Virginia Woolf is noted as one of the most influential female novelists of the twentieth century. She is often correlated to the American writer Willa Cather not because they were raised similarly or for any other reason than the style of their writing and their early feminist approach to the craft. Woolf, unlike Cather, was born to privilege, and was "ideally situated to appreciate and experiment with the art of writing" (Biography). Her father was a landed gentleman in England who was a pioneer mountain climber, historian and author. Woolf's mother was at one time a model for painters, a nurse and a nurse educator. The family was well to do and her brothers were educated at Cambridge, the young women were all educated at home using the extensive library that existed on the estate (Biography).
Woolf's very early life was one of play and happiness, but this would end very soon through a series of tragic events. When she was six her half-brothers sexually abused her which opened a wound that would only be exacerbated. Her mother died suddenly at the age of 49 not long after this, and a beloved sibling, Stella, died two years later (Biography). These events, happening as they did so close together, caused her to lose reality for a short period of time and Virginia required hospitalization for a "nervous breakdown." (Biography). These tragedies were deeply affecting and they would follow her for the rest of her life, until she ended her own life at the age of 59.
Virginia became acquainted with the literary world when, after the deaths of her parents, her siblings bought a home in the London suburbs and introduced her to the Bloomsbury Group (Biography). This was a small assembly of intellectuals and artists who were interested in both the most difficult questions of the age and having a good time. They were famous for pranks they pulled at the expense of some of the more prestigious institutions in England (including the Royal Navy), but they also generated some of the great writers and artist of the period. She also met her husband, Leonard Woolf, who was to be her lifelong companion (Biography).
She began writing about the same time she joined the group and released her first novel in 1915. Although it was not met with great success, she followed it with several that allowed her to gain popularity until her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, was released in 1925. This novel met with great critical success and over the years has been a best seller also (Biography). After the release of this book, she became one of the best known and appreciated of England's new writers. However, she could never quite shake the mental illness that had been plaguing her from a young age. She was always said to have bipolar type deep depression and wild mood swings, and she was noted for acting out in public on many occasions.
These issues, despite her success and her devoted husband, were a constant burden and presence in her life. She was unable to recover fully from the early life trauma, and since psychiatric care was in its infancy, her symptoms were not met with the serious attention that they deserved. Besides her past issues, she also worried about the fact that her husband, as a Jew, could be a potential target of the Nazi party if they ever successfully invaded England. With all of this swirling in her head, she "on March 28, 1941, put on her overcoat, walked out into the River Ouse and filled her pockets with stones. As she waded into the water, the stream took her with it" (Biography). Although she died at a relatively young age and her novels lost some of their popularity after the War, she has gained a great readership since the feminist movement started in the late sixties and she is regarded as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century (Biography).
To the Lighthouse has always been considered to be autobiographical to some extent. Although the family in the book, the Ramsay's, are not as well off as her family was, it is easy to see some of the similarities that are discussed. The book is laid out in three sections -- "The Window," "Time Passes" and "The Lighthouse" -- which talk about three different snapshots of the lives of the people in the book. It is interesting to look for the similarities between the life of Woolf and the life of the boy James in her book.
To begin with, Mr. And Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children go to a summer cottage on the Hebrides, and they entertain an assortment of characters there. With them is Lily Briscoe who is working on a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay (Woolf 17). Lily's subject is interested in the intrigue of trying to find Lily a match, but the younger lady is resistant to her attempts. The Ramsay children include one James who at six is looking forward to a visit to a lighthouse that sits just across a bay from the cottage. "The Window" is a slow moving depiction of just a very few events and a very short period of time in the lives of the family.
In many ways this section seems to be both a view of the family dynamic and a view into a happy time in their lives before chaos breaks out and they are forced to face the harsh realities of the world. The family has a dinner party during the middle of this section, and they invite several guests who turn out to be pretentious and annoying (a typical British novel crowd). However, the family and the guests eventually enjoy each other and the company, and they have a good evening (Woolf 171). At a later time, Mr. And Mrs. Ramsay are sitting in the parlor after everything has calmed down and he is again worried about his wife and how she feels about him. The events of the day, with his petty tantrums and her scheming, seem to slow down and they just sit together. He tells her he loves her, and he hopes that she will be able to tell him that she loves him. Woolf paints the picture, which seems to be the opposite of the usual reality, that Mr. Ramsay is emotionally needy, and he has to have the spoken validation of love from his wife (Woolf 184). The problem is that she is much more stoic than he, and for some reason she cannot say the words the way he is able to. She seems to also consider it a game in which she lets him know that she loves him without actually saying the words. In the end she makes a comment about the weather recalling an earlier petty pronouncement Mr. Ramsay had made to his son James that it looked like the weather would be too bad for them to row to the lighthouse on the morrow (Woolf 10). It seemed at the time that he was when he told James this that he was not enjoying himself, so he did not want anyone else to enjoy themselves either. It also irked him that his wife had immediately tried to comfort her son rather than immediately agreeing with him (Woolf 11). That night Mr. Ramsay told her he that he loved her, and made a sacrifice that satisfied them both. Mrs. Ramsay replies to his query, after a long pause between lines of dialogue, "Yes, you were right. It's going to be wet tomorrow. You won't be able to go." And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew" (Woolf 186).
The significance of this passage is that it reveals both the relationship between the Ramsay's and it is also a sign of the Victorian times in which womanhood is muted. Mrs. Ramsay gives him the answer he desires, but she forces her womanly prerogative by not answering directly. It also sets up further occurrences in the book that have more to do with the character of Mr. Ramsay.
The second part of the book, "Time Passes," seems to be used simply as a transition between the two days that take place at the summer cottage. This is a great gulf of time around which the slow marching prose of two days is fashioned. During this time Mrs. Ramsay dies, Andrew is killed during World War I when a shell explodes, and Prue, one of the Ramsay's daughters, also dies. The deaths, besides Andrews, do not seem especially tragic, but they seem to passages in time to that do not allow the peace of that time before the war to continue. Mr. Ramsay seems to shrivel within himself, as the first section showed him to be a small worried man anyway. After the death of…