A copy of ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf has been lying around the house for years, I don’t even remember when I bought it, but do remember trying to read it and losing interest after a few pages. For no good reason, I decided to start the year 2023 with the same novel. In the latest podcast episode of Abstract AF, I explain why the book was a 1/5 star for me. So the review is filled with spoilers.
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Let me just summarize the plot for who those who have not read the book – the novel follows The Ramsays, a seemingly happily married couple, who aren’t very wealthy, but comfortable enough to own a beach house where they go to spend their summers in and host about 10-15 guests. The Ramsays have eight kids and Mrs Ramsay, the hostess is the primary protagonist. The first chapter starts off with her youngest son James asking if they can go to the lighthouse the next day and while Mrs Ramsay encouragingly says they can, her husband asserts that the weather isn’t right for such a visit. Mrs Ramsay laments its terrible of the father to douse the hopes of his son in such a matter-of-fact way and thinks the boy will remember the disappointment for the rest of his life. Apart from that, story is just about how Mrs Ramsay is a beautiful and entertaining hostess and loves playing a matchmaking aunty by trying to set her guests up with each other.
That’s just what the first half of the novel is about – Mrs Ramsays hosting peoples, her guests being in awe of her beauty and her husband who is a philosopher and author, being a needy attention-seeking man. Suddenly in the second half of the book readers are informed that Mrs Ramsay is dead and that nobody goes to the beach house for the next ten years. When they do, one of the guests reminisces about what a great woman Mrs Ramsay was and how her philosopher husband is nothing but a pale fading shadow without her.
So, in essence, this is about a beautiful woman hosting people at her beach house and some of her guests remembering her fondly when she dies. My interest to read this book kept dying after every page. Both Virginia Woolf’s storytelling and language wasn’t very fluid, unlike some novels where the author’s prose is so powerfully smooth that the chapters are easy to read even if the story is tedious. With ‘To the Lighthouse’, I neither found the ‘barely there’ story interesting nor the descriptions that were tediously laid between the minimal action.
As far as the characters are concerned, most of them are extremely forgettable and none of them experiences much growth, unless you consider the literal aging of some of the people in the story, since we meet some of them after ten years. If I were a literature student (which I was by the way) and had to write a character analysis for Mrs Ramsay, I am afraid I would be at a loss for quality words. I do like the fact that she isn’t your typical teen protagonist or someone naïve in her early twenties, although if the author hasn’t explicitly mentioned her age, one would never be able to guess that she is in her fifties. Her strongest character trait seems to be her physical beauty and of-course she is a loving caring mother, but that’s not a unique trait now, is it? The best picture you get of Mrs Ramsay is through the eyes and mind of a character called Lily Briscoe, she is an artist in her early 30s who thinks of Mrs Ramsay as a giver and her husband as a man who only ‘takes and takes and takes’.
Now I don’t know what the popular interpretation of Lily Briscoe’s character is, but I feel like Virginia Woolf either meant her to be a lesbian or a bisexual, because Lily’s affection for Mrs Ramsay seems to be quite strong and more than platonic. Considering the novel came out in the 1920s, Woolf obviously does clouds Lily’s feelings for Mrs Ramsay as a domestic kind of love for her way of life. Just the fact that Woolf at some point feels the need to clarify that Lily’s love for Mrs Ramsay is not limited to the woman but for the entire family and the way they live, gives some readers reason to believe that Lily had a romantic interest in the older lady. In the second half of the novel, Lily desperately feels the need to have Mrs Ramsay back in the beach house and she emotionally reminisces about their time together.
If this really was Virginia Woolf’s subtle attempt to slip in an unrequited love plot, then it’s a move worth noting, although it doesn’t change the fact that the novel was mind-numbingly boring. Was Lily Briscoe in love with Mrs Ramsay or did she just desire to be Mrs Ramsay herself, a woman of great beauty and charm with a happy brood of children who adored her? It’s not really a question worth debating.
And now, finally, I’d just like to touch upon the significance of the title ‘To the Lighthouse’. Little James gets to visit the lighthouse ten years later, ironically with his father, because his mother is no more. And anybody who is or has been a literature student can surmise that it was Mrs Ramsay who was the ‘lighthouse’, the woman who brightened up a room with her mere presence and without her to lighten up things, those who basked under her attention are lost.
To me, as a 21st century reader, ‘To the Lighthouse’ feels outdated, even though it has eternal themes like love and war. I couldn’t be bothered to care about a match-making aunty who lives in her own bubble, is financially stable enough to afford a cook and a bunch of people to look after their vacation home when they are not around. What were her hopes, dreams, aspirations, what does she want to be b eyond a mother and hostess? I don’t know even after 200 pages that were quite frustratingly difficult to sail through. Despite my massive disappointment with this novel, I do intend to read ‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virgina Woolf, which is considered to be a superior work by most critics. I can only hope it really is.