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April 18, 2007

To the Lighthouse: II

One of my favorite lines in To the Lighthouse appears on page 17 of my edition (which appears to be printed from old plates).

It seemed to her such nonsense - inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that. The real differences, she thought, standing by the drawing-room window, are quite enough.


What I want to note, though, is the easy way in which Woolf shifts points of view. These shifts are a cardinal element in her artistic achievement. Woolf called consciousness "life," and in that she marked a huge departure from earlier novelists, who largely regarded life as character and agenda. Trollope could not be interested, for example, in the incidental thoughts of his characters. Everything is, to modulate a current phrase, on plot. In To the Lighthouse, there is a story, but no plot, because the characters, principally Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, are always forgetting the story. In his essay, "Virgirnia Woolf's Mysticism," James Wood says that Mrs Ramsay's moment of self-forgetfulness -

Only Lily Briscoe, she was glad to find; and that did not matter. But the sight of the girl standing on the edge of the lawn painting reminded her; she was supposed to be keeping her head as much in the same position as possible for Lily's picture. Lily's picture! Mrs Ramsay smiled. With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature, and Mrs Ramsay liked it for it; so, remembering her promise, she bent her head.

"And then," Mr Wood writes, "a gigantic new climate beings in English fiction."

The passage that I want to point to occurs a few pages earlier, when Mrs Ramsay enlists Charles Tansley to accompany her on a walk into the village. The point of view is hers at first.

Insoluble questions they were, it seemed to her, standing there, holding James by the hand. He had followed her into the drawing room, that young man they laughed at; he was tanding by the table, fidgeting with something, awkwardly, feeling himself out of things, as she knew without looking round.

She announces her "dull errand" and he agrees to accompany her. They set forth, but at the tennis court they encounter the recumbent figure of Augustus Carmichael (a Stracheyish sort of fellow), and he is asked if he needs anything in the way of postage stamps or tobacco. The following paragraph continues the omniscient third-person observer: "He should have been a great philosopher, said Mrs Ramsay, as they went down the road to the fishing village, but he had made an unfortunate marriage." The following paragraph begins,

It flattered him; snubbed as he had been, it soothed him that Mrs Ramsay should tell him this. Charles Tansley revived. Insinuating, too, as she did the greatness of man's intellect, even in its decay, the subjection of all wives - not that she blamed the girl, and the marriage had been happy enough, she believed - to their husband's labours, she made him feel better pleased with himself that he had done yet, aznd he would have liked, had they taken a cab, for example, to have paid for it.

Thus Woolf skewers Tansley from the inside. For Tansley's awkwardness owes entirely to his feeling that he is not welcome at the Ramsay's home. He's right: he isn't. But it's because he acts accordingly, that's why he doesn't fit in. Woolf doesn't linger with him; after his self-conscious pronouncement about going to the circus, she scurries back to her heroine, who winces.

From a traditional standpoint, Woolf's attention is astonishingly promiscuous. And we mustn't overlook that Tansley is twice introduced as an ambiguous pronoun. In the first instance, he might be James; in the second, Carmichael. It takes a few words to clarify the identity.

Posted by pourover at April 18, 2007 05:18 PM

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I think it is the promiscuity of Woolf's attention that makes the novel somewhat difficult to follow (at least initially). Did the errand with Tansley occur before or after the conversation with James about going to the lighthouse? I suspect it was before, based on a comment you made to me in an e-mail but also based on the succeeding passage in The Window: II. To really understand the novel, it seems to me, one must develop a sense of rhythm (a sense of syncopation, perhaps) to be able to move from perspective to perspective without losing the point (or the predominant melody line, to pick up on your earlier musical analogy).

My favorite passage (which appears on page 25 of my ancient paperback edition) is as follows:

...when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now), stood quite motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the Garter; when all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:--she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

Ironic, isn't it, given that I don't think Mrs. Ramsay finds Mr. Tansley all that attractive.

Posted by: jkm [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 1, 2007 10:58 PM

You are quite right, JKM, about rhythm and comprehension. This is not a straightforwardly linear novel. The passage of time seems to be the central problem in Woolf's work, because it so often falls out of congruence with consciousness, which, for Woolf, is life.

Posted by: R J Keefe at May 2, 2007 01:43 PM

It was the first thing I noticed, that Woolf bravely shifts perspectives from one character to another. The technique probably takes further reading to get used to it, but in any event it's not at all difficult to become engaged in every thought process.

With this, I feel like an omniscient observer, very close yet outside, but not invincible to being affected. As when the so-described atheist, Charles Stanley, felt infatuation, a territory that perhaps could - or must - have been unfamiliar to him, I felt a little triumph for the detestable man. He had hold of her bag!

But how quickly did I agree with and second Mrs. Ramsay when she thinks, "Odious little man, why go on saying that?"

Posted by: Migs at May 11, 2007 08:32 AM

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