To the Lighthouse


I first read To the Lighthouse fifteen years ago. I was a senior in high school. I had a list of books to choose from in an AP course, I believe, and felicitously took this one up. It instantly became one of my lifetime favorite books. 



What I remember most from that reading is the way Virginia Woolf set down in words something that previously had been nebulous for me--something sensed but impossible to articulate.  We are all like icebergs, I realized from this book, the rocky tip of which is visible above the surface of the sea as we come together in life and connect and converse; but so much lies beneath, and we can only see a few murky meters of our neighbors before everything blends into the dark below the water line, invisible and unknown. It was Lily Briscoe at dinner that did it; we witness and are carried along in her gush of fellow feeling as she listens to Paul's plan to go search the beach tomorrow for the brooch that Minta has lost, and her complex feeling erupts in a single expressed wish to go help:


“Lily wanted to protest violently and outrageously her desire to help him, envisaging how in the dawn on the beach she would be the one to pounce on the brooch half-hidden by some stone, and thus herself be included among the sailors and adventurers. But what did he reply to her offer? She actually said with an emotion that she seldom let appear, ‘Let me come with you,’ and he laughed. He meant yes or no -- either perhaps. But it was not his meaning -- it was the odd chuckle he gave, as if he had said, Throw yourself over the cliff if you like, I don’t care.”


When I was sixteen, those lines cracked the world of human interaction wide open for me. It’s all there: all of the expansive feeling that undergirds our simple, spontaneous utterances. And at the same time, how a wish expressed might bounce utterly off of the veneer of someone else’s self-absorption. Each character in To the Lighthouse is a self-contained floating iceberg of sorts. And aren’t we all?


Another passage that has haunted me, indelible all these years: 


“The stocking was too short by half an inch at least, making allowance for the fact that Sorley’s little boy would be less well grown than James. ‘It’s too short,’ she said, ‘ever so much too short.’ Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.”


It’s just a stocking. It’s also just an entire life. It’s too short. Never did anybody look so sad. I feel that paragraph in my soul to a degree I don’t know if I have encountered in fiction before or since.


Is it weird that that line encapsulates probably half of my worldview and 90% of my existential angst?


As a teenaged reader I was equally drawn to both Lily and Mrs. Ramsey’s characters -- probably because we spend the most time in their two consciousnesses. But they are still so compelling to me, and in that spectacular way, how, returning to a book you once loved, you find that it has grown with you over the years. 


In Lily, we have the artist, striving to create; to bring her vision out into the world (is she an enneagram 5w4 like me? Her inner workings still feel so familiar.)  In Mrs. Ramsey, we have a model of domesticity -- an enneagram 2 through and through. Arguably, their relationship is a central pillar to the story. I am not entirely sure what to make of it. As characters, there is enmity, striving, mutual puzzlement, and mutual admiration between them. There are ways in which they see through each other, but also ways in which they baffle each other. (How true, even beyond the confines of this story!) What happens if you think of them as larger symbols, though? The artist/career/single woman vs. the wife/mother/homemaker. 


Then, there is another relationship in the book that I saw with entirely new eyes this time: Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey. Elements of their marriage feel so familiar to me now. Is it because Virginia Woolf channeled something universal with them? Is it because we, wittingly or no, turn into the books we love? (Is Mr. Ramsey a sx4w3, by the way? What do you think?)


I feel I am reaching the end of my train of thought here. (But will I reach z? -- sorry, ha, couldn’t resist.)


A final word on how shimmering and evocative this book is. The last fifteen years, it has lived in my memory as a book made of dappled light -- sunlight flickering through leaves, through water to cast a diamond pattern of shadow on a streambed. Re-reading it now, I see those images are actually explicitly mentioned -- in how the light comes through the windows of the house, in Cam’s hand drifting in the water as they sail to the lighthouse. I don’t know if I had consciously observed that at the time of my initial reading, but it was so vivid that it has colored my remembrances ever since.


I don’t have anything clever to observe about the quality of light in this book -- but gosh, it’s just beautiful. And how can words on a page do that? A hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf saw that light, and she has moved it from her mind to mine with skill that surpasses brain surgery.


Magic. Seriously.


Okay, I lied. Just a few more things to mention. Carmichael -- I think he is the one character whose head the omniscient narrator never enters? What does that mean? Also, WWI takes place peripherally during the “Time Passes” section. As a teenaged reader, I was completely unphased by that. Now? Gosh. My heart and brain could explode. 


Someday, I will re-read To the Lighthouse again. I wonder who I will be at that next reading? And what new shades of meaning will this book take on for me by then?


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