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

Posted on Feb 18 2021 - 11:50pm by Dedenkotch

‘You see a fin that goes far away. What image can I achieve to convey what I want to say? There really aren’t any, I think.

Woolf writing in his 1925 journal reveals his lifelong concern with the problematic representation of experience. His sense of the ineffability of reality haunted all of his major novels and in To the Lighthouse perhaps his art found its maximum expression.

The novel begins with a promise, a promise made by a mother to her young son that he can go visit the lighthouse near where the large family goes on vacation each year. It ends with the lighthouse that is finally reached years 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 will be braver, one of the most magical trips of my life! Because, like Proust, Woolf is concerned with memory, with the ways in which the past never ends and repeats itself.

In questioning the exact generic title of his ‘novel’, Woolf wrote:

‘I have the idea that I am going to 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’ quietly suggests the complex processes of mourning that individuals underwent after the Great War. Woolf’s brilliance lies in his fluid and suggestive style that often captures in parentheses the seemingly pointless moments of the experience and makes them extraordinary.

With his foot in the doorway he waited a moment longer in a scene that faded even as he watched, and then, as he moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, he changed, formed himself in another way; he had become, he knew, giving her one last look over his shoulder, already in the past.

Woolf’s protagonist, Mrs. Ramsay, literally stands on 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 space time, “outside.” The complexity of this understanding is reflected in the complexity of the sentence itself, with its confusion of subordinate clauses. Prayer falters as the experience is experienced, and this interruption in the “flow” of prayer is revealing.

The careless tenderness of the reference to ‘Minta’s arm’ fuses the intensely private thoughts of Mrs Ramsay, with her public role as hostess, and engenders a commotion that haunts the rest of the novel. Because this is a farewell, and ironically it is a farewell to Ms. Ramsay who will remain impassive until the last scene of the narrative.

The final scene of the text shows the artist Lily Briscoe looking for a means to complete her painting, a painting begun years earlier, in the early stages of the novel. Suddenly, Ms. Ramsay “visits” her once more and recognizes the haunting centrality of her dead friend; and his extraordinary gift of love.

With sudden intensity, as if seeing it clearly for a second, he drew a line there, in the center. It’s done; It was finished. Yes, he thought, putting down the brush with extreme fatigue. I had my vision. ‘

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