Author: Virginia Woolf
Illustrator: Liz Demeter
Published: 1927, 1955 (renewed), 1981 (foreword)
“She was trying to get these tiresome stockings finished to send to Sorley’s little boy tomorrow, said Mrs. Ramsay. There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly. How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.” – Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse left me aimless and uncertain of what the novel was intending. The first fifty pages were a slow climb but the intimate knowledge her characters have and think they have about one another and themselves kept my interest. Each character is dynamic and belongs to a hive mind, making the narrator seemingly uninvolved because of the seamless thoughts and actions that are capable of narrating themselves. Knowing that the novel’s purpose is something of a transitory timepiece made the experience more fulfilling in the end as well. Woolf’s goal of writing realist fiction instead of realism shows; her novel stands to reason that any novel does not need the conventions of plot or ordered chronology that have provided a basis and a rhythm for writers to be a complete novel; it only needs Time. To the Lighthouse uses the past of its characters to define their present and, to an extent, their futures. Mr. Ramsay for example does not know what to make of his academic endeavors in relation to the great writers of before, namely Shakespeare and his relevance over time. Much of the novel is it at the dismay of Mr. Ramsay who keeps the family from visiting the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay is the family’s saving grace and the center of their universe, quite literally in time and space. The dinner scene is the momentous occasion for readers to witness a “discrepancy” that allows Mrs. Ramsay to “[see] things truly…” (Woolf 83).
Whether it is Mr. Ramsay’s stubbornness to understand the void of fame or Mrs. Ramsay’s surreal beauty with unassuming simplicity and attentive reasoning, Woolf is mentally and emotively aware of the social interactions and expectations of human affairs. Her essays “Modern Fiction” and “The Mark on the Wall” are personal examples of how she avoids realism (the subjective) and approaches realist fiction (the objective). Charles Dickens understood that a book is a profitable commodity and his books were entertaining, but he had the eye and detail of a journalist to show readers the wallow of poor living in blacking factories and workhouses. Woolf similarly aims for the objective but does not let the subjective be solely entertainment or a third person omniscient narration. Her book is not a commodity in the traditional sense for readers. Its aims are not subjective means to an objective ends. To the Lighthouse only emphasizes the subjective means commercially taken to reach objective ends that defines reality for people. This definition of reality in Woolf’s view is perfunctory and not true, and is more rather a definition of realism. Reality for her is speculative and not something anyone, even a narrator, would ever or could ever fully know backwards and forwards. Modern fiction has no solitary or right “method” but, as Woolf argues, “every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express… that brings us closer to… what we prepared to call life itself [and] suggest how much of life is excluded or ignored [convincing us] that there are not only other aspects of life, but more important ones into the bargain” (“Modern Fiction” par. 6). Without harboring on the irony of having to rely on subjective means here, that is our reality, and as writers and readers too. Woolf does not shy away from but does not completely enjoy this subjective process to understand the objective world.
In “The Mark on the Wall,” the subjective is unknown but is filled with possibilities, which the history of the mark on the wall and Woolf’s inferences highlights. The objective is known but is finite closure, an end to speculation, an end to reality’s definition. The true definition of reality is not all-knowing but all-flowing for Woolf, which makes the conventions of realism in art, literature, and fiction unreliable representations of the objective world. She then relies on appearance over representation to expunge the historical and temporal distractions that become our false definition of reality; the same way abstract art only relies on the three factors of significant form: lines, color, and form. Woolf does not want us to see a book as a square fold of leaves. She wants us to see past the boundaries of a page, a word, a taut canvas. This struggle and strain of the subjective world in order to reach the objective world is in the same vein as Lily, a guest at the Ramsay summer house, and her painting of Mrs. Ramsay and her service and support as a mother, wife, and friend. The vanity of it all is also prevalent as Time, the true narrator of the novel as suggested in the foreword by Eudora Welty, is the intangible secret of life kept from us. Time is an important theme in relation to reality since no one can foretell where or when one will be or what one will become. Realism tells us we cannot tell ourselves this. Much like a game is not a game anymore, it has to be about winning, it has to be the objective reason for playing: winning. It is the meaning of winning that counts, not the completion of the act itself. That is, without speculation or imagination in fiction, without the subjective process, the objective world or life becomes an intangible vanity game rather than a multiplicative mantra with meaning.
Virginia Woolf is not only a realist writer, but a proteiform writer, one whose writing presents not a means to an end, but many ends to many means. Lily is one of the guests at the Ramsay house who paints a picture explaining the liminal process between the subjective and the objective world. Woolf also shows the discrepancy in the act of painting and the painting itself. To the Lighthouse delineates discrepancies of time by using mental detours to propagate a path of a choice, not convention. There are “other aspects of life” left unsaid and they are just as important as the ones said, which is why significant form works, not because it is monotonous but because it is multiplicative, like in parodies; it gives us a new association not yet explored and not yet completely explored (“Modern Fiction” par. 6). Lily cannot decide what to make of her painting but knows she wants it to be an exact whole but also an amalgamation of abstract pieces. John Milton does the same in Book I of Paradise Lost, where he compares Satan’s size and spear to human things knowing that Satan and his spear are unfathomably too large or too small to comprehend with the human mind (1.284-287, 1.292-294). The struggle in Woolf’s writing is between the finite (objective) and infinite (subjective). To know or attain the objectivity in the world is not desirable if what is known has only a singular meaning; knowledge can in this moment feel disappointing or even unenlightening. To think or to speculate in subjectivity gives many associations and opportunities but not necessarily a complete meaning. Time is relative to whoever experiences it, just as it is relative to whoever reads Woolf’s timepiece.