Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse: Is Stream of Consciousness Dead?

Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

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What to me or many interested readers might be a great novel, to students and many others who may not be open to experiment, To The Light House may be boring; if not un-readable. One can enjoy the novel by its own merits (or demerits), so I won’t much to say about the author Virginia Woolf, whose life was filled with drama.

Stream of consciousness

Stylistically, the novel belongs to the genre that today we know as “stream of consciousness.” In this genre, the reader is expected to follow the voices, echoes, remembrances, and associations in the characters heads. Of course, if the reader has no clue as to what this new way of writing is about, the result will be negative. Filled with mystifying sentences, the reader must piece together the events and so create the portrait of a family and close friends.

The novel is difficult, but the rewards are great, for we can learn about the changes wrought by war, death, marriage, age, and aging itself. To The Lighthouse is novel split into three sections, which is not to be confused with beginning, middle, and end. Each section is dedicated to different periods in the lives of the Ramsay family as they vacation at their summer home in Scotland during these periods (from 1910 to 1920). As we learn of the events and anecdotes –mundane, unimportant, and banal— that shape their lives, we realize that though these incidents may be viewed as commonplaces, what makes them gain respect (in the author’s selection) is the way in which they connect the characters. Yes, stream-of-consciousness is very important to the structure of the novel because it puts the reader in the minds of the various characters and very much in the moment of the novel. But the style of the novel is important beyond the technique.

What is the lighthouse?

Besides being a thing, a human structure, the lighthouse becomes the central symbol of the passage of time:
The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening. Now— James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it? No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true
too. James as a child wanted more than anything else in his life to go to the lighthouse, but his father denies him that. As we can see in the above excerpt, when James finally gets there, the real lighthouse isn’t as truthful as the remembrance of it as when he was a child.


What may turn off many readers may be the lack of punctuation. The assumption is that since humans do not consciously put punctuation into their thoughts, they should also exclude them in their writing. As a result the thoughts of the Ramsay's and other characters become run-on sentences. Very little dialogue do we find in this book, since all of the conversations that occur are described as the thoughts of one of the characters involved in the conversation.


First, we see how ephemeral life is: life and work and everything is transient, meaning that nothing in life is solid, predictable, and stable. Next, that art may supply the means to anchor us to creations that will exist forever, unlike other affairs such as politics. Let’s follow what’s in the mind of Lily Briscoe, the young painter and friend of the family:
It partook . . . of eternity . . . there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.
For ten years —the time of the novel— she works on a canvas that she finally finishes when the Ramsay’s reach the lighthouse. Beauty, life, reality, and happiness are relative concepts since they can be perceived in countless different ways. Mrs. Ramsay’s happiness is paradoxical: while she admires her husband, she is incapable of saying to him that she loves him:
She could not say it. . . . As she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)— “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
Given to rationality and scientific reasoning, Mr. Ramsay lacks the warmth and affection that his spouse searches for. His desires and frustrations for achieving greatness bar him from gaining Mrs. Ramsay’s love. Beautiful, domestic, loving, Mrs. Ramsay also succumbs to life, for she dies unexpectedly in her fifties. But because of those mundane bits of life that she experienced with her family, she could say: “Nothing on earth can equal this happiness.” With a little patience, mental agility to connect, and love of language, To The Lighthouse could be an enjoyable piece of literature.
Augustine, City of God
Austen J, Pride and Prejudice
Austen J, "Marriage Proposals and Me"
Austen J, Emma
Borges, The Aleph
C. Bronte, Jane Eyre
Burroughs E,Tarzan
Cervantes, Don Quijote
Chaucer, Wife of Bath
Coelho P,The Alchemist
Coyle H, They Are Soldiers
Dante, New Life
Dickens C, David Copperfield
Dostoevsky, Crime&Punishment
ConanDoyle,Hound of Baskervilles
Dubner S, Superfreakonomics

DuMaurier D, Rebecca
Ellis B. E. American Psycho
Fitzgerald S, Great Gatsby
Flaubert G, Madame Bovary
Fleming I,Doctor No
Freud S, Leonardo Da Vinci
Friedan B, Feminine Mystique
GarciaMarquez, Of Love & OtherDemons
Guerrero M,ThePoison Pill

Grass G, The Tin Drum
Harris T, Hannibal Rising
Heidegger M,House of Being
Ishiguro K, Remains of The Day
Johnson S,Rasselas
Kosinski J, The Painted Bird
Lee H,To Kill a Mockingbird
McBain Ed,Gutter and Grave
Murakami H,Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Nabokov V, Lolita
Meyer, S, Twilight
Ortega,Dehumanization of Art
Poe E A, Gordon Pym
Prose F, Reading Like a Writer
Rushdie S,Midnight Children
Sabatini R, Scaramouche
Spark M, Prime of Miss Brodie

Stendhal, Red and Black
Sterne L,Tristram Shandy
Stevenson R, Dr.Jekyll & Mr.Hyde
Stoker B, Dracula
Thackeray W,History of Pendennis
Tolstoy L, Anna Karenina
Trollope A, Autobiography
Unamuno M, Tragic Sense of Life
Voltaire, Candide
Webb J, Fields of Fire
Wharton E, The House of Mirth
Woolf V, To The Lighhouse

The secrets of 'no-doze' prose:
Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers

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Lindsey Vonn

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1 comment:

  1. I've written (though in German) about stream of consciousness and time structure in Woolf's "To the Lighthouse". Perhaps some of your readers are able to read German and might wanna have a look on my article?