“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.”
It is with these lines that Woolf captures the essence of this novel and drives at the heart of all the fragments of thought, emotion, images, experiences, and perceptions that make it up. To the Lighthouse tells the story of the Ramsay family and their guests during their stay at the Ramsay’s summer home on the Isle of Skye. Woolf herself envisioned the novel as “two blocks joined by a corridor.” The first block, “The Window,” begins with Mrs. Ramsay telling her son James that they will be able to go to the lighthouse the next day; however, James’ joy at this assurance is cut short by Mr. Ramsay, who tells him that the weather will not be clear enough for them to go. The other block, “The Lighthouse,” chronicles the day they finally make it to the lighthouse, about ten years after the first section. Connecting these blocks is the short but beautiful “Time Passes,” which describes the decade between the two days.
Within these periods of time, Woolf manages to capture the depth and breadth of human emotion with such a bright, vivid, beautiful intensity and ultimately in this quest for understanding human perception of experience also manages to expose the blinding truth of it, especially in quotes like the one above. Like the ebb and flow of the waves, the perspective shifts effortlessly from one character to another. Mrs. Ramsay is the maternal figure who seems to carry the spirit of the house with her and thus keeps everyone together by touching all of their lives, even with her absence in the last part of the novel. All of her children like her better than her husband. Where he is harsh and seen as imposing his “tyranny,” Mrs. Ramsay is beautiful and energetic; she comforts her children and offers them hope and reassurance, and it is fitting that when she dies, the house is in decaying disrepair, left abandoned and derelict. In contrast, Mr. Ramsay is too severe, too logical and insensitive to the feelings of others. Despite his looking for “the way of genius,” Mr. Ramsay is also insecure; he searches for sympathy and validation and “stretches his arms out in vain” after the loss of his wife, who had once offered all of this to him. However, Woolf also expresses the frustrations of the female characters that have to put away their ambitions in order to put a man’s needs in front of their own and how a man’s ego must take precedence over a woman’s creativity and autonomy. Lily Briscoe, staring at her blank canvas, finds herself repeating Charles Tansley’s words over and over in her head: “women can’t paint, women can’t write.” Similarly, Andrew Ramsay reflects on Minta Doyle, “…she had no control over her emotions… Women hadn’t,” and much later in the novel, Mr. Ramsay thinks, “…women are always like that; the vagueness of their minds is hopeless… It had been so with her – his wife.” However, when Lily thinks about Mrs. Ramsay while trying to paint, she realizes “[Mr. Ramsay]… never gave; that man took. She, on the other hand, would be forced to give. Mrs. Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died — and had left all this.” While Lily is unmarried, creative, and independent, and Mrs. Ramsay is motherly and feminine, both share a woman’s desire to live life on their own terms, instead of man’s.
With seemingly mundane, everyday activities, all of the characters experience great emotional intensity and sensitivity, showing that one doesn’t need to have grand experiences in order to reach grand truths about meaning and nature of life. Likewise, what one perceives about something in one moment may be completely different than another thought one has about the same thing under different circumstances, but it doesn’t mean that both can’t be equally true. For example, as the Ramsays sail to the lighthouse, Cam and James make a compact “to resist tyranny to the death,” to resist the imposing, domineering nature of their father. However, once Mr. Ramsay compliments James’ sailing, Cam knows “that this what James had been wanting… His father had praised him.” At the same time, Lily Briscoe, painting, thinks, “So much depends then… so much depends… on distance: whether people are near us or far from us.” Although people may seem cold, distant, and insensitive to feeling, everyone longs for some kind of connection, a deeper understanding from and with others, some basic empathy and feeling of attachment. Woolf shows us just how incredibly complex human relationships are: they are mercurial, changing like the sea, and even a slight variation in weather can have so much impact.
The lighthouse, then, serves as the final destination, and it is reached just as Lily adds the last, final line to complete her painting. Just as Lily has to confront the doubts manifested by a blank canvas and just as “the risk must be run; the mark made,” the waves must be crossed, the ups and downs of emotions and the complexity of day-to-day perception must be experienced, in order to reach the lighthouse, to reach that sense of “unity” and “intimacy, which is knowledge,” that ultimate truth of life, whatever it may be for each character.
Overall, though, I think the pleasure of reading this novel is not simply in its themes and truths but in just the simple and wonderful sensation of reading and taking in the beauty of the prose. The vibrant, radiant images all press together in an almost kaleidoscopic way, and there’s always a sense of time passing but staying connected to the present moment and the way that the present continuously shifts and evolves. Like the sea, the rhythm of Woolf’s writing is wonderful to get lost in, and there are so many infinities to explore and different aspects to learn from, transversing art and poetry to philosophy and history to time and death.
“Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigues, I have had my vision.”