from the Introduction to the Vintage Classics edition (2023), by Susan Choi To the Lighthouse
begins very abruptly—with nothing much going on.
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay.
It’s an empty moment of vacation in-betweenness, of busywork and lazy repetition. Six-year-old James Ramsay has been given by his mother a catalogue to cut out the pictures. Mr. Ramsay and his tendentious acolyte Charles Tansley are walking back and forth as they always do, in the same track, talking as they always do about the same petty, insular topics. Mrs. Ramsay is thinking, as she always does, about the dominating qualities of men; and the claims of houseguests; and the prejudices of her children. Her children are feeling as usual prejudiced against Mr. Tansley, as well as reflexively compelled to curb their prejudice, as per their mother’s admonishments. The house as always is littered with paint pots and bird skulls and handfuls of sand; it’s decorated as ever with “long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall” (p. TK) from which the sun pouring into the room draws “a smell of salt and weeds,” as changeless as the sun itself. Even the possible trip to the lighthouse is a tired debate (Will the weather be fine?), not a plan, and even were the lighthouse attained, it would only be to offer superfluous tribute to a changeless landmark affixed to its “rock the size of a tennis lawn” where there’s nothing to see but “the same dreary waves breaking week after week.” In other words, nothing changes—in this room, in this house, in this family, in these conditions of existence . . . where the walls are so thin that it is impossible not to hear one of the servants, a “Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons.” Should we pay attention to this sound of bereavement? Surely not. Surely we’re meant to disregard this, as the family does.
Nothing much going on: yet everything is here, in sparkling distillation, as we drift aimlessly on time’s stream. It’s the kind of afternoon that might well have been swept under the amnesic rug of “non-being,” Woolf ’s name for that greater part of experience, the part that we live but don’t notice, which she compares to “a kind of nondescript cotton wool.” She goes on, in her autobiographical “A Sketch of the Past,” “When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger. I had a slight temperature last week; almost the whole day was non-being. The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being. I think Jane Austen can; and Trollope; perhaps Thackeray and Dickens and Tolstoy. I have never been able to do both” (Woolf, Moments of Being
, 70). Perhaps I badly misunderstand what Woolf means by non-being, or perhaps Woolf, writing those sentences a decade and a half after To the Lighthouse
and less than two years prior to the end of her life, badly underestimates her powers or is indulging in false modesty. It’s precisely the power of To the Lighthouse
, its soul-shaking sleight of hand, that moments of apparent non-being, such as the opening scene, are transmuted, like the lazy stream lifted clean from its bed, and shown burning with light.
Throughout her prolific career, Virginia Woolf wrote relatively little straightforward autobiography in the vein of “A Sketch of the Past.” Like many creative writers, she mostly saved the truth for fiction. Perhaps the most notable example from her work is To the Lighthouse
, of which much has been written, including by Woolf herself, about its portraiture of her parents, in the form of the Ramsays, and its depiction of Talland House, the seaside home in St. Ives, Cornwall, where Woolf spent childhood summers until the death of her mother in 1895. But parsing a novel for its origins in an author’s lived experience has never been my motivation for reading, and I was entirely ignorant of the real-life analogues to the book’s elements until many decades and many readings after it had become one of the most influential and inexhaustible books in my life. Finding out what “really happened”—that the Ramsays “really were” Woolf ’s rendering of, and in many ways reckoning with, her parents; that the house, though transposed to the Hebrides from Cornwall for the novel, “really did” have just those sorts of gardens and just that view; that a broach “really was” lost by a houseguest and that, of course, there “really was” a lighthouse—hasn’t made that much difference to me. The book is revelatory whether you are able to discern the many stitches binding the novel’s cloth to that of Woolf ’s life or not. And yet at the same time that revelatory quality that speaks universally to anyone—the book’s embodiment of those least tangible yet most powerful entities of consciousness, time, and death—derives directly from Woolf ’s particular experience, and not merely the incidents—such as the deaths of her mother and sister and brother—but the nature of experience itself.
