Monday, August 29, 2011

To the Lighthouse

I actually had to triple-check my blog because I really thought I had already written about this one.  But I guess I haven't done it yet after all!  So it is my pleasure to discuss To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, for I am a big fan.  However, it took me a while to grasp it while I read because it is a unique writing style, so I hope I can help someone who might be a little baffled by it.

The novel is broken into three parts.  The first part, called "The Window," is the readers' glance into one day in the life of the Ramsays and friends.  There are moments of fights, dreams, wishes, insecurities, and love among them on this day.  Part two is called "Time Passes," which appropriately sums it up.  Woolf reveals that ten years go by, and she swiftly shares the main events without turning it into a narration.  In fact, it goes by so quickly that it almost feels brutally abrupt.  In the final part, "The Lighthouse," we return to most of the characters from the beginning and enter their minds again.  It makes for a very interesting juxtaposition to have the same people in the same place but with life-altering events and ten years between them.  We can really notice the differences between the beginning and the end because the middle doesn't distract us by following all the plot lines.

I read To the Lighthouse on my own while I was attending a lecture series about Woolf.  After several of these lectures, the professor simply used the phrase "stream-of-consciousness" in a side remark and suddenly a light bulb went off in my mind.  I had been struggling to follow the story as it wove in and out of the plot and the characters' inner thoughts.  There didn't seem to be clear direction or organization, and I couldn't even distinguish the passage of time.  Up to this point, I had never read something like this before.  Every other book I'd read was built on the plot, even if it occasionally reverted to memories.  This book - a shining example of Modernism - is built on people's scattered thoughts.  I've always said that no one would want to be inside my mind, for it jumps quickly from one thought to the next without clear connections.  My thoughts are often buzzing at a fast pace, only to drop off and brood over one particular concept for far too long.  I think we've all had those conversations where you have to stop yourselves and ask, "How on earth did we start talking about THAT?"  Woolf identified that to really write from a character's perspective, the thoughts must be broken from pattern.  The characters in the story often process through images that arise in their minds, and their thoughts are fragmented and not always completed to the readers' satisfaction.  And this is exactly what "steam-of-consciousness" means.  We function in a stream of thoughts that flow in one direction but come from different sources and merge indiscriminately as one thought.  We do not have a narrator who pulls it all together to form a clear storyline, and there's something fascinating about that.

Once I understood the purpose behind the disarray in the story, I was able to just let go and stop trying to piece it together in a perfect line.  I enjoyed it so much more when I embraced the un-metered rhythm of the characters' perspectives and allowed myself to be swept up in it.  In this way, I was able to pick up on themes rather than specific events, and I could feel emotions like loss, regret, and nostalgia in a very pure form.  I don't think for a moment that I understood all of it, but I sort of prefer it that way.  Instead of grasping every detail, I allowed the beautiful prose to move gently past me and I gleaned what I could.  I am inclined to say this was an exploration more than it was a normal reading, and it might even feel like a brand new book if I read it again. 

Early on, I did mention one of Woolf's other books, The Waves, in an blog hop post.  I had a lot of trouble reading The Waves, even though I had already read To the Lighthouse, because they are remarkably different.  Woolf pushes her lack of an omniscient narrator even further in this later text, and we somehow don't even seem to have characters.  I didn't like it as much, but it certainly makes for an interesting literary experiment.  (If you want to read a little more about it, you can click here and skip to the second half of the post).


IngridLola said...

Such a beautiful book, one of my favorites!

Amy said...

Thanks! Did you write about it on The Blue Bookcase? I'd love to hear your thoughts.