The Modern Library dust jacket for Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse

  • Author:  Virginia Woolf  (1882  –  1941)
  • Rank:  #29
  • Published:  1927
  • Publisher:  Hogarth Press
  • Pages:  209
  • First Line:  ” ‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay.”
  • Last Line:  “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #15; All-TIME List
  • ML Edition:  1937  (#217)
  • Film:  1983 (tv film)
  • First Read:  Spring 1995

The Novel:  Perhaps those at the time didn’t know what they had, that they would never have anything like it again.  That could be a line from To the Lighthouse, in fact, could be a line from nearly any of Virginia Woolf’s novels, with the depths of discovery never quite leading to where the characters think they might, but always, below the surface, lurking behind with what could be possible.  But I’m not speaking of the novel itself, or even Woolf and her talent specifically.  Instead there is the whole breadth of stream-of-consciousness, of exquisite modernism, perhaps the most difficult of all literary styles.  It did not begin in the 1920’s, for Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist is the crown prince work that came before he was crowned the king of modernism with Ulysses.  But in the course of one decade, we saw the best of Joyce and Woolf, Proust and Faulkner, modernist styles from different sides of the Atlantic, from different cultures and languages and with the shadow of the war hanging over so many of them.

They share within them marvelous sentences, words that just drip right off the tongue (“To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch.”), but, more importantly, the longing in the distant past as it lingers into the fresh scent of today.  From Proust’s child haunted by his mother, to Joyce’s Molly caught in her memories of happier days to Faulkner’s Benjy, unable to separate past from present, one Quentin from another, with only Caddy’s scent to distinguish one day from the next, all of them are haunted by the past that never seems to be past.  Then there is James Ramsay, forever caught up in his mother’s promise of a trip to the distant lighthouse, a trip only completed long after the war, long after she is dead and buried, yet still the trip remains.

As with Proust, it is Woolf’s language that we sink into: “Feelings that would not have disgraced a leader who, now that the snow has begun to fall and the mountain top is covered in mist, knows that he must lay himself down and die before morning comes, stole upon him, paling the colour of his eyes, giving him, even in the two minutes of his turn on the terrace, the bleached look of withered old age.”  Or, at the end of the second part, as we finally come through the horrible years of 1914-18: “Then indeed peace had come.  Messages of peace breathed from sea to the shore.”

Then we move on to that final moment, when Lily Briscoe, completing her painting just as James completes his long promised journey to the lighthouse, finally decides what it means to have the painting finished.  “She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at the 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.”

Though To the Lighthouse was the only one of Woolf’s novels to end up on the Modern Library list, it was in danger of being eclipsed the next year when Michael Cunningham’s The Hours suddenly brought everyone back to Mrs. Dalloway.  But this was the book that gave her a greater degree of freedom (it outsold all her previous novels and Woolf described it as the best of her books) and it is the best of a tremendous career.  Along with Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time and The Sound and the Fury it is one of the cornerstones of modernism and Woolf’s greatest triumph.

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