Saturday, June 2, 2018
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (Albatross Publishers), a review by Stephen Darori, The Bard Of Bat Yam, Poet Laureate Of Zion
Virginia Woolf Explores an English Country Home,To The Lighthouse" Is a Brilliantly Ambitious Analysis of Domestic Psychology
It was with "Mrs. Dalloway" that Virginia Woolf, achieved a novel of first-rate importance rather than of great promise and talent, and as a method in fiction, "Mrs. Dalloway" has begun already to make its influence keenly felt. Two novels of the present season seem to pay it the tribute of imitation. It is written all over Nathalie S. Colby's highly successful "Green Forest" and just a faint flavor of it creeps into Babette Deutsch's much less successful "In Such a Night." The method of "Mrs. Dalloway" is substantially retained by Mrs. Woolf in this new novel, "To the Lighthouse," but though one encounters again her strikingly individual mingling of inward though with outward action in which the "stream of consciousness" style is liberated from its usual chaos and by means of selection and a sense of order, made formally compact--one finds the method applied to somewhat different aims.
"Mrs. Dalloway," of course, is Clarissa Dalloway from cover to cover, and for that reason it has a magnificently concentrated clarity. It is Clarissa in relation to herself, her family, her friends, her servants, her milieu; it is her servants, her family, her friends, in relation to her "To the Lighthouse," on the other hand, is a book of interrelationships among people, and though there are major and minor characters, the major ones are not, as Clarissa Dalloway was, the alpha and omega of the story, but more truly the means for giving to the story its harmony and unity, its focal points. Those who reject "To the Lighthouse" as inferior to "Mrs. Dalloway" because it offers no one with half the memorable lucidity of Clarissa Dalloway must fail to perceive its larger and, artistically, more difficult aims. They must fail to notice the richer qualities of mind and imagination and emotion which Mrs. Woolf, perhaps not wanting them, omitted from "Mrs. Dalloway." They must fail to appreciate that as an author develops he will always break down the perfection he has achieved in an earlier stage of his writing in order to reach new objectives.
"To the Lighthouse" is a book in three parts, in three movements. All of it is laid at the Summer home of an English family named Ramsay in the Hebrides, the first portion occupying an afternoon and evening, the second portion constituting an interlude of ten years during which the house remains unoccupied, the third portion occupying a morning at the end of these ten years. The Ramsays are a middle-aged couple, when the book opens, with eight children, who have with them at their Summer place about half a dozen friends. Husband and wife, though very different, are in love with each other. Mrs. Ramsay, who though fifty is beautiful, has charm, intelligence, understanding; also she is a little anxious to have a hand in things, a little anxious to be liked, a little anxious to keep her illusions and have others keep theirs. Her children love her; they do not love their father--she works harder to hold their love. The best minds about her seemingly mistrust her a little, dislike her a little, for her charm is persuasive rather than compelling. She watches those about her without mingling too much; both because she chooses a vantage point--symbolized by the window--and because of her personality she becomes the dominant and focal figure of the group.
Ramsay is less easy to understand, possibly because he is given less attention. In many ways he is a more interesting as well as original character: brilliant no doubt, but introverted, lacking those immediate graces which win for his wife the greater love of their children, lacking warmth, too, and a sense of social compromise--rigid in his truthfulness, a man, a thinker, where his wife is a woman, a psychologist. He lacks sensitiveness, one feels, either that or his sensitiveness is a very deep and hidden one. He loves his wife, they have a fundamental understanding, yet he is not a "help" to her in their relationships with others.
And around them are their children and their friends, the fumbling Lily Briscoe, the one-sided and arrogant yet somehow pathetic Tansley; a true product of early environment: the serene Mr. Carmichael, somehow about the clash of personalities; the unimportant couple who become engaged. They are an assortment of lives, most of them moving in different directions, yet moving, at least intermittently, under the influence of Mrs. Ramsay, who, beneath the stress of their presence, cannot quite find the chance to live her own inner life.
