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To The Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

This is going to be one of those books that I will dwell on, with my thoughts evolving as I turn it over in my mind. What follows is some of what I was thinking about as I read.


The novel shows us the Ramsay family and some of their guests at a seaside house on just two days, separated by years. There is very little backstory or physical description, or even explicit discussion about the personalities of the characters. Instead, the reader’s focus is drawn as if by a spotlight or beacon that moves from one person’s mind to another, showing the inner life of the illuminated character with his perceptions of the people and places around him and of himself.


The effect is impressionistic yet absolutely precise, and incredibly internal, more so than other books I have read that use stream-of-consciousness. This is not an inner monologue or narration from the character; we are in the mind itself. The resulting characterizations, drawn from fragments of thoughts before the beam moves on to someone else, are both intimate and complete.


The middle section, Time Passes, is one of the most remarkable chapters I have ever read. It is almost more poem than prose with its swirling wind and darkness. The passage of time in an empty house is hauntingly bleak, but evokes all the senses in a place that is still active without its inhabitants. The fates of the people, however central they are to the other characters, become parenthetical notations in the scale of time with a laconic poignancy.


This is a short novel, yet Woolf manages to explore memory, time, perception, art, and the effect of the presence (and absence) of the central figures in our lives. The language is beautiful but not overly ornate, chosen to express exactly ideas that almost defy expression.


Cover of the first edition, 1927, by Vanessa Bell, the author's sister (image from Wikipedia).