Thoughts on 'To the Lighthouse'
Don't you just love re-reading something you've written for school and cringing in dismay at all of the things you wish you could change in hindsight but can't because you've already handed it in?
For every novel we read in my English class - The Novel, I have to write a corresponding "reading journal" - about 250 words (1 double-spaced page). At first glance this assignment seems very easy - just respond to the novel, write a record of your thoughts, your reactions, your "wow"or "what the heck?" moments, or some of your observations or interpretations. But I always find these reading journal type assignments surprisingly hard. I think its because I think of a journal as being a private thing (yes, even though I post in a public blog) and so when I sit down to write one that I know my prof will be reading I get really self-conscious.
Anyways, yesterday over a span of about two hours I wrote my journal entry for the first novel we're taking up - To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Our apartment was freezing! Its only plus 5 and the heat's still not on, so I sat on the couch in the living room with my laptop on a little side table and the electric fireplace turned on. (I pretended I was writing in a cold, dark garret by candlelight with a lace shawl wrapped around my shoulders.... No, I didn't, I'm just kidding. But I did forget to turn the fireplace off again and only remembered six hours later. Fortunately one of my roommates had come home by that point and shut it off.) I ended up having to write my prof two times as I wrote - the first time to ask just how formal he wanted the piece to be (not formal at all, he responded) and the second time to find out if I was allowed to exceed the 250 word limit (I was but by no more than a page).
As I prepared to write I decided I was going to try to not edit myself as much as usual. Now as I read over what I ended up with I'm not sure that was such a good idea. There was so much I wanted to say - I had so many "wow" moments as I read it (well, I'm actually still reading - my journal entry is only based on Book I - The Window, which makes up a good two-thirds of the book as a whole) that I think I ended up feeling overwhelmed at being asked to sum up my thoughts in just a few short paragraphs. I'm starting to see now how some academics are able to spend their whole lives writing and analyzing the works of just one author; I think I could very contentedly spend a great deal of time reading, talking, and writing about Woolf.
Wow. That was a long intro just to get to the point of this post. The point being that I'm going to post my reading journal here in my blog and I'm opening it up to discussion/dissection/feedback/whatever. I'm not so much concerned with what you think of the style I wrote the entry in, because like I've already said I know its very rough and I'm definitely not satisfied with it. I'm more interested in hearing thoughts on the points I made from anyone who has read To the Lighthouse. (Also, if you're interested in reading it or comparing passages, there is an online version here.)
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Reading Journal #1
What is To the Lighthouse about? It has characters and a plot (though perhaps a less conventional one) and a setting – but describing those things won’t give a person who hasn’t read the book a true sense of what it’s about. I watched a documentary on Virginia Woolf the other night and in it Nigel Nicolson, the son of Vita Sackville-West, says about her: “She was really attempting to describe people’s relationships. Not in the way that they talked to each other or behaved to each other, but what they didn’t say to each other.” I think that’s so true of TTL – it is all about what goes unsaid – what the characters are afraid to say, or what they think they shouldn’t say (because it wouldn’t be polite or because they’re being protective), or what they wish they could say but can’t because they can’t find a way to put into words that will convey the entirety of what they are thinking and feeling.1
It is also a collection of comments on art – Woolf addresses the difficulty of the creation process is, why it is that we want to create art in the first place, and offers some suggestions of what truly great art is. Lily is constantly frustrated by her inability to paint to her satisfaction (p. 27 “it was when she took her brush to her hand that the whole thing changed”). Mr. Ramsay is constantly brooding about his failure in measuring up to great men, to have left more meaningful creation behind (p. 43 “How many men… reach Z after all?”). Perhaps it could be said that Mrs. Ramsay’s “art” is her life – she wholly invests herself in the role of the perfect wife, mother, and social hostess; she believes her children are her legacy and her living art will go on in them.2 This all goes back to the reason we want to create in the first place – some do so because they simply cannot help it, they are naturally driven to create (e.g. Lily?); others create very consciously (e.g. Mr. Ramsay?) with the motive of being remembered, out of fear of being forgotten. Mrs. Ramsay’s art might be of a more transitory (or what some might even call trivial) kind and yet it gives her pleasure and happiness in the present – she has the satisfaction of knowing that she is needed and loved.3
In the private thoughts of its characters, TTL shows us a reflection of the inside of our own minds – our vanities, our frustrations, our fears, our insincerities. Woolf writes in a way that seems so simple and obvious (the simplicity of truth); she captures the feelings of utter aloneness we all have and then reminds us that yes, we are individuals, trapped in our own minds, cut off from each other, but yet still we are somehow connected: “All of them bending themselves to listen thought, ‘Pray heaven that the inside of my mind may not be exposed,’ for each thought, ‘The others are feeling this…’” (P. 104)4 As I read TTL, a quote from the title page of Howard’s End (E.M. Forster) keep coming to mind: “Only connect.” I think that this is where the meaning of great art comes in. During dinner at the Ramsay’s a poem is recited: “And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be, Are full of trees and changing leaves.” (P. 121) The poem moves Mrs. Ramsay greatly: “She did not know what they meant, but, like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside her self, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her own mind the whole evening while she said different things. She knew, without looking around, that everyone at the table was listening… with the same sort of relief and pleasure that she had, as if this were, at last, the natural thing to say, this were their own voice speaking.” (P. 121, 122) The poem has drawn these individuals together, it has connected them; when we hear the truth echoing in art we recognize it, it resonates with us like a memory, like a thought we’ve always had but never knew how to articulate. Great art puts into words what we’ve always wanted to say (or to ask) but could never find the words for.
1 “They both felt uncomfortable, as if they did not know whether to go on or go back… No, they could not share that; they could not say that.” (P. 77)
2 “Look at that, she said to Rose, hoping that Rose would see it more clearly than she could. For one’s children so often gave one’s own perceptions a little thrust forward.” (P. 90) “It flattered her… to think how, wound about in their hearts, however long they lived she would be woven” (P. 124)
3 “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” Raymond Carver
4 And she is constantly asking what it all means: “How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?” (P. 33)