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.
To The Lighthouse, Part II - Time Passes, Chapter 2
So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, “This is he” or “This is she.” Sometimes a hand was raised as if to clutch something or ward off something, or somebody groaned, or somebody laughed aloud as if sharing a joke with nothingness.
Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wall-paper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall? Then smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the wastepaper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?
So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostlily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes, and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.
[Here Mr. Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle. It was past midnight.]