Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
To the Lighthouse follows one family's stay at a vacation house by the sea. It begins when the children are young and the parents are fairly content, and it leaps forward to a time when the children are motherless and the house is abandoned. The servants eventually restore the house to life and the family (now minus a few members) returns to a house that is simultaneously the same and not the same. The novel offers multiple perspectives on life, love, and filial feelings of reverence and resentment, and chronicles the seen and unseen impacts of the passage of time.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I thought this book was stunning. Like some other books on my list (ahem, lookin' at you, ProustyProust), it's perhaps not recommended reading for all, in that the prose can be very wordy and its sentiment is not immediately perceptible upon first reading. As my good friend Dennis pointed out (happy birthday again, boo boo!), this book is one that requires multiple visits from a reader. The trajectory of the novel only became clear to me about halfway through, and I instantly wanted to start again. I think I'll give it a bit of time, though, before I return. Besides, I still have so many other books on my list! (So much time, so little to do. Wait. Strike that. Reverse it.)
A few reflections, in no real order (heads up, this post is a tad lengthy. Woolf is a meaty author, so she deserves it!)
- No longer "à table" (Charles, tu vas prendre ta douche?)
This description comes near the beginning of the novel, and it captures so eloquently the essence of the family and their connection to the house.
"Disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinner-table directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no other privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley's tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; sea birds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, paint-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing."
- We perish, each alone
Mr. Ramsay quotes a line from "The Castaway" by William Cowper, "we perish, each alone", ostensibly in reference to his wife's death. I couldn't figure out why that line was so familiar until I looked up the rest of the poem, and heard Hugh Grant (aka Edward Farrows) reading the poem unenthusiastically and without enough romanticism to please Marianne. (i Like him. i greatly EsteEm him.)
(emPhasis added for effect)
No light Propitious shone("shonn");
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We Perish'd, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he."
- The house by the sea
"The whole bay spread before them and Mrs. Ramsay could not help exclaiming, "Oh, how beautiful!" For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon country, uninhabited of men." I love the word 'hoary'. It just Feels special when you use it.
-Lily Briscoe, on painting
- If your brain is an attic, how much can it hold?
Lily always imagines a kitchen table when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay's intelligence (it's a long story) and I loved this line about her trying to balance all of her thoughts at once. It reminded me of Sherlock's claims in 'Elementary' that the brain can only hold a finite amount of material at once and that it's therefore necessary to prioritize accordingly.
"All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net - danced up and down in Lily's mind, in and about the branches of the pear tree, where still hung in effigy the scrubbed kitchen table, symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay's mind, until her thought which had spun quicker and quicker exploded of its own intensity; she felt released; a shot went off close at hand, and there came, flying from its fragments, frightened, effusive, tumultuous, a flock of starlings."
- What letter have you reached?
Mr. Ramsay, on his intelligence:
"It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q." I'm not at all sure that I've reached Q. Have you?
- All children, except one, grow up.
Something that always strikes me when I read these novels is the universality of certain sentiments. Decades after this book was written, every parent still wishes that their child wouldn't grow up. Even if the whole world looks different than when Virginia wrote this book, that feeling will never go away.
"Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older! or Cam either. These two she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters. Nothing made up for the loss."
- Are they all gone now? Are they all gone?
Mrs. Ramsay, on her need for solitude: "And that was what now she often felt the need of - to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others."
- May I share in your disaster?
Paul, another acquaintance staying with the Ramsays, has just recently proposed to a young friend of the family, Minta. Lily, who generally feels comfortable in the solitary life, is momentarily jealous of the budding joy of new love:
"It came over her too now - the emotion, the vibration, of love. How inconspicuous she felt herself by Paul's side! He, glowing, burning; she, aloof, satirical; he, bound for adventure; she, moored to the shore; he, launched, incautious; she, solitary, left out - and, ready to implore a share, if it were disaster, in his disaster..."
- Real men cry when they read a good book.
on Mr. Ramsay, as he reads a Sir Walter Scott novel:
"But now, he felt, it didn't matter a damn who reached Z (if thought ran like an alphabet from A to Z). Somebody would reach it - if not he, then another. This man's strength and sanity, his feeling for straightforward simple things, these fishermen, the poor old crazed creature in Mucklebackit's cottage made him feel so vigorous, so relieved of something that he felt roused and triumphant and could not choke back his tears. Raising the book a little to hide his face, he let them fall and shook his head from side to side and forgot himself completely (but not one or two reflections about morality and French novels and English novels and Scott's hands being tied but his view perhaps as true as the other view), forgot his own bothers and failures completely in poor Steenie's drowning and Muckebackit's sorrow (that was Scott at his best) and the astonishing delight and feeling of vigour that it gave him."
- When reading is like dreaming
One of my favorite scenes in the whole novel is when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, whose relationship is complicated, but affectionate, simply sit together in his study and read, each attentively drawn in to their own book. As mentioned above, Mr. Ramsay is reading Sir Walter Scott, and Mrs. Ramsay has picked up a book lying nearby.
