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The Book Club

Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

Reading and writing about the book was a huge undertaking (and challenge). I was struck by the many literary techniques, but did not comprehend – and would not have necessarily – picked out all of the aspects as a recreational reader (should be left to academics who actually analyse the language, phrases and expressions individually). Still, one thing that I did not include in the below points was on Lily and James (how, at the end of the novel, they develop more balanced and holistic impressions of Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay respectively, and reinforces the point about competing perspectives).

1. “To The Lighthouse” and the use of the stream of consciousness technique. The use of the stream of consciousness technique is a defining literary aspect of “To The Lighthouse”, along with the use of flashbacks-recollections, as well as the changing perspective and narrative voice from character to character. The last book I read which used the stream of consciousness narrative style was William Faulkner’s “The Sound And The Fury”; and like the present text, the narrative style allows for more in-depth character understanding (without the bias from a third-person perspective), and enriches the relationships between the members. Thoughts and introspective observations are the primary drivers for the novel, and they take precedence over events and dialogue. Through these methodologies, even though certain sections might require further close-reading, it emphasises the various themes, tensions and examinations – on family life, allegiances and gender principles – more emphatically.

2. Picking up the Penguin Books version. Using the Penguin Books version of the text would be especially beneficial for those who: i. might struggle with some of the references that Woolf makes; ii. read more about the bibliographical notes (draft versions of the book, as well as letters or essays penned by Woolf; and iii. comprehend the many nuances and assortment of approaches present throughout the story (informative introduction and notes written by Hermione Lee). This elegy, in my opinion, may not be accessible for the reader who focuses more on plot development (including myself); naturally, it would be helpful if the reader was cognisant of the little elements present – and echoed through this form of literature – in Woolf’s life.

3. Mrs. Ramsay’s societal laments. “She felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance. There were the eternal problems: suffering; death; the poor. There was always a woman dying of cancer even here. And yet she had said to all these children, you shall go through with it”.

4. Tensions between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, contentions against marriage (I). Right from the get-go in the “The Window”, there is a sense of conflict between the husband the wife (in terms of their relationship), when Mrs. Ramsay’s reassurance to James that they would be able to visit the lighthouse is rejected and denied by Mr. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay finds Mr. Ramsay’s expressions towards James “tedious and annoying”, but never does voice these protestations aloud; instead, for the sake of the harmony of the marriage (shown in her supposed subservience) and family (ensuring everything is in order), Mrs. Ramsay presents herself differently. During their walk together, they seem to be operating on dissimilar dimensions, reaching a dead-end during their conversation, and therefore highlight the stark difference in their worldviews and opinion.

5. Tensions between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, contentions against marriage (I). Contentions are also expressed against marriage: when Mrs. Ramsay tells of Augustus Carmichael initial promise as a poet and intellectual until his marriage ends up in disaster, and the perils of purported unwillingness (when Paul Rayley expresses some form of regret asking for Minta Doyle’s hand in marriage, but is held back by self-consciousness and peripheral pressures). He believes that he was forced into marriage by Mrs. Ramsay. Nonetheless, Mr. Ramsay’s reliance upon his spouse is to be noted – for instance, when he constantly has a sense of intellectual insecurity and requires some form of affection or assurance – and is particularly pronounced through a sense of emptiness after Mrs. Ramsay unexpectedly passes away in “Time Passes”.

6. Mr. Ramsay’s philosophy. Amidst Mr. Ramsay’s intellect, he displays tremendous insecurity with his contributions and abilities, and discourses lengthily on the nebulous concept of “immortality”, and the repeated calls for affirmation. Bankes expresses his inability – during a conversation with Lily in the beginning – to accept why Mr. Ramsay requires so much praise and attention for his intelligence, and for what he does; while Mrs. Ramsay expresses worry that the reader or observer might mistaken, and believe that her work surpasses his. It is also interesting to note that the protagonists of the text seek to establish the worth of their lives through different platforms: Mr. Ramsay relies heavily on his work to preserve his reputation as a philosopher; the maternal Mrs. Ramsay is deeply devoted to her family and friends, and uses her influence to maintain cohesiveness and enrich experiences; while Lily uses her painting and art to do so.

7. Lily’s contemplations on life and Mrs. Ramsay. “What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other … Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said … She owed it all to her”.

8. The chronological nature of “Time Passes. By compressing ten years into a few pages (comparatively less), the theme of decay and demise are highlighted. Mrs. Ramsay’s death is talked about extremely briefly; but the other forms of destruction – external and internal – are correspondingly amplified. The trauma and rapid progression is sandwiched by lengthy chapters on human development, sentiments and emotions.

9. Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay. The question of gender roles does dominate the relationship between Mrs. Ramsay, even after the latter has passed away; primarily, the familial and maternal devotion displayed by Mrs. Ramsay are notions rejected by Lily. Mrs. Ramsay’s parts are filled with expressions of domestic concerns (worrying about her family, thinking about the cost of the greenhouse), attempts to match-make other individuals (with her faith in marriage and the institution of the household), and pursuing social causes (believing that the island needs a hospital and a diary) objectively. Lily on the other hand dismisses the conventions articulated by Mrs. Ramsay and Charles Tansley, reflects her intent to break out of traditional gender stereotypes; and despite her struggles (with her art as well), she is determined to live out her life on her own terms. However, such as at the dinner party scene, Lily recognises Mrs. Ramsay’s to bring the characters together, break down barriers, heighten mutual understanding and provides a light-hearted atmosphere to contrast the upcoming chapters (though it also strengthens Lily’s resolve to live her life as single regardless of the expectations of others).

10. The use of brackets (from Sparknotes). “Each set of sentences in brackets in the earlier section contains violence, death, and the destruction of potential; the short, stabbing accounts accentuate the brutality of these events. But in Chapter VI of ‘The Lighthouse’, the purpose of the brackets changes from indicating violence and death to violence and potential survival. Whereas in ‘Time Passes’, the brackets surround Prue’s death in childbirth and Andrew’s perishing in war, in “The Lighthouse” they surround the ‘mutilated’ but ‘alive still’ body of a fish”.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


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