I’ve just finished To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and, as a surprise to no one, I loved it. I loved it so much that I didn’t just break the spine, but, to my horror, ripped the book in half. Thankfully I had some Scotch tape on hand.
What is really momentous is that this is the first book that I’ve returned to after giving up on reading it, because it was “too hard.”
I’ve always been a reader, but somewhere around my Sophomore or Junior high school year my reading habits changed. Before then, I tore through escapist literature—I was particularly fond of the Star Wars extended universe. On whim, I picked up All Quiet of the Western Front. Instead of escaping on a grand adventure, I faced a horrifying reality. Yet, at the end of the book, I felt that I understood the world—the beauty and the tragedy—a little bit better.
At the time I was ignorant of what the Canon was and the problems inherit in it, all I knew was that All Quiet on the Western Front was considered a classic, and that I wanted to experience that sense of clarity and catharsis again. I thought I could only experience it through “the classics.” As you can tell, I had only vague idea what any of this meant or what authors to seek out.
I started to wander the library stacks picking up books that I’ve heard mentioned in class or whose covers made them look like a classic (the only reason I knew Madame Bovary was a classic was because of its leather cover). Sometimes I discovered books I loved (Calvino’s, Camus’, Austen’s, Gaskell’s, and so many others), sometimes I discovered books I hated, and sometimes I discovered books that overwhelmed me.
When I selected a book that overwhelmed, I would often read a few pages, but find that I couldn’t follow what was happening or, in some cases, the syntax. To the Lighthouse was one those books. I started reading it, but I didn’t know what was going on. I was left wondering who the main character was, what were all these people doing, what conflict was pushing the plot forward. I would reread whole pages, but the words became no clearer. Eventually I gave up—I felt that I wasn’t smart enough to read it.
I encountered Woolf again in a college literature class, where we read Mrs. Dalloway. Once again, I couldn’t follow what was happening. Woolf’s narrative switched from character to character without warning. I kept wondering why we were spending so much time with boring Mrs. Dalloway and not more time with Septimus Warren Smith, who I found more interesting. I figured that I just didn’t like Woolf’s writing that she was just to hard for me to read.
This all changed when I saw the film, The Hours. I quickly tracked down the book by Michael Cunningham. His book made me question my initial reading of Mrs. Dalloway, allowing me to read it once more. It is strange how point of view can affect our reading of a book. When I first read Mrs. Dalloway, I’d firmly believed that literature should be about grand ideas and grand passions. When I read The Hours, or maybe because I read The Hours, I was starting to wonder if literature could be about the little things that made up our days. I started to wonder if the trifles that I had been so quick to dismiss were just as important to our lives. In Mrs. Dalloway, and really in much of Woolf’s writing, she shows how the grand and small connect, how our lives are made up of both wars and the errands we run on a busy afternoon. She shows how what we would dismiss as insignificant can make life worth living.
Since then, I’ve read The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Orlando, The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is one of my favorite writers. Yet when I picked up a copy of To the Lighthouse, I was intimidated. Here was one of the great books that I had failed to read. Here was a book that I was not smart enough to read. This feeling of doubt is, of course, familiar: I feel it every time I sit down to write. It asks me who I think am. I’m not that important; I’m not that smart; I’m not one of those people who will finish To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, or Swann’s Way. Perhaps that is why I sat down with the book; I needed to prove something to myself.
When I finished To the Lighthouse, what surprised me most was just how easily I could read it. I could follow the narrator as she switched focus from one character to an other. The action was clear. I wondered if this was the same book that had so overwhelmed me before. But it was, I had simply grown as reader. I was now more familiar with Woolf’s syntax. I had read more complex, sometimes frustrating, experimental writing. Stream of consciousness following multiple characters was familiar; I was an old hat at it.
In some ways my journey to finally reading Too the Lighthouse oddly suites one of the book’s main themes—the relentless march of time. People die, houses fall to ruin, books and paintings are forgotten, nothing lasts. Yet there is comfort in that change. A painting will be finished, and books will be read.
In Too the Lighthouse, Woolf questions the traditional view of art—an avenue to immortality for the Great. In one scene, we see Lily Briscoe remember Mrs.Ramsey taking her and Charles Tansley to the beach. Lily thinks:
But what a power was in the human soul!…That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite…something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.
Mrs. Ramsey had gone to the beach with two of her friends and created a day that causes Lily to question her views and had truly moved her. We tend to think of the duties of hostess as inconsequential, but that day, because of Mrs. Ramsey, transcends and works like a piece of art. Woolf has shown us that those “inconsequential” moments can carry consequence.
Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because it speaks directly to my artistic endeavors. I have known several Charles Tansleys who have told me that I couldn’t write just as Charles told Lily that “women can’t paint, can’t write.” I too have looked at my writing, much as Lily looks at her paintings, and thought it will be forgotten. Yet Woolf’s final paragraph in To the Lighthouse reminds me that it does not matter:
she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
As I read those final lines, I feel I can go on writing. Once again I feel that I know something more about this world. I again feel that catharsis I felt at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front and so many times since with many other books. It was worth all the years it took me to finally read those lines.