationship to other people to their own sense of themselves.
been focusing on just one aspect of the novel, and I don't want to suggest
that's all there is to it. For this novel is, I think, in places a good deal
more optimistic and joyful than either The Metamorphosis or "Prufrock."
All that I have said may indeed be in the novel, and it may well be insisted
upon throughout by the characteristic style Woolf uses to guide the reader
through the events. But there is something else, and I'd just like to refer to
these before closing.
It may be
true that in this world there is no final meaning available, that the fragmented
self in a disordered and rapidly changing world is not going to have its hopes
for closure, for an end to alienation, satisfied. But things are not entirely
hopeless. For life does grant moments of insight, flashes of meaning, in which
something important is caught in the imagination, as if in the glare of the
lighthouse beam. And if that moment inevitably passes by almost as soon as it
has been realized, something has been discovered which one can at least
remember. In this sense, there is a Wordsworthian quality to parts of this
novel, a sense that we can affirm things about life, even if what we affirm will
never amount to anything like a statement about the meaning of the experience.
party, for example, at the end of Part 1, or Lily Briscoe's painting, or the
eventual trip to the lighthouse--these events confer value on life. Something
important is accomplished. And if in themselves they cannot withstand the power
of time to destroy all, if the painting ends up as junk in someone's attic, if
those at the dinner party end up with a bad marriage or dead a few years later,
that does not entirely negate the moment in which something was seen and felt to
make life more than just a welter of inner ideas, impressions, fears, hopes, and
feelings piling up in a linear sequence like so many stacked up grammatical
constructions in a complex sentence without an ending. That may, indeed, be the
general condition of life, but there are moments when something is affirmed.
need not listen. I could not last, she knew, but at the moment her eyes were
so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these
people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light
stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows
balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging,
trembling. So she saw them; she heard them; but whatever they said had also
this quality, as if what they said was like the movement of a trout when, at
the same time, one can see the ripple and the gravel, something to the right,
something to the left; and the whole is held together; for whereas in active
life she would be netting and separating one thing from another; she would be
saying she liked the Waverley novels or had not read them; she would be urging
herself forward; now she said nothing. For the moment she hung suspended.
sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there,
in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her
brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. (209)