Virginia Woolf's 1927 book, To the Lighthouse. This is no way keeps it from being a marvelous work of literature - perhaps one of the most marvelous works of literature in which nearly nothing actually happens. In this book, as in Woolf's other writings, the plot is generated by the inner lives of the characters. Because of this, it is an ideal book in which to study the ways in which families interact with each other.
Woolf's powerful psychological portrait of the ways in which people who are intimate with each other have learned through years of relationships to "read" (as well as to misread) the cues through which the characters communicate with each other is conveyed with almost Jungian indirectness. She uses imagery, symbol, and metaphor to tell us what her characters are feeling rarely speaking directly to us as author to reader.
Rather she reveals her characters to us (as they reveal themselves to each other) through a process of unfolding themselves. The characters seem caught up in an ebb and flow of life in which their impressions, feelings, and thoughts help to define roles that each of them plays.
This technique is called stream of consciousness by literary critics, but it also resembles the process of psychoanalysis. Woolf uses literary techniques to reveal to us the inner lives of human beings, making their otherwise average circumstances seem extraordinary and often strikingly beautiful at least to each other. But therapists use exactly the same techniques of free association and story telling to help understand the inner dynamics of families.
What To the Lighthouse lacks in plot it makes up for in atmosphere, emotion and the poetic use of language as the characters' moment-by-moment inner life is described. And because Woolf provides us with such minute descriptions of what is happening in this world, we are able to see as we almost never can in either fiction or real life the smallest building blocks of human relations.
Before looking more carefully at the family dynamics that Woolf explains in this short novel, it may be helpful to give a very brief overview of the work.
The first section of the book, titled "The Window," describes a day during Mr. And Mrs. Ramsay's house party at their country home by the sea. Mr. Ramsay is a distinguished scholar and, in the eyes of Woolf, a typical male, whose mind works rationally, heroically and rather coldly - a character based upon Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen.
Mrs. Ramsay is warm, creative and intuitive, the powerful and vital emotional force at the center of the household. Among the guests is an artist, Lily Briscoe. The Ramsays have arranged to take a boat out to a lighthouse and their son James is deeply disappointed when bad weather prevents this. This negative action - the cancelled trip to the lighthouse - lies at the center of the opening of the book and our first impressions of all of the characters is based on their reaction to the denial of a promised treat.
The second section of the book, titled "Times Passes" describes the seasons of the year and the unused and decaying house in the years after Mrs. Ramsay's death when her vitality is no longer present to provide an essential spark of emotional coherence to the family. The final section, "To the Lighthouse" describes how Mr. Ramsay returns to the house and takes a postponed trip to the lighthouse with his now 16-year-old son, a trip that prompts his son to forgive him for not being as loving as his mother - an act of forgiveness that in many ways seems undeserved.
But this is not the end of the story, which comes when Lily Briscoe - the outsider to the family, although in this scene she can perhaps be seen as a sort of substitute daughter - puts the finishing touches to a painting that Mrs. Ramsay once inspired. Lily transforms the lighthouse in the painting; we see it as if it shone through a prism and is fragmented and transformed into whatever it is that everyone most desires. It becomes for each of them a redeeming talisman.
As a Symbolist writer, Woolf continually turned her gaze inward to explore and express the shifting and subtle states of the human psyche. Symbolist writers in general and certainly Woolf in particular believe that words should evoke and suggest, never sinking to the level of simple objective descriptions.
Woolf consistently uses the Symbolist strategy of seeking out narrative and poetic techniques that are designed to recreate for the reader the flux of human consciousness, using metaphors to suggest at mysterious and inexpressible subjective emotion. Woolf's symbols are typically for the writers of her generation and inclination: They are often very obscure and esoteric, and yet somehow possess the ability to reach beyond the specifics of her own references to include the reader as well.
In this way she suggests how families communicate on a surface, explicit level to some extent, but are in fact more likely to communicate implicitly. For example, Mrs. Ramsay's love for the other characters is rarely expressed absolutely directly; rather she conveys her love through acts of caring and concern. Only occasionally - such as the boy's forgiveness of his father as they journey to the lighthouse - are the dynamics of this troubled family laid bare to the members themselves.
Throughout the book Woolf uses symbols to suggest at relationships among the characters, For example, in the following passage she plays with the idea of the color blue to suggest at the relationship in the family.
There he stood in the parlour of the poky little house where she had taken him, waiting for her, while she went upstairs a moment to see a woman. He heard her quick step above; heard her voice cheerful, then low; looked at the mats, tea-caddies, glass shades; waited quite impatiently; looked forward eagerly to the walk home; determined to carry her bag; then heard her come out; shut a door; say they must keep the windows open and the doors shut, ask at the house for anything they wanted (she must be talking to a child) when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now), stood quite motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the Garter; when all at once he realised that it was this: it was this: -- she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets -- what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least; she had eight children. Stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair -- He had hold of her bag.
Woolf here plays with ideas about women as virginal (yet fertile!) and pure -- evoking blue as the traditional Christian symbol of purity. This is a portrait of women as both mothers and wives, as both "pure" and sexualized. Many of the complex dynamics in the book arise from the fact that this dual role is much more difficult to play - and may in fact be impossible - than the roles of father and husband, which in this case are essentially the same, for in both of his roles Mr. Ramsay defines himself by his ability to keep emotional distance from those who are dependent upon him.
But Woolf is not simply presenting us with a picture of women as split between that old virgin/whore dichotomy while men choose into which category to place each woman. Rather, through the complexity and looseness of Symbolist style she suggests a world in which all relationship can be, and perhaps have to be continually renegotiated.
Having established, for example, the fact that she means us to think of purity and innocence and perhaps also chastity when she uses the color blue metaphorically, Woolf then gives us cyclamen and wild violets ("With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violet"). Are we supposed to think that the purity of violets is due to their blue color, while the fickleness of cyclamens lies in their being red? But cyclamens can also be white, which surely most be a color of innocence. Or perhaps it is merely meant to be colorless, a metaphor for life outside the sensory expressiveness of Symbolist art.
When Woolf give us these two flowers, are we supposed to think about the fact that in the Victorian and Edwardian systems of the symbolism of flowers (which surely Woolf would have been aware of as a part of the popular culture of her time) that cyclamens mean indifference while violets mean fidelity? Are…