Would critics hail Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a masterpiece if it appeared today under the name of a little-known author? Do people revere it because it uses stream-of-consciousness techniques well or because it was among the first to use them at all (and can you separate the two)?
These questions came to mind last week at a meeting of a book club that had read the novel. Among the comments: “You can’t always tell who is speaking or thinking.” “The writing is so beautiful, but you get lost in the middle of some of the sentences.” “This may be a male point of view, but I found parts of this novel almost completely inaccessible.”
The club members had a point. Woolf darts in and out of the minds of characters in a way that critics often fault in the work of lesser writers. Deaths occur that aren’t prefigured. And the novel is almost plotless, taking as its subject with the daily life of a well-off English family on a Scottish island with a view of lighthouse.
So why do many critics consider it Woolf’s masterwork? To the Lighthouse is moving partly because “it is an account not of a brilliantly successful marriage nor of an incandescently failed one, but of an adequate one, in which struggles and little compromises are daily enacted,” the critic James Wood rightly notes in How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).
But the novel is far from timid in its portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children. Contemporary writers tend to reduce the departure of children from home to a cliché – “the empty nest.” Woolf offers a more complex portrait of a sensitive mother who is 50 years old when the novel begins.
Mrs. Ramsay knows what she will face when her young children, James and Cam, leave home: “Nothing made up for that loss.” And Woolf doesn’t sugarcoat this – as a contemporary novelist might do — by suggesting that the future happiness of Mrs. Ramsay or her children will offset the loss. Quite the opposite. Woolf adds a chilling note of a sort rarely found in recent novels: Mrs. Ramsay wants her children to stay young for their sake as well as hers: “They were happier now than they would ever be again.” Or, as Mrs. Ramsay puts it, “A tenpenny tea set made Cam happy for days.”
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.