Toward the end of “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf, paraphrasing Hamlet
(“For he was likely, had he been put on,/to have proved most royal”), imagines her brother Thoby at sixty, an age he never reached:
"He would have been more of a character than a success, I suppose; had he been put on. The knell of these words affects my memory of a time when in fact they were not heard at all. We had no kind of foreboding that he was to die when he was twenty-six and I was twenty-four. . . . Then I never saw him as I see him now, with all his promise ended." (Moments of Being
It has been from Woolf more than from any other writer that I’ve learned about perspective in fiction—not only who’s telling the story but where they’re located in time, relative to whatever they’re trying to convey. The effect of time—and its concomitants, notably death—on perspective, on one’s receipt and transmission of experience, interested Woolf deeply. Earlier in “A Sketch of the Past”—at the moment, apparently, when it graduated to the status of sketch—she writes,
2nd May  . . . I write the date, because I think that I have discovered a possible form for these notes. That is, to make them include the present—at least enough of the present to serve as a platform to stand upon. It would be interesting to make the two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. (Moments of Being
As she says of Thoby further on in the essay, “We had no kind of foreboding that he was to die. . . . Then I never saw him as I see him now, with all his promise ended.” Woolf ’s “I now” can’t unsee Thoby’s death when she gazes back into the past. She can’t unhear the knell. Yet at the same time, just a few pages earlier, Woolf has done exactly this, returning to a moment that, by 1939, already has at least a double life, as an indelible memory of her childhood and as the penultimate moment of To the Lighthouse
, when James Ramsay “steered them like a born sailor.” Fourteen years later, in “A Sketch of the Past”—and of course decades earlier, in the actual past—Woolf recalls,
". . . once Thoby was allowed to steer us home. 'Show them you can bring her in, boy,' father said, with his usual trust and pride in Thoby. And Thoby took the fisherman’s place; and steered; flushed and with his blue eyes very blue, and his mouth set, he sat there, bringing us round the point, into harbour, without letting the sail flag. One day the sea was full of pale jelly fish, like lamps, with streaming hair; but they stung you if you touched them. Sometimes lines would be handed us; baited by gobbets cut from fish; and the line thrilled in one’s fingers as the boat tossed and shot through the water; and then—how can I convey the excitement?—there was a little leaping tug; then another; up one hauled; up through the water at length came the white twisting fish; and was slapped on the floor." (Moments of Being
By the time the jellyfish float past, Woolf has forgotten all about Thoby’s future death. The knell is inaudible. And she has
conveyed the excitement—reading these sentences I felt the water and wind, and I heard the fish slap on the floor of the boat. I’d forgotten about Thoby’s death also; I’d forgotten about my own dining room table, at which I sat on a too-hot June day more than one hundred years distant from child Virginia, her brother, and the white twisting fish. However great writing accomplishes it, by whatever its magical touch on whichever remarkable part of the brain, the seamless transit is achieved, through both space and time. “I now” transforms into “I then”—yet remains, somehow not interfering, a tactful ghost freighted with knowledge. Woolf knows she has doubled herself, has reclaimed a vision of Thoby without the foreboding of death—not only Thoby’s death but the deaths of her mother and sister when she and Thoby are still in their teens. All this makes her hesitate to write of him further: “I do not wish to bring Thoby out of the boat into my room.” Afloat there Woolf possesses both the undiminished past and its loss, the opposite conditions at once—just as, in its opening scene, To the Lighthouse
enacts both non-being and being at once. Woolf, who so often thought in dichotomies—being/non-being, I now/I then—in fact consistently achieves simultaneity of these opposite things not merely in her work, as a representation the reader might appreciate from a distance, but—for this reader, at least—in our visceral experience as readers. A synthesis of opposites, an immersion in this seemingly impossible condition—that’s my experience of Woolf ’s work, little as I can put it in adequate words.
The term perspective
—with its narrow origin in looking, and its too-broad application to painting, geometry, lens-based technology, the overall relation of a person to their situation and that intangible sometimes called truth, and far more—is woefully inadequate to describing what Woolf achieves with words, but then again so are most words. You have to start somewhere. It was Woolf ’s handling of perspective—or viewpoint, or the place from which the story is told, to use more inadequate words—that first dazzled me the first time I read To the Lighthouse
. “Yes, of course,” says Mrs. Ramsay, and we’re dropped into the moment, with no explanations. We occupy an entity again best compared to a ghost—it’s no single character but any that it chooses in turn (James, his mother Mrs. Ramsay) or even several at once (the older children, who vanish “stealthily as stags”). Yet this narrating entity isn’t omniscient—it’s far too intimate with its subjects to be described by that remote and godlike adjective. It more resembles those “certain airs, detached from the body of the wind,” which after everyone has gone to bed steal inside “ghostlily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers,” to tease the flap of wallpaper that has surrendered its adhesion to the wall; to mount the stairs, nose around the bedroom doors, and finally “bend over the bed itself.” Despite these being only “little airs,” another side of the narration now voices a gentle protest. This aspect resembles a mother—perhaps Mrs. Ramsay, whose creation this entire household world is. The little airs are told: “Here you can neither touch nor destroy.” Score one for constancy against the eternal foe, death. Turn deaf ears on the Swiss girl’s sobbing again. The little airs withdraw downstairs and outdoors—but not before spoiling the apples, fumbling the rose petals, blowing sand across the floor. Do your worst, we might tell them alongside that motherlike voice, smiling with indulgence. But hardly a page later, in an impassive parenthetical, we learn that Mrs. Ramsay has “rather suddenly” died. The death doesn’t even occur
in the parentheses—only the backward glance at it.
The soothing maternal voice, affirming that here nothing can be touched nor destroyed; its antagonist, those crafty little airs, who win the victory for death after all: both are Woolf. And, immersed as fish in the nimble and changeable stream of her narration’s perspective, both are us, as Woolf engages us in the epic battle at the heart of this superficially quiet and civilized story, between the losses inflicted by death and our refusal of them.
Copyright © 2023 by Virginia Woolf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.