"Mrs. Ramsay raised her head and like a person in a light sleep seemed to say that if he wanted her to wake she would, she really would, but otherwise, might she go on sleeping, just a little longer, just a little longer? She was climbing up those branches, this way and that, laying hands on one flower and then another."
- Who's afraid of the dark?
"So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and a basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, "This is he" or "This is she". Sometimes a hand was raised as if to clutch something or ward off something, or somebody groaned, or somebody laughed aloud as if sharing a joke with nothingness."
- The creeping airs
I loved this description of "the airs", it was so corporeal and anthropomorphic. (a word? not sure. it is Now!)
"Nothing stirred in the drawing room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. (Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!) Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wall-paper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall? Then smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the waste-paper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?"
"So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes, and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear."
- Could this be life?
While perhaps less explicit than in "The Bell Jar", the question of our purpose here on Earth and what we are meant to do with it arises in this novel. While many of the classics I've read have tinkered around the edges of the question, this one explicit asks at one point, "What is the meaning of life?" Just in case you were wondering, I don't know. I Have read a Lot of books, but I don't have the secret answer. (At least not Yet.) Sowwy! #outofluck #maybetrywikipedia?
I loved this line, particularly the bit about "no learning by heart the ways of the world":
"What was it then? What did it mean? Could things thrust their hands up and grip one; could the blade cut; the fist grasp? Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? -startling, unexpected, unknown?"
- Lily, to Mr. Ramsay, after Mrs. Ramsay has passed away:
"They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet." This was my favorite sentence in the whole book. Lily is unable to provide Mr. Ramsay with the sympathetic condolences he so ardently desires, and instead, she looks down and comments on his boots.
"What beautiful boots!" She exclaimed. She was ashamed of herself. To praise his boots when he asked her to solace his soul; when he had shown her his bleeding hands, his lacerated heart, and asked her to pity them, then to say, cheerfully, "ah, but what beautiful boots you wear!" deserved, she knew, and she looked up expecting to get it, in one of his sudden roars of ill-temper, complete annihilation.
- Filial feelings
When the family returns to the house by the sea, Mr. Ramsay drags James and Cam off to the Lighthouse. Neither one is interested, and they both resent him for making them go. This line of Lily's struck me:
"Doggedly James said yes. Cam stumbled more wretchedly. Yes, oh, yes, they'd both be ready, they said. And it struck her, this was tragedy - not palls, dust, and the shroud; but children coerced, their spirits subdued."
- Recalling the house to life
These passages about the house falling into disrepair and being returned to life were fantastic. I wanted to share the trajectory with all of you.
"The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed."
So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.
They might be coming for the summer; had left everything to the last; expected to find things as they had left them. Slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard; fetched up from oblivion all the Waverley novels and a tea-set one morning; in the afternoon restored to sun and air a brass fender and a set of steel fire-irons. George, Mrs. Bast's son, caught the rats (and who will help me catch the rats?), and cut the grass. Attended with the creaking of hinges and the screeching of bolts, the slamming and banging of damp-swollen woodwork some rusty laborious birth seemed to be taking place, as the women, stooping, rising, groaning, singing, slapped and slammed, upstairs now, now down in the cellars. Oh, they said, the work!
And now as if the cleaning and the scrubbing and the scything and the moving had drowned it there rose that half-heard melody, that intermittent music which the ear half catches but lets fall; a bark, a bleat; irregular, intermittent, yet somehow related; the hum of an insect, the tremor of cut grass, dissevered yet somehow belonging; the jar of a dorbeetle, the squeak of a wheel, loud, low, but mysteriously related; which the ear strains to bring together and is always on the verge of harmonising, but they are never quite heard, never fully harmonised, and at last, in the evening, one after another the sounds die out, and the harmony falters, and silence falls. With the sunset sharpness was lost, and like mist rising, quiet rose, quiet spread, the wind settled; loosely the world shook itself down to sleep, darkly here without a light to it, save what came green suffused through leaves, or pale on the white flowers in the bed by the window.
At last, after days of labour within, of cutting and digging without, dusters were flicked from the windows, the windows were shut to, keys were turned all over the house; the front door was banged; it was finished."
- What do you think is the shape of loveliness?
"So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted; solitary like a pool at evening, far distant, seen from a train window, vanishing so quickly that the pool, pale in the evening, is scarcely robbed of its solitude, though once seen. Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom (doesn't that sound delightful?), and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—“Will you fade? Will you perish?”— scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain."
Sentences that struck me:
- "Many things had changed since then. Many families had lost their dearest."
- "And again she felt alone in the presence of her old antagonist, life."
- "They both felt a common hilarity, excited by the moving waves."
- "Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified."
- "In the failing light they all looked sharp-edged and ethereal and divided by great distances."
- "Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers."