"We are what we believe we are."
C.S. Lewis

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mop Philosophy Book Club: To The Lighthouse

Godrevy Lighthouse
St Ives, Cornwall
 Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse completely took me by surprise!  I have had this book on my "to read" list for years and I had some preconceptions about it.  I am not sure of the origins of my ideas about the book as they were completely off base.  In the end I found it a pleasurable read, and though many passages were "psychological poetry" I did not find it difficult, though I did find it a challenge.

How so?  To be so completely immersed in the inner thoughts of the characters was a challenge for the absolute seriousness of their thought processes.  The idea that kept occurring to me was that no-one has thoughts this dour!  Each character, to me, seemed fairly plunged into gloom, perseverating on the same themes, winding around in circles of both self-consciousness and ambitions of belonging.
Reading each character's stream was an immersive experience, to the point that I found myself going off on my own thoughts and coming around again only to realize I'd read half a page and hadn't taken a thing in!  So while I enjoyed this thought immersion, I also found myself unable to read it if I wasn't paying particular attention to focussing on the character.  Did anyone else have this experience?

As you probably know if you have done any bit of reading on the book we are dealing with quite a bit of autobiography here.  Virginia Woolf's own family had a summer home in Cornwall and there was a lighthouse located out to sea, past similar gardens and a bay.  The character Mrs. Ramsay was modelled on Virginia Woolf's mother, who died when Virginia was only 13.
The sometimes frustrating thought process of Lily Briscoe was an exploration of Virginia Woolf's own writing methods, as well as a nod to her sister Vanessa Bell, the painter.
James is modelled on their brother Adrian.
 Did I enjoy the book?  My most favourite section was Time Passes, when we are immersed in the house rather than any particular character, though Mrs McNab the caretaker does add in her own thought process as she "lurches and leers" around the house on occasion, cleaning and attempting to keep the ravages of time at bay.
The house as well as time itself become characters of some importance:
"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, saucepan and china already furred, tarnished, cracked." (Chapter 4, Time Passes)
I enjoyed this essay on the novel:  Virginia Woolf Explores and English Country Home (NYT)

I really liked this biography:  Virginia Woolf Biography 

As well as this take on the book:  To The Lighthouse is really a book about summer holidays.

However what I'm really looking forward to is any thoughts you might have on the book, whether you've read all or part, don't be shy, chime in!
xoxDani

42 comments:

  1. Hi Dani, Lovely review of it. I first read this in Uni. I have to admit that my memory of it was very strong and I did a lot of reminiscing while reading this. I have strong recollections reading this to my boyfriend at the time who was a jock/stoner. How very youth angst for me to read out loud to him. He was a good recipient because he responded - dude does she smoke pot too? Now i remember all this and it makes me giggle. I also realized how different I have changed from 20 years ago. This was one of those books for me. I enjoyed it but I didn't take it as seriously as I did when I was 19. I also approached it as to not bothering to remember events/characters etc and just read it as poetry because plot was never Virginia's( we are on first name basis now) strong suit. I really enjoyed your book choice :)

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    1. Naomi I'm so glad you read it again! How hilarious to think about the first time you read this book with Stoner Boy, that is so funny. I wouldn't mind going over it again and reading it as poetry as you did. When I was having some difficult staying with each character's meanderings I kept going back to re-read so I wouldn't miss any plot, that was irritating. By the third section I actually gave up on doing that!
      I think it was a beautiful book and I think at 20 I would have taken it quite seriously as well. I really found it quite humourless at this stage in my life which to me is not believable. The tone of gloom was the same for each character!

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    2. The plot seemed largely in the parentheses. ( Mrs. Ramsey died suddenly, Andrew was killed in the war).

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    3. True, Lane, what mattered was the loss not the story.

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    4. Stoner Boy was absolutely correct, the whole set always had a mild buzz on.

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  2. I tried, I really did. I could not get through it. Maybe it "lightens" up but you did sum it up with all the dour thoughts these characters had. And boy did those thoughts run on and on and on. In all honestly, I do not think this was the time in my life to read Virginia Wolfe..I was quite sad with my own family (kids going off to college) that I just couldn't do it.

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    1. Blue Booby yes not the time for you to read this book that's so true! It does not lighten up so good thing you put it down. Maybe in 10 years or so you could pick it up again, and read it as poetry as Naomi suggests!
      I need to find a book that's much less gloomy for our next choice, I actually have an idea, a classic book I just finished that is not very well known but it was hysterically funny! You'd love it.

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  3. Morning Dani!

    First of all - thank you very much for this online book club - and for choosing this book. This was on VW book I had not read and I do not know why, given how much of a Bloomsbury addict I am - honestly, their lives make the best reading! Am doing two postings!

    First, some general thoughts:

    Virginia's use of language and stream of consciousness has a dreamy effect on the reader and you are so right - you have to pay attention or you can find yourself drifting off easily! You can really understand how different this novel was from almost everything her friends and contemporaries were writing at the time, and you just know that some of them, talented in their own right (and I am thinking of her buddy E.M. Forster here) must have been gob-smacked and wondered what the hell she was doing and how the hell she was doing it!

    We become as enamoured of Mrs. Ramsay as everyone else in the first part of the novel and then she is cruelly, inexplicably taken from us and certainly the death of their mother had a profound impact on Virginia and her siblings.

    It is clear throughout that Virginia's perspective on mortality has infused every character and there is a definite sense of "we will all turn to dust' air to it, as when Mr. Ramsay thinks "His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and then would be merged with some bigger light, and that in a bigger still," and yet of course, interestingly, the latter half of the book they are all grief-stricken still by the death of Mrs. Ramsay, the quiet and beautiful sun around whom they all orbited, even if they didn't all realize it at the time.

    Having Mrs. Ramsay read The Fisherman's Wife to James is also deeply symbolic and I wondered if her knowledge that they would all remember this moonlit night was akin to gold before all is destroyed again?

    There is also the premonition of "A Room of One's Own" when Lily Briscoe is so offended by Tansley: "Then why did she mind what he said? Women can't write, women can't paint - what did that matter coming from him, since clearly it was not true to him but for some reason helpful to him and that was why he said it?"

    I thought the Time Passes section the most powerful and some of the most hauntingly beautiful writing I have ever read. It reminded me of the scene in "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" when the filmmaker shows the house going to ruin. There are so many shocking passages and thing said so matter-of-factly: Mrs. Ramsay "having died suddenly the night before", Pru Ramsay "died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth", "A shell exploded" - the house and the family are disappearing before our eyes...

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    1. WMM I completely missed the symbolism of The Fisherman's Wife! What a duh! Of course, and the writing keeps going back to it over and over again, okay I get it now.
      Placed in amongst her contemporaries you're right what VW was doing was so different.
      In the final section Cam is unimpressed with the tyranny of her father but does admire the fact that he says and repeats "We perished each alone." More of that "we will all turn to dust"!
      The middle section is shocking and filled with terrible action but all as the dust settles in the house and time has its way as time does. You're right it was extremely powerful.

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    2. I could absolutely visualize that deteriorating house. The lighthouse remains abstract, never described except as the destination, perhaps radiating some hope.

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    3. Lane good point, the lighthouse as the end-point but symbolizing hope, a better place, literally the light at the end of the tunnel!

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  4. And specific things I loved...

    The scene with Lily and Mr. Carmichael out in front of the house watching the book has some of the most poignant descriptors of grief I have ever read:

    "It had seemed so safe thinking of her. Ghost air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand our and wrung the heart thus."

    And for me the most beautiful passage of the whole book:

    "why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted long enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. "Mrs. Ramsay!" she said aloud, "Mrs. Ramsay!" The tears ran down her face. [Macalister's boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with. The mutilated body (it was still alive) was thrown back into the sea.]

    In her life, Virginia had such a burning desire to make those connections with others and had an intensity that must have made life almost unbearable the majority of the time (and led to her eventual suicide). when I was reading this book I thought of other times and places in my own life when I was part of something but not really feeling a part of it. I think the dinner scene brilliantly captures what happens at a family or friends' table when we suddenly find ourself sitting beside the "wrong person or engaging in a conversation with the person to our right even as we are listening to a completely other conversation halfway down the table that we would really like to be a part of but we don't want to say to our table mate: "I'm sorry - you are just not as interesting as THAT - could you hold that until there is another lull?"

    I think her character studies, albeit overwhelming by times, were brilliant and the last line of the book "yes, she though, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision" the most personal piece of writing by an author I have read and it really took my breath away.

    Sorry to go one and on. I thought this was brilliant and as a mother, I very much identified with Mrs. Ramsay. I love gorgeous writing and I cannot imagine any descriptors better than these! Thanks Dani!

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    1. WMM I had that thought too about the dinner party, and it was in that scene that the characters seemed both self-conscious, resolutely locked in their own heads yet with a desire to belong. It was painful!
      That scene of Lily shouting for Mrs. Ramsay was truly a heartbreak and then set next to the horrifying imagery of the fish with the bit cut out of it, well it just wrenched the heart and exposed the sadness of the world.
      I agree that VW's intensity and her own mental torture really came through in this book. I found myself feeling more than a little sad for her.

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    2. Quite a literal manifestation of the holes loss leaves in us!

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  5. p.s. you may never ask me back to book club!

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    1. WMM loving your take on the book!
      It's pouring rain here today and so gloomy, perfect weather for discussing this book!

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    2. Well it is sunny, sunny, sunny, which I hope lasts for the shenanigans in the wood tonight!

      I really loved the book. One of the great meditations on loving and living and death. It was kind of our town-ish.

      I think I felt a lot of vw's emotions each time one of my parents died. I think that is where faith becomes the only saving grace. And love and kindness. Acts of kindness will bring me to tears every time.

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    3. I hope the clear sky holds for the tomfoolery this evening! You might wake up to rain though which could very well suit "the morning after"!
      This book must have been written as an extension of grief, Virginia went back to that summer house twice after her parents died, I guess there were things she couldn't let go of, she was haunted by it.

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    4. And her father was definitely Mr. Ramsay - was a terrible father after Mrs. Stephens died!

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    5. WMM yes and I wonder if VW banded with her siblings against the "tyranny of her father", much the same way Cam and James do at the end, on the way to the lighthouse?

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    6. Yes, along with her 2 older Half brothers from father's first marriage who were abusive

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  6. I read this through several lens; I admit it took me awhile to "warm" to the book, and I frequently had problems with the pronouns. Which " her " is this?? What "he" is going on and on here?

    One lens-- living across a harbor from a lighthouse. I've always loved the title of this book. The lighthouse literally draws you there, beckons you in your kayak, and feels a destination. I remember "Mom,can't we go to the lighthouse?"

    Another: my older daughter loves this book; she is an introverted, shy, brilliant young woman who bravely navigates the world despite her depression and anxiety. I want to talk about it with her, why this book speaks to her. Thank heavens for Skype!

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    1. Hi Lane - I think that this is one of those books where you say "thank god I am not the only person who feels like that!" - I had that feeling several times throughout the book!

      And I keep forgetting to ask what you all thought the symbolism of the lighthouse was?

      I thought this (though haven't a clue!) - the lighthouse is the beacon. They don't end up going in the first part, because they don't need to; Mrs. Ramsay is the beacon, shining her light on each of them, each feeling special when it shines their way. In the latter, Mr. Ramsay goes not just to finish what he never did (and pooh-poohed), but to find that beacon again. Other thoughts?

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    2. Lane that will be an interesting conversation with your daughter. My older daughter is also an introvert and she is planning to read this next summer when we are on holiday. I look forward to discussing it with her!

      Does the lighthouse symbolize the after-life? Heaven, God's light? Which could be why it was never described, it is not something to be understood by description, rather it is an idea.

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    3. I think you are all right. Like Wendy, the lighthouse for me is Mrs. Ramsay. Both provided the calm, warmth, protection, guiding force for a lot of people. Yet it could also symbolize the isolation and inner life in each of us. There are so many symbolisms in this book, the lighthouse could be a lot of things. One that I remember is the presence of the skull towards the end of part one which hinted at the looming tragedy that was to follow.


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    4. I think the lighthouse is (also?) the pulse of time. The sweep of the lighthouse beam becomes one of the main rhythms of the novel. It recalls Mrs. Ramsay's attention more than once in the first part; it orients the plans in parts one and three, too.

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  7. First read this in my gap year and loved it but this time around as a mother it took a whole new meaning because of the glimpse it gave of a marriage and family life. The first part was a difficult read for me, not used to a paragraph taking one page and the story unfolding through long internal monologues. This is what made VW a good writer though because she was able to build a touching story out of all these rush of thoughts and emotions from different characters.

