Reading Challenges

July 8, 2011

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse Read Along-Week 1

This July I'm participating in Unputdownable's July read-a-long dedicated to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse HERE. For me this will be an interesting experiment as the reading is broken down into four sections, one for each week in July.
Normally I don't read on a schedule, and I usually like to read one book at a time from start to finish, but it's interesting to try new approaches to reading (as you'll see in my Read Alongs Section I'm reading a chapter a day of War and Peace for a year). We'll see how long I can hold out without moving ahead...but so far so good.

In the first quarter of the book readers are introduced to the Ramsay family on holiday in Skye (side note: Isabel Dalhousie fans will remember that Alexander McCall Smith loves the setting of the Isle of Skye). James, the Ramsay's youngest son, fervently hopes to visit the local lighthouse, but his father and family friend Mr. Bankes are discouraging about the possibility to do so. Mrs. Ramsay, ever the optimist, shuns their pessimistic behavior and soothes her small son. Here we begin to see how Mrs. Ramsay's character represents the perfect Victorian mother (the period during which Virginia Woolf's own mother was raised): gentle, subtle, polite and intuitive. She is sensitive to everyone else's feelings around her, at the risk of sacrificing her own, which, I'd venture to guess at this early stage of the book, may come into play at a later time.

The language and beautiful descriptions in To the Lighthouse feel very similar to reading Proust, particularly his magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. The harmonious overlapping quality of viewpoints and descriptions presented are softly blended the way a watercolor painting's shades bleed one into the other. Here, the island setting, with its surrounding water, works perfectly with the gentle, lyrical prose. Lapping waves, nearly indistinguishable from one another, are just like Woolf's transitions from person to place to thought. The changes are so subtle, the reader just might miss these quiet shifts unless they stop trying to read for a fixed point or storyline, and allow themselves to relax into Woolf's smooth stream of consciousness.

See you next week for more on Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.


  1. Beautiful description of the book, Marisa. I really think you nailed it. Good point about something coming up with Mrs. Ramsay at the end -- I hadn't thought about it, but it's very possible Woolf was setting something up there.

    I love your reference to the writing being like a watercolor; so right on there! I've never read Proust before and I don't know if I could hang on for something longer than this book in that style - but maybe someday I'll try.

  2. Thanks so much for the visit and for initiating the read-along! It would be interesting to read Joyce, Proust and Woolf in close proximiy perhaps and see how they relate and differ. In fact, I just might do that after finishing To the Lighthouse (especially since I haven't read as much Joyce as I should!). Read you next week! :-)

  3. Great description of the book with the watercolor image and the lapping waves. I was fascinated by the changes in point of view and how many there were.
    Susan E

  4. Thanks so much, Susan. I really liked the changes transitions too. Can't wait to see what the next reading installment brings. Happy reading!

  5. The Power of “To”

    Furiously trying to finish reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf before the opera began, I didn’t take time to read the program notes. The lights dimmed, three men stood on stage, a table behind them. Several days earlier, I attended a discussion by a set designer named Beowulf Boritt, who explained his “lighthouse” came together in three acts, the “lighthouse” being built on the stage. Woolf’s text was divided into three parts. Made sense to me. The men began singing, the small orchestra played. I waited for Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe to appear . . . and finally figured out—the opera was not based Virginia Woolf’s novel. I leaped from Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. This lighthouse was about the murder of three lighthouse keepers.
    Virginia Woolf, the early feminist who wrote A Room of Her Own, ask for women to have a seat at the publishing table. She ended up in a sexless marriage to a man whom she loved, yet her husband, realizing his wife’s creative genius, published her work: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, Flush, and A Room of One’s Own. Unable to live through a second world war, Virginia committed suicide, putting rocks in her pockets and “finding a room of her own.” She created a path for women writers to follow her powerful creative pen.
    Reading Lighthouse again, I was struck by how much my writing reflects Woolf’s. Her three sections, the first with Mrs. Dalloway’s knitting sock, her son James’ cutting objects from a catalogue, Lily Brisco’s painting a picture; flash forward to Mrs. Dalloway’s death; and finally the present with James, his sister Cam, and their father rowing to the Lighthouse as Lily Brisco paints a scene begun years prior. My novel takes the protagonist to a flashback in college, to an incident after the husband’s death; to the husband’s death, a flashback to her living alone, forward to her entering a war zone. Editors continue to respond, The text is confusing to readers. Not so, say most readers.
    Other similarities include Woolf’s interior monologues of Lily Brisco as she observes Mrs. Dalloway; text repetition, “some one had blundered” written five times; “We are in the hands of the Lord” written twice); “But I beneath a rougher sea/ Was whelmed in deep gulfs than he.” Written twice. My text is filled with blood, sex, money, CIA references repetitiously strewn throughout the novel. Her text separated and set off for emphasis
    “stormed at with shot and shell.”
    My “Straight Arrow” chapter sets off inner dialogue
    to demonstrate my horror at hearing a best friend had assassinated an entire family and their servants and nervously waited for a helicopter to retrieve him.
    Even Woolf’s “subject/object” and the nature of reality, that is—“you think of a kitchen table when a kitchen table is not present in your vision” is similar. My epilogue in six sections, hermeneutics & T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative—objects arranged to affect an epiphany—and students learning to read high-level conceptual thinking, through objects—a mother’s breast to a kitchen table to love and empathy, models Woolf’s “subject/object.” Woolf’s colors—red, purple, grey, blue, lemon, white, violet—are written into my stories, red poinsettias, gold temples, grey uniforms, white smoke from a Buddhist cremation. Woolf’s themes—“knitting, the journey is enough”; my spiraling journey begins and ends at the same point, the journey is the focus. Woolf’s ideas: “half of one’s notions of other people, after all, were grotesque. They served private notions of one’s own.” We say (or write) the words we need to hear.
    And I guess we “write” what we need to read. Virginia filled her pockets with rocks and stepped into the stream that changed writing for women. We’re all taking a journey “to” the lighthouse.”


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...