Then ten years pass, Mrs. Ramsay and two of her children die, the house remains uninhabited, and finally some of those who were together ten years before come to the Summer house again. It is a different house without Mr. Ramsay, and to Lily Briscoe, at least, it must always compare itself with the house of ten years before, and Mrs. Ramsay's existence in it must go on in the spirit. And Mr. Ramsay and two of his children do what ten years before remained undone because of bad weather--they row across the bay to the lighthouse. Reaching it, they achieve a climax, the end of a period.
It is the final portion of the book which is most perplexing. It seems to sound in the minor what the long first portion sounded in the major, to persist as an ironical mood, to re-establish a scene with the sorry changes time has wrought, to reduce a symbolical achievement when it is finally made to the level of negation. The long opening portion seems to be carrying you ahead toward something which will be magnificently expressive, and then this final portion becomes obscure, a matter of arcs, of fractions, of uncoordinated notes. By comparison with the rest this final portion seems pale and weak. Perhaps there is a reason for this, perhaps Mrs. Woolf meant to show that with Mrs. Ramsay's death things fall apart, get beyond correlation. Mr. Ramsay is no longer interesting--can it be because he is no longer counterpoised against his wife? Life seems drifting, as the Ramsays drift over the bay in their boat, and all their physical vigor and all their reaching of the lighthouse at last conveys no significance.
The truth is that this final portion of the book strikes a minor note, not an intentional minor note which might still in the artistic sense be major, but a meaningless minor note which conveys the feeling that one has not quite arrived somewhere, that the story which opens brilliantly and carries on through a magnificent interlude ends with too little force and expressiveness.
At any rate the rest of the book has its excellencies. Like "Mrs. Dalloway" it is underlaid with Mrs. Woolf's ironic feeling toward life, though here character is not pitted against manners, but against other character. Once again Mrs. Woolf makes use of her remarkable method of characterization, a method not based on observation or personal experience, but purely synthetic, purely creational. Clarissa Dalloway is a marvelous synthesis, and it is just for that reason that "Mrs. Dalloway," which has been identified because of its modernity with the "Ulysses" school, differs from it in character fundamentals, for it is as objective as "Ulysses" is autobiographical and observational. There is nothing "photographic" about Mrs. Woolf's characters, here or in "Mrs. Dalloway." Neither Clarissa nor Mrs. Ramsay has anything autobiographical about her; both are complete creations and both, for all their charm and graces, must suffer a little beneath the searchlight of Mrs. Woolf's independently used mind and sense of irony.
In "To the Lighthouse" there is nobody who even approaches Clarissa Dalloway in completeness and memorability, but on a smaller and perhaps more persuasive scale Mrs. Ramsay achieves powerful reality. The other characters are not fully alive because they are not whole enough. Most of them are one-dimensional fragments that have been created with great insight but insufficient vitality. They have minds, moods, emotions--but they get all three through creative intellect. For passion Mrs. Woolf has no gift--her people never invade the field of elementary emotions: they are hardly animal at all.
It is, I think, in the superb interlude called "Time Passes" that Mrs. Woolf reaches the most impressive height of the book, and there one can find a new note in her work, something beyond the ironic sophistication and civilized human values of "Mrs. Dalloway." In this description of the unused house in the Hebrides, entered for ten years only by old and forlorn women caretakers and the wind and the sea air and the light of the lighthouse lamp, she has told the story of all life passing on, of change and destruction and solitude and waste--the story which more than a little embodies the plot action of the rest of the book, but above all the story which has for man the profoundest human values of all, though for ten years the house itself never received a human guest. The great beauty of these eighteen pages of prose carries in it an emotional and ironical undertone that is superior to anything else that the first-class technician, the expert stylist, the deft student of human life in Mrs. Woolf ever has done. Here in prose of extraordinary distinction in our time: here is poetry:
But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The Winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. * * *
"To the Lighthouse" has not the formal perfection, the cohesiveness, the intense vividness of characterization that belong to "Mrs. Dalloway." It has particles of failure in it. It is inferior to "Mrs. Dalloway" in the degree to which its aims are achieved; it is superior in the magnitude of the aims themselves. For in its portrayal of life that is less orderly, more complex and so much doomed to frustration, it strikes a more important note, and it gives us an interlude of vision that must stand at the head of all Virginia Woolf's work.