‘To the Lighthouse’ describes the experiences of a family and their guests on the Isle of Skye, with such diverse characters as the frustrated artist Lily Briscoe; the beautiful, universally-admired Mrs Ramsay; the needy, temperamental Mr Ramsay; and their son James, who is desperate to visit the lighthouse. However, the trip only takes place many years later, when the family’s circumstances have changed greatly.
Some of the imagery in the book is beautiful and I really appreciated the way that Woolf never once resorts to cliché. I think her best descriptions pertain to nature: for example, when she describes the children ‘netted in their cots like birds among cherries and raspberries, still making up stories‘ – it’s so unusual but I love the cosy atmosphere it creates. Then, atmospheric in a different sense: ‘The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands.‘
Another great thing about the novel is the way Woolf sets down ideas about the human condition which I could really empathise with. I have always felt that ‘after a dream some subtle change is felt‘ in the people who have appeared in it, but have never seen this idea written down before. Then there is the notion of the gap between Lily’s dreams and what she is able to translate onto paper, as she tries to ‘clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast‘. I think this is probably Woolf trying to convey some of her own frustrations about the writing process. Having dabbled in both writing and art myself, I can sympathise with the idea that most things do not turn out as perfectly as I first imagined. I liked Lily Briscoe’s character because she was an artistic, intelligent woman restricted by society’s view that just because she was unmarried she was ‘not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid.’ I admired the fact that Woolf tried to challenge these views, particularly as she lived in a society which was still relatively misogynistic.
Having studied ‘Mrs Dalloway’, which was published two years previously, it was interesting to see that there were a lot of similarities between the two novels. Woolf experimented with the same themes in both: time, the imperfections of memory, the position of ageing women in society, the impact of the war and disillusionment with marriage. Her obsession with the sea also comes through in both cases, something which I find haunting considering her eventual method of death. The lighthouse in this novel also seems to act as a similar symbol to Big Ben in ‘Mrs Dalloway’, due to its familiarity to all the characters and thus its ability to connect them to each other.
I feel that to rate this novel in terms of plot and character would be missing the point. If you are looking for a linear plot with lots of action and clear character arcs then you will be disappointed. To me it seemed like more of an experiment than a story, more focused on tracking the thoughts and perceptions of the characters and exploring various ideas through symbolism. At times I did get a bit tired of the constant soul-searching and felt it was unrealistic that most characters seemed to pause every five minutes to think about the meaning of life. However, it was still an interesting, eye-opening and refreshingly different read.