A review of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf is an author whose name I’d heard many a time before I actually picked up something she’d written. Given how often I’d heard of her, I’d expected her work to be pretty spectacular. To my disappointment, it was anything but.
To the Lighthouse centres around the Ramseys and their holidays to the Isle of Skye. There isn’t much of a plot to the story: Woolf focuses on really elucidating the characters’ thoughts and the events occur only on two separate days a decade apart. This is a book about the people, not the plot- as I understand much of Woolf’s writing is. When it was published- and perhaps even still- this was really innovative, and a bit of a game-changer for the English language. Through Woolf’s highly descriptive language, we get a vivid insight into her characters’ emotional and psychological states and motives. However, for all this was very interesting, it didn’t mean I actually liked Woolf’s style of writing.
It’s just my opinion, and I’m aware many will disagree with me, but I found Woolf’s prose difficult to read. Her sentences are frequently very long- ridiculously so, and Woolf is extremely liberal with her use of semicolons. I can understand the reasons why she would write like this- we are exploring the characters, and as people we don’t think in sentences, do we? Hence Woolf uses semicolons to string a series of thoughts together, forming very long sentences. This does mean that her prose truly reflects how our minds kind of leap from thought to thought with no definitive full-stop, but it also means that, by the time you reach the end of a sentence, you struggle to remember how the sentence began. After a while, this gets a little tiresome, and the complexity of the sentences meant that rereading them was often necessary to be sure I had properly understood, which meant that the book took twice as long to read.
I also found it bizarre that, despite all these trailing sentences that fully explore what the characters are thinking, some things are just thrown randomly into the prose without any real explanation. The key example of this is (*spoiler alert!*) Mrs Ramsey’s death, which is just stated casually without any elaboration or scenes leading up to it. I suppose it could be viewed as a reflection of how some things in life do happen just out of the blue, but at times it felt a little like Woolf had just remembered something she should have written about before and had just added it in as she was writing then. This is especially odd given how, with the example of Mrs Ramsey’s death, the following passages quite effectively show how the rest of the family is affected in her absence. This is obviously aided by the fact that Woolf struggled herself with her mother’s death when she was 13, but I still found it strange that it is just mentioned bluntly that Mrs Ramsey had died- I didn’t even feel it was a plot twist, it just kind of happened.
When discussing Virginia Woolf, people tend to explore feminism and sexuality in her work; it is the former that is most apparent in To the Lighthouse. As with a lot of writers, Woolf uses her work to showcase ideas and opinions that she rejects. In To the Lighthouse, this centres around how women and men are perceived in society, and the importance of marriage. We see how Mr Ramsey and Charles Tansley’s intellect and talents are valued in society, whereas Lily Briscoe is forced to accept that her artwork will end up in someone’s attic because the society is structured so that it is men who succeed, not women. Both of these men stifle Lily’s creativity- Charles says women can’t paint, and Lily is unable to paint around Mr Ramsey. This is an obvious representation of how women were suppressed in that time (the early 20th Century), and possibly links to Woolf’s own personal life and her resentment that her brothers were given the opportunity of proper education while she was not. I thought this was quite interesting and subtle, yet the other feminist message I found heavy-handled and lacking subtlety. We see Mrs Ramsey’s value lies in her good-looks and how she deals well with social situations, whereas her husband’s worth lies in his intellect. Unfortunately, Mr Ramsey’s intelligence leaves him vulnerable and lacking self-confidence, something Mrs Ramsey aims to soothe, viewing it as her job as his wife. She sees this flaw in their marriage, yet still views marriage as the ideal, and is constantly pairing off the other characters. My main issue was that it is added in that her daughters and Lily see more to life than marriage and it’s not exactly what they aspire to etc etc… but then Woolf doesn’t explore it! She sets up these antitheses of characters, but doesn’t really, in my opinion, work to show a real contrast. We spend a lot of time looking at things from Lily’s perspective, and it is obvious that Lily thinks she can have either a marriage or her artwork but not both; they are incompatible. However, I think this more reflects Lily’s character than showing any push towards the modern thinking that there is more to life than getting married, especially for women. I’d have liked to learn more about the Ramsey daughters’ approach to marriage.
For all the hype about Woolf being one of England’s greatest novelists, having read To the Lighthouse I could take it or leave it- and I wouldn’t be rushing to read another of Woolf’s works. I do, however, think it is well worth reading some of her writing and reading up on her as a writer because I think her style of writing- very much about the character’s view of the world rather than the plot, and very descriptive- is very innovative and different to things you may have read before. What do you think? Let me know in the comment section below!