Months ago when I was choosing what tutorials I’d like to take at Oxford I asked my roommate if she knew anything about Virginia Woolf. She said that she had a really interesting life, particularly the circumstances of her death (she committed suicide and left a note). Based on my roommate’s vague interest alone I decided to take an entire term on Woolf and her writing… without having read anything by her myself. (Look at me being academically spontaneous.) Of course, I had heard mountains of praise about her famous works such as A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway, but I knew nothing about her writing style at all.
Eager to brush up on Woolf before heading to Oxford, I decided that she would be one of my priority authors to read this summer. I arbitrarily started with To the Lighthouse solely because it was the only Woolf novel in my local public library. (A discovery that made me stare at the shelf angrily and promise that if I ever win the lottery I will most definitely donate money to this bookish abode.)
+ Stream of consciousness writing style. The first thing that struck me while reading this novel was the stream of consciousness style used. Little introduction is given of the characters, setting, or general premise of the story in the beginning; rather, the reader is thrown head first into a sea of thoughts and worries and hopes that one must wade through in order to understand the story as a whole. Woolf also writes via a variety of perspectives, each one focusing on the inner workings of a specific character. A major strength of this novel is the way Woolf uses this stream of consciousness style to seamlessly flow from one focal point to the next. The transitions are nearly imperceptible in the sense that you don’t even realize they have occurred until you’re already reading in the perspective of a different character.
+ Lily Briscoe. I knew that Lily would become my favorite character from the first time she was mentioned. Her position outside of the Ramsay family makes her perspective one of the most interesting and important views in the novel. I couldn’t help feeling an emotional connection with Lily as she yearns for the support and love of others. She views the Ramsay family as an idealized symbol of love and perfect unity; however, the other perspectives reveal a very different reality. Lily is a constant throughout the entire novel, much like the lighthouse itself. Even when time passes and certain characters come and go, Lily is always there with her painting, optimism, and fascinating introspection. She is both feminine and independent, a contrasting figure to Mrs. Ramsay.
+ The lighthouse. Ah, the lighthouse. It’s the common thread running through the entire novel, that elusive destination so greatly desired by Mrs. Ramsays’s children and so persistently avoided by Mr. Ramsay. The continual emphasis on visiting the lighthouse reminds me of Jay Gatsby looking out across the sound in The Great Gatsby, reaching towards that green light that embodied everything he had been working towards his entire life. Like the romanticized idea of the “American Dream” that Gatsby desires, the lighthouse represents a sort of unattainable end goal. When James finally reaches the lighthouse after years of wanting to visit it, he realizes that it cannot compare to the lighthouse he envisioned as a child. It is interesting to see everyone’s relationship to the lighthouse as the novel progresses, especially in the final section of the novel.
Overall, To the Lighthouse randomly happened to be a great introduction to Virginia Woolf’s writing. This is a captivating, fascinating, thought-provoking novel that sparks endless discussion points with its many intriguing themes. I’m so glad I took my roommate’s advice and chose to study Woolf for a term in Oxford. Hopefully I can read more of her work this summer!
Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes! I think this is a great Woolf novel to pick up even if you’ve never read anything written by her before.
What are your thoughts on To the Lighthouse? What Woolf novel should I read next? Let me know in the comments section below!