I finished reading To The Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf. Writer and intellectual, she was one of the leading modernists of the twentieth century.
The book has many themes and elements in common with traveling and travel writing: stream of consciousness; the (inner) journey has more attention than the destination per se; human experience of time; the issue of perception, or the subjectivity of perception.
It is important to keep in mind that the book also has a strong difference, because it follows and extends James Joyce’s modernist tradition for which the plot is secondary to its philosophical introspection. In travel writing, the experience has the most importance, and experience means first-hand, practical contact.
The book and its genre are not the type of books I would normally read, because I am generally not into the stream of consciousness readings, although this book is one of the key works for such literary technique among literary modernism.
The lack of an omniscient voice means there is no real guide throughout the story. Everything reaches the reader through an extremely strong filter, which is the person of which thoughts we are reading. Everything is ambiguous.
Virginia Woolf is an extraordinary writer since the book seemed (and is) interesting, I wanted to try something new. That’s how we learn and discover new things!
I want to make a personal consideration of the second chapter of the second (of three) section of the book, Time Passes, since I found it as one of the most exquisite pieces of XIX century literature I have ever read.
It describes the darkness and the night creeping in the house and engulfing everything. This passage gives a sense of time quickly running away, a sense of cold and absence.
“If plot means dealings among the characters, there is no real progression of plot here, but, at the same time, what plot is grander or more essential than time passing?” (said Maggie Shipstead).
In this case the statement is spot on, because the greatest upheavals happen when the story has this fast-forward. It is also the only part of the book that has an omniscient narrator. A closer view, in medias res, of how things have changed is given by one character who is the caretaker of the house of for the owners since the beginning, Mrs. McNab.
The narration through an omniscient entity is in stark contrast with the rest. It’s dry if not distorted because being omniscient also puts the point of view away from feeling a situation.
Or is it?
I chose to write this personal overview of this passage because I found the description of the darkness seeping through every fissure, every crack, around every object and every person feels real.
The all-encompassing drenching of darkness is daunting from the very first lines. It’s cold but not cruel. It simply is. Suddenly and silently everything stops being, and darkness takes place. It is almost accepted. There might be few, unconscious futile attempts of rebellion – “Sometimes a hand was raised (…) ” – but it looks like a hand raised by a person drowning in an unseen tsunami wave: without even realizing what is happening, it’s all over.
There is much more that could be said about this part, but I was stuck by the description of the moving night and the sensations it engaged in me.
I think when that happens, it is really one of the highest achievements of a literary piece.