Lecture on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse
[These 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]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
One does not have to read very much of To the Lighthouse before one realizes that Virginnia 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 modern painters.
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, and of society as a totality.
THE POWER OF STYLE: AN EXAMPLE
However, 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 our edition:
All she 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.
But here, 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.
The first 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 domestic order.
Thus, the 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 urgency.
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.
We notice, 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 pre-eminence of the inner life in the ongoing drama of a human existence.
Many readers 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.
A comparison 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.
The structure 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.
There is 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.
This style 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.
In this 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.
Thus, Woolf’s style 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.
THE MODERNITY OF THE STYLE
This aspect 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.
To appreciate 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 they move.
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.
To these 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.
However, as 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 available).
Descartes is 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.
Now, this 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.
Now, one 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 the task.
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.
We talked 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.
Like Gregor, 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.
Another way 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.
Having no 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.
THE FRAGMENTED SELF
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.
We can 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 temporary extent.
And the 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.
In an 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.
SOME FINAL COMMENTS
Now, I’ve 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.
The dinner 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.
Now she need not listen. It 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. (107)
With a 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)