    Like you and WMM, the second part Time Passes was my favorite with the passing of a decade written beautifully in a few pages: the empty house and decaying garden symbolizing the deaths in the family and the Great War and how the passage of time was measured in the changes in light and atmosphere.

    Loved how the novel ended in a positive way with the characters coming to grips with the death of Mrs. Ramsay and moving on. James was able to get affirmation from his father for completing a difficult task, Mr. Ramsay seeming renewed as he "sprang lightly like a young man" upon reaching the lighthouse and Lily finally finishing her painting through a single stroke with a "line in the center". (Wendy I thought of you and this must be how you felt when you typed The End upon finishing your book.)

    One thing I found daring was how VW portrayed adultery as actually saving Paul and Minta's marriage, how they formed a marital relationship so unlike what Mrs. Ramsay could have envisioned.

    Sorry for the long post, I do tend to go on and on about a book. Dani, thanks for providing this forum to share and read all your great thoughts. I look forward to the next one.

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    1. Marie - you are back on about the line in the centre!

      She wrote so daringly, coming as you did out of Edwardian England - the bloomsbury group were such a support to one another and egged each other on; the famous turning point during one of their evenings, when someone (Lytton Strachey maybe?) noticed a stain on Vanessa Bell's dress and casually asked if it was semen. It was like a dam broke - all these repressed people suddenly talking about sex and art in open ways!

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    2. Marie good point about the adultery, and that whole scene sketched out in Lily's mind about the handing of tools between the couple, I found that really surprising!
      Thank heavens Lily finished the painting! Move the tree move the tree!! It was a single stroke, something final, you're right there was some good resolution.
      Interesting the difference you found reading it now and reading it those many years ago... you must have been about the age Naomi was as she read it out loud to her stoner boyfriend! (see her comment above it's very funny)
      Thanks Marie!

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    3. Yes, that was a scream. Didn't have a boyfriend then and my preoccupation was to finish 100 classic books in one year while traveling. I think I ended up with 130 books all rated in a spreadsheet somewhere. My daughter has started on her 100 classic books earlier and would probably finish faster than I did. She's younger though and right now it's more of counting the books finished than really absorbing the nuances of the story. She told me Anna Karenina was about a sad woman who fell on the train.

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  8. So lovely to read everyone's thoughts about the novel! I first read TtL three (or was it four?) years ago. I don't entirely remember why: perhaps it was meant as a distraction from figuring out my dissertation proposal; perhaps I'd already gotten the tip that it might be helpful for figuring out my project. I could not get past page 17. I tried over and over and, lulled by and lost in the interweaving thoughts, could not move on. Then I found an article that claimed that TtL is a novel about silence. Looking for silence, I read it in one sitting and have now read it many times since.

    I persist in believing that the silences, particularly those between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, are evidence of love. The things they don't say to one another while both are seething with outrage over the evidence of the barometer; the things they refuse to say during their pre-dinner walk; the knowledge silently passed around the table during the dinner party (poor Mr. Carmichael and his desire for a second bowl of soup!); Mrs. Ramsay's triumph at the end of part I, "she had not said it: yet he knew."--all these show the love we bear in silence.

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    1. So interesting! I think there was deep love there as well!

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    2. philosophotarian, looking for silence... I am really appreciating that and I will keep that in mind when I pick this up again. "the love we bear in silence": that is beautiful! Thank you!

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    3. Love this way of reading it!

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  9. I don't know anything about this book at all, ok I think I'll man up and join in the next book club read, i struggle with fiction but will give it my best shot - my concentration is awful these days - too much quicky internet time has burnt out my brain.

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  10. Tabs - maybe it will be a Christmas book!

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  11. Tabs - maybe it will be a Christmas book!

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  12. Tabs - maybe it will be a Christmas book!

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    1. Yes Tabs I hope we can get you in next time! We must fight the Internet Hamster Brain, the curse of our time.

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  13. Thank you, Dani, for hosting this very evocative book event!

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    1. Lane you're very welcome, I'm really enjoying it. And did you see the article in the NYT Style section today featuring online book clubs? The description of real life book clubs was hilarious!

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