Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse: Woolf’s Greatest Elegy?

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‘One sees a fin passing far out. What image can I reach to convey what I mean? Really there is none, I think.’

Woolf writing in her diary of 1925 reveals her life long concern with the problematic representation of experience. Her sense of reality’s ineffability haunted all her major novels and in To the Lighthouse perhaps her art found its greatest expression.

The novel begins with a promise, a promise made by a mother to her small child that he can go and visit the lighthouse near where the large family holiday each year. It ends with the Lighthouse being reached finally years later after the mother’s death. The process that takes us from a casual promise to its manifestation is for me one of the most magical journeys in literature. I’ll be braver- one of the most magical journeys of my life! For like Proust, Woolf is preoccupied with remembrance, with ways in which the past is never finished with and recurs.

Questioning the exact generic title for her ‘novel’ Woolf wrote:

‘I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel’. A new – by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?’

An elegy is exactly what To the Lighthouse turns out to be. It takes place before and after the First World War and the ‘elegy’ understatedly suggests the complex processes of mourning that individuals experienced in the aftermath of the Great War. The brilliance of Woolf lies in her fluid, suggestive style which captures often in parenthesis, the seemingly insubstantial moments of experience and renders them extraordinary.

‘With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past.’

Woolf’s protagonist Mrs Ramsay poises quite literally at a ‘threshold’ between reflection and conjecture. Her ‘moment of being’ exists for her outside of linear ‘lived time’ and communicates her sudden awareness of the miracle of spatial, ‘outside’ time. The complexity of this realisation is mirrored in the intricacy of the sentence itself, with its welter of subordinate clauses. The sentence hesitates as the experience is experienced and this halting of the ‘flow’ of the sentence proves revelatory.

The careless tenderness of the reference to ‘Minta’s arm’ coalesces the intensely private thoughts of Mrs Ramsay, with her public role as hostess, and engenders a poignancy that haunts the rest of the novel. For this is a farewell, and ironically it is a farewell to Mrs Ramsay which will remain unappeased until the last scene of the narrative.

The final scene of the text shows the artist Lily Briscoe searching for a means to complete her picture, a picture begun years before, in the early stages of the novel. Suddenly she is ‘visited’ by Mrs Ramsay once again and acknowledges her dead friend’s haunting centrality; and her extraordinary gift of love.

‘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.’


Source by Janet Lewison

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