Review: To The Lighthouse

“It was love, she thought, love that never clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of human gain.”

To the Lighthouse is a 1927 book written by modernist author, Virginia Woolf. Even though it is a work of fiction, it is her most autobiographical novel, as she based some characters and themes on her own childhood experiences. Similarly to her other novels, To The Lighthouse is not about plot and story, it is about thoughts and reflections that deal with themes such as loss, subjectivity, perception, and life itself.

Probably the best summary of the book is the one by John Green on his Crash Course video: “The Ramsay family and friends spend a day at their vacation home. They talk about going to the lighthouse but don’t. 10 years pass, and then they go to the lighthouse and the book is over.”

Yeah, Virginia wasn’t too big on plot.

The novel is divided in three parts: The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse. Woolf described this as “two blocks joined by a corridor”, which is why Time Passes is the shortest section of the book. This section is also different from the rest of the book, as it doesn’t show the perspectives of any human character. Instead it tells everything from the perspective of the house.

Time Passes shows an empty house during the First World War and the house describes it as a storm, it tells us in its unique way what is happening, what has changed and who has died. It is interesting that we are informed of character deaths through parentheses.

Most of the novel is written in the form of thoughts and reflections, and almost no dialogue. It has a fairly complicated prose, especially for those who are not used to reading this kind of book. I haven’t read anything like it in a couple of years and so it took me a lot longer than back when I was more used to reading the genre. It has a lot of focalization, which means that the perspective shifts from character to character, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. Virginia was also a fan of the stream of consciousness as a literary device.

Stream of consciousness is a big thing in modernist literature, and probably one of my favorite literary devices. It records thoughts as they go through the mind, which means that they don’t have a particular order or any real pauses. Our minds simply don’t work like that. We think about one thing, then something we see might remind us of something else and just like that we’re now thinking of that. We don’t end our thoughts with a conclusion and then open a new section, we just think. Other great examples of this device are found in Virginia’s Mrs Dalloway, which I reviewed back in 2015, when the blog looked a little different, and in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I also reviewed in 2015.

2015 was the year I discovered modernism, you see.

 My edition: Paperback, published in 2002 by Wordsworth Classics
My edition: Paperback, published in 2002 by Wordsworth Classics.

I liked this book. Not as much as I liked Mrs Dalloway, but I liked it. It is not for everyone, though, especially because nothing really happens. But Virginia is not about that at all. To her, literature is not necessarily about plot and adventure. It is instead meant to question and reflect on life itself, it needs a deeper meaning. What is the meaning of life? How does change affect us? How do we perceive change? What makes an artist? Why do we make art? That’s To the Lighthouse. It is about feelings and emotions, about our perceptions and interpretations, about the things we struggle for, and about what it truly means to be human.